xBABIP Marks the Spot

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Two months into 2013 season seems like a good time to take a look at one of my favorite statistics, xBABIP. For the uninitiated, I wrote extensively about Expected Batting Average on Balls in Play (xBABIP) at the beginning of the season as a way to determine how Joey Votto maintained such an abnormally high BABIP last year. Now as I noted in that piece, BABIP is a notoriously fickle statistic. Its detractors claim that anomalies are based on luck and that over time, most batters will revert back to the typical .300 average. But xBABIP tries to eliminate luck and replace it with an emphasis on other batted ball statistics, namely line drive, ground ball, and fly ball percentage. Line drives are the most valuable types of hits, with a higher line-drive percentage leading to a higher xBABIP. The opposite is true for ground balls, and the importance of fly balls lies somewhere between the two.

Through the first two months, the Reds have been one of the best hitting teams in the National League. Cincinnati ranks second in the N.L. with a .743 OPS, behind only the altitude-aided, humidor-needing Rockies. (Since entering the league in 1995, the Rockies have a total OPS of .790, nearly 30 points higher than the next closest team.) Cincinnati is first in the N.L in runs (253), walks (207), and third in wOBA (.323).

(One note: I should point out that while these number rank in the top 3 in the N.L., they only crack the top 10 in the majors. But with team statistics, I prefer to analyze by league because of the designated hitter.)

Much of this success is because the Reds have Joey Votto and no one else does, as well as a tremendous start from resurgent center fielder Shin-Soo Choo. But using xBABIP, we can help determine whose impressive early numbers are slightly inflated and whose numbers may be due for an improvement. The sample size is still small (a tired expression, but it is still important to remember) but there are some interesting numbers that should (mostly) give Reds fans cause for optimism.

(Note: batters must have had at least 75 at-bats, because I needed someone to represent left field. Also, all statistics in the charts reflect numbers through Monday, May 27.)

 

 

The first thing that stands out is that, yet again, Votto’s BABIP and xBABIP are incredibly high. His numbers right now are eerily similar to last year’s total. No real surprise there. Todd Frazier and Brandon Phillips both seem to be performing at their expected level. But what’s encouraging for Cincinnati is that the light-hitting catching duo of Devin Mesoraco and Ryan Hanigan look poised for an improvement throughout this season. Hanigan’s improvement should come from the fact that it’s nearly impossible to have an xBABIP of .178. But even when (or if) he does improve, his overall number won’t increase dramatically unless his line drive ratio increases from its current mark of 18.8 percent. I’d be more inclined to let Mesoraco receive the majority of the playing time for now. He is currently hitting the ball well with a LD% of 24.6 and a FB% of 34.8, so his low BABIP would appear to be a bit of an anomaly. More reps should see Mesoraco’s BABIP—and subsequently, his average and OPS—rise.

Now for the outfielders…

 

With Ryan Ludwick out likely until September, left field has been a largely underwhelming platoon, with Chris Heisey logging the most PAs of the bunch. But while his early numbers suggest he has had some bad luck, just 75 PAs are far too few to get an accurate read on his numbers. So let’s focus instead on Choo and Jay Bruce. Choo has been a ray of light in the Stubbs-shaped void that existed in center field for the past few years, and his xBABIP numbers are incredibly encouraging. They tell us that his fantastic production (.296/.450/.532) is no luck. Choo has been locked in and making solid contact, using his speed to leg out some close calls.

Bruce’s xBABIP tells us a little different story. His xBABIP and BABIP are both high, which typically would mean solid production in traditional statistics. But Bruce has been maddeningly inconsistent this year and is not putting up the kind of numbers the Reds need him too. His LD% is at a career-high 31.0, just a hair under Votto’s mark of 31.3 percent. The one factor that xBABIP does not factor, however, is strikeouts. Until Bruce can lower his 29.1 strikeout percentage, his high xBABIP and BABIP will continue to be somewhat of an aberration.

 

Adam Flango is a video producer for CBSsports.com. Despite what this column may suggest, he is not a fan of the X-Games, X-rays or Xzibit.

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