Sabermetric Series, Part 1: Quality of Contact and Batted Ball Data
Welcome to part one of this Sabermetric Series. If you’re new to Sabermetrics, this will be a great place to start. Throughout this series of posts, we will be diving into many different Sabermetric tools that are at our disposal, including how quality of contact affects BABIP.
We’ll look at how we can apply them to make us better fantasy players.
How do all of these nerdy numbers make us better fantasy players, you ask?
Well, by taking into account the entirety of a player’s peripheral Sabermetric stats, we can better project a player moving forward. We can also either legitimize or debunk a player’s recent performance.
Fact or Fluke
As a brief example, if Player X hit eight home runs in all of 2016 and then hits eight home runs in the first half of 2017, is he breaking out? We can look into his peripheral stats to find, say, a 28% hard-contact rate and 35% HR/FB rate compared to his career rate of 13%. Thanks to our Sabermetric knowledge, we can easily determine that Player X didn’t suddenly become Giancarlo Stanton and his homers will regress in a big way moving forward. We also won’t get duped into trading for Player X in our keeper league and hate ourselves forever.
We’ll be looking into both hitters and pitchers throughout this series, but we’re going to start with the basics here and look into quality of contact and batted ball data for hitters. This includes Hard/Medium/Soft contact rates, Fly Ball/Line Drive/Ground Ball mix, Pull/Center/Oppo batted ball distribution, BABIP, and pop-ups. All of these stats work with each other to give us a good idea of a player’s approach and if he’s made any changes to it. Let’s get rolling!
If you’re like us you can’t wait until spring to get the 2019 fantasy baseball season started? Well, you don’t have to. Leagues are already forming at Fantrax.com, so head on over and get your league started today.
What is Batted Ball Data and How Can We Use It
What BABIP Is and Isn’t
The first thing we need to talk about is BABIP, or Batting Average on Balls In Play. For a long time, we just said .300 is the league average BABIP and used that as a blanket statement for the whole league.
These days, we know that simply is not true.
While .300 is considered to be the average that most players will regress to (either positively or negatively), there are a lot of factors going into BABIP, and we’ve learned that some players can maintain well above or below average BABIPs over their entire careers. We’ll look into these factors throughout the series and determine how to apply them to our player analysis.
Quality of Contact
Let’s start with Hard/Medium/Soft contact. Obviously, the harder you hit the ball the better, but let’s put that into context. The average Hard% in 2018 across the league was 35.3%. It was 46.7% for Medium and 18.1% for Soft.
Keeping in mind the league average BABIP in 2018 was .296, the BABIP on a Hard hit ball in 2018 was .448. On a Medium hit ball, the average BABIP was .247, and on a Soft hit ball, it was a measly .158.
This also tells us how important it is for pitchers to induce soft contact, but we’ll get to that later. If you pull up the Hard% leaderboard for any given season, you’ll notice there isn’t necessarily a correlation between high Hard% and high BABIPs.
Why is that? Well, that leads us right into the Fly Ball/Line Drive/Ground Ball portion of this discussion.
Batted Ball Distribution
Fly balls are obviously how you get your home runs, so they are a good thing. However, you know what they say about too much of a good thing. The batted ball data says all types of contact are not equal.
The BABIP on a fly ball in 2018 was just .117. That’s because when the ball doesn’t leave the park, most of the time it turns into an easy out for the defense. A lot of power hitters that sell out for the home run wind up with low BABIPs and low batting averages as a result.
The Line Drive is a well-struck ball that doesn’t hang in the air or skitter along the ground. It by far has the highest average BABIP among batted balls at a whopping .672. Ground Balls fall in between, with a .236 average BABIP.
Now, if we combine Hard/Med/Soft% with FB/LD/GB%, we get an even firmer grasp on the most and least desirable outcomes. Here is a list of the average BABIPs from 2017, sorted from the best results to the worst:
- Medium Hit Line Drives: .719
- Soft Hit Line Drives: .664
- Hard Hit Line Drives: .632
- Hard Hit Ground Balls: .445
- Hard Hit Fly Balls: .235
- Medium Hit Ground Balls: .172
- Soft Hit Ground Balls: .125
- Soft Hit Fly Balls: .078
- Medium Hit Fly Balls: .065
At first glance, it may seem strange that a Medium or Soft Hit Line Drive is a more desirable result than a Hard Hit Line Drive, but a lot of the hard-hit balls turn into “at em” balls or lineouts, whereas medium and soft-hit balls turn into flares or bloopers.
We see that even Hard Hit Fly Balls are typically outs and anything less is just about as guaranteed an out as a pop-up, which is an automatic out. This is why players who hit the ball in the air a lot can have a low BABIP even with a high hard-contact rate. In 2018, there were 18 batters (min. 400 PA) who had a 45% or higher fly ball rate – only four of them had a BABIP over .300, with their average BABIP being .271.
I just mentioned pop-ups being automatic outs. Obviously, that is very bad for a hitter. Generally, those who have very high IFFB% (Infield Fly Ball Rate) suffer poor BABIPs, also suppressing your batting average. Pop-ups are something a player can correct and do their best to eliminate, but in general, a player’s batted ball mix remains relatively static from year to year.
However, now more than ever, players are buying into the “Air Ball Revolution” and are trying to get more loft on the ball and hit for power. This is a dramatic shift from a ground ball heavy hitter to a fly ball heavy hitter.
Sometimes it works (Gregory Polanco in 2018), and sometimes it doesn’t (Carlos Gomez in 2018). It’s important to pay attention to these dramatic batted ball shifts early in the season so you can potentially pick up a breakout player who is beginning to hit the ball in the air (and probably pull the ball in the air as well) to hit for power. For example, Jose Ramirez was able to increase his ISO from .150 to .282 over three years by increasing his fly ball rate and pulling the ball.
Speaking of pulling the ball, we have Pull/Center/Oppo batted ball distribution. The best way to hit for power is to pull the ball – the average Hard% on a pulled ball in 2018 was 39.5%, followed closely by Center at 37.3%, with Oppo at just 25.9%. Having an even spray batted ball profile is the best way to hit for average since the defense can’t shift against you, but only on occasion can most hitters muscle a ball into the bleachers by going to the center or opposite fields.
Home run per fly ball rate (HR/FB%) also belongs in this discussion, and while it’s a simple premise, it requires some context to properly appreciate. Since that will be a bit of a discussion in itself, we’ll lump that into Part 2 of this Sabermetric Series. We’ll also look at some of the popular metrics like wOBA and OPS+, as well as take some of the things we discussed here and apply them to lefty/righty splits.
Nathan Dokken is a member of the FSWA and has been featured on numerous radio shows, podcasts, and magazines. He is the host of the Nasty Cast and Fantrax Dynasty Baseball podcasts, and his written work can be found at Razzball and Fantrax HQ. He is on Twitter @NathanDokken.
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