So far, we’ve mostly discussed ways to characterize a player’s overall offensive contribution. Now it’s time to BREAK IT DOWN. <beatbox>
…Anyway, there are a lot of very specific, very straightforward stats that describe pieces of a player’s offensive game – pieces that can be diagnostic. They fall broadly into three categories: plate patience, contact type, and luck. You can go pretty far down the rabbit hole on most of these if you so desire. For now, though, I’ll stick with the more commonly used ones.
Now, strikeouts are bad. They’re the least potentially productive sort of out, which doesn’t matter when there’s nobody on base. But when you have a runner at third and no outs, they’re markedly worse than a long fly ball.
Walks are good. Walks mean getting on base. I don’t think I really need to qualify this any further. (Yeah, yeah, intentional walks, pitching around, yes, okay – but you’re still giving them a baserunner.)
So, low K%, high BB%, right? Not exactly (you knew it was coming). There are other factors. Power hitters, the heart of your lineup, will tend to have both high K% and high BB%. They get pitched around, or even intentionally walked, a lot for the simple fact that when they get ahold of one, it’s probably gonna hurt extra. Many of them are also just more selective hitters.
But when they do swing, they swing big, resulting in a higher K rate too. Still, the fact of their power and their patience means that we can’t write off these hitters solely on the basis of some extra strikeouts; they can and do provide valuable offense.
Contact hitters, on the other hand – the guys who often have high averages and who put the bat on the ball constantly – have low K rates, but they also have low BB rates. More contact means more outs on balls in play.
These numbers can help us profile players, as well as point to glaring flaws. A drastically low walk rate or a dramatically high K rate can indicate a lack of patience, for example, and a high-K guy is probably not someone you want for a table-setter in your lineup.
Looking deeper. You can find breakdowns by swing type, showing how often a player swings at pitches and how often he makes contact inside or outside the zone. FanGraphs has an explanation of these here.
Line drive rate. LD% is the percentage of batted balls that are line drives. Obviously, this is a somewhat subjective judgment, but it’s also a sign of success as a hitter. Line drives result from hitting the ball squarely and are more difficult to field than a ground ball or fly ball.
Batted ball types are assigned by the official scorer, and two scorers may judge a humpback liner two different ways. But for the most part, hard-hit balls with a minimum of arc will fall in for hits much more often than a sky-high pop fly. Power hitters may sacrifice some of their line drives to the Fly Ball Gods for home runs, but in less obvious cases of offensive improvement, check LD%.
Looking Deeper. Different types of players have different batted ball profiles, but line drives are always considered desirable. FanGraphs’ rundown on LD%, ground ball percent, and fly ball percent is a great place to start, and player pages have breakdowns of batted ball types just like the swing types I mentioned above.
To a certain degree, a batter has control over where he hits the ball. He can try to pull it, or go to the opposite field. But he can’t pinpoint the ball, nor can he control where defenders play him or how good they are at what they do.
Thus, we have a stat that captures the “luck” component pretty well. If a player is happening to find holes much more often, his offensive stats will go up accordingly. If he’s hitting balls hard, but straight to defenders, he’ll see a corresponding drop. BABIP can fluctuate heavily from year to year for individual players, and may provide an explanation for mysterious peaks and valleys in performance.
Some players have a “true talent” BABIP that’s higher or lower than average – i.e. their swing, or some other aspect of their playing ability, means that they find gaps (or defenders) more often than average. But for the bulk of players, a BABIP above or below the vicinity of .300 means that it’s likely their numbers will regress to the mean, or return closer to “normal,” at some point.
Looking deeper. It’s possible to use a player’s batted ball data to create xBABIP: a player’s projected, or “expected,” BABIP which, when compared to his current one, can give us an idea of how much he’s expected to regress. This can be extremely useful in your fantasy league. Or your real one. (You never know who’s reading. Hi Theo!)
Before I wrap up this post, I need to consult you. I’ve had requests for examples – a practicum or lab, if you will. So I’m thinking that next week we’ll look at some player data and point out examples of phenomena that I’ve mentioned, or maybe analyze an underrated player’s performance.
My questions to you are these: Who or what do you want to talk about? What do you want to see examples of? Are there any weird phenomena you’d like to examine in greater depth? Leave it in the comments, and we’ll talk about it next week.