Why the BABIP Gods Favor Tim Anderson
When the White Sox signed Tim Anderson to a six-year, $25-million contract with multiple club options, they did so envisioning him as their shortstop of the future. After all, he was a former first-round pick with tremendous prospect pedigree; if he made good on his potential, the organization would be getting an absolute steal.
Early on, it wasn’t looking great for Anderson:
- 2017: .257/.276/.402, 79 wRC+
- 2018: .240/.281/.406, 85 wRC+
These early struggles certainly put Anderson on the hot seat. Following the 2018 season, the White Sox were the runner-ups in the Manny Machado sweepstakes and had also just drafted middle infielder Nick Madrigal. Put the pieces together, and Anderson was figuring to be the odd man out.
That put a lot of pressure on Anderson to perform at a high level in 2019. Luckily, that’s exactly what he did. By virtue of his .335 batting average, he won the batting title while posting a 129 wRC+ as a shortstop, that will more than get the job done. Theoretically, this should have cemented Anderson as one of the premier fantasy shortstops in the MLB, but it didn’t completely.
See, in the midst of Anderson’s success was a .399 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). For those unfamiliar with the statistic, it is very difficult to run an extremely high BABIP, and over time, you’d expect that to regress to the norm. Thus, there was concern that worse batted-ball luck would suppress almost all of Anderson’s offensive gains.
In the 60-game 2020 season, Tim Anderson responded with a .383 BABIP. This year? It sits at .364. We can’t keep waiting for “simple regression” to take place, right? Regression to the mean results in a player’s numbers reverting closer to his true skillset, and, as it turns out, Anderson appears to be a unicorn in the batting average department. Let’s discuss why.
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Why Tim Anderson Is a Batting Average Unicorn
There are some “normal” reasons Tim Anderson improved his batting average in 2019. His strikeout rate (24.6% to 21%) decreased and he started hitting the ball harder. Yet, these factor into his expected numbers, which still slotted him at just a .287 batting average; a far cry from his actual numbers. With that in mind, I propose that there is something else Anderson is doing to overachieve his expected numbers.
Here are Anderson’s pull rates by year:
- 2018: 38.8%
- 2019: 29.2%
- 2020: 29.6%
- 2021: 31.5%
Meanwhile, here are Anderson’s pop-up rates in that same span:
- 2018: 5.4%
- 2019: 2.8%
- 2020: 1.3%
- 2021: 1.6%
Batted-ball trajectory is not part of the expected batting average formula, while consistently keeping the ball out of the air, where odds of getting a base-hit decrease, gives you more chances to “luck” your way into a few extra hits. Especially for someone with excellent home-to-first times, such as Anderson, this is a viable strategy for overachieving your expected batting average.
Anderson isn’t someone who is shifted at all (0.8%), which you’d expect based on his even sprays:
When you’re as unpredictable as Anderson is, you are going to put much more pressure on the opposing defense. Hence, his success on batted-balls. The 28-year-old has a great skill for beating out infield singles, which helps his BABIP, but the trajectory of contact that really stands out is his flares/burners.
As referenced by Jonathan Metzelaar in this excellent piece about batted-ball trajectories, flares/burners are the ideal contact point for batting average (.659 BA), which expected batting average takes into account. Yet, Anderson is hitting .755 when he hits a flare or burner, much higher than his .656 expected average on those batted-balls since the start of 2019. Among players with at least 100 flares/burners, that ranks third! His ability to hit the ball to all fields, keep the ball out of the air, and his overall speed should allow him to post high BABIPs and overachieve his xStats as long those three skills stay in place. Speaking of which, that takes us right into:
TA7 Score: The Concept Of Overachieving Your xBA
I referenced Anderson’s even sprays, speed, and ability to keep the ball out of the air as three critical components of overachieving your expected batting average. In the end, those are the three main variables to focus on; all three of these abilities correlate with overachieving your expected batting average.
This all makes intuitive sense. Where the ball is hit doesn’t factor into the expected batting average formula, which looks at exit velocity, launch angle, and mixes in sprint speed. The more you keep the ball on the ground or hit a line drive, the more advantageous batting average situations, the better the chances are of you benefiting from batted-ball luck.
Meanwhile, while sprint speed is factored into the formula, why not home-to-first time? Certain players run faster from home to first than they do in a normal sprint, and that is reflected by various gaps in the two speed statistics. For example, Shohei Ohtani has a faster home-to-first time (4.09 sec) than Oscar Mercado (4.38 sec) by a wide margin, but Mercado (28.9 ft/sec) has the two-way superstar beat in terms of sprint speed (28.8 ft/sec). Based on sprint speed, Mercado would have the better chance of beating out an infield single, yet the home-to-first times, which are the more relevant statistic here (we just want to know how fast they get to first base) would suggest otherwise.
Consider speed the pre-requisite here. The main niche when it comes to overachieving your expected statistics is hitting the ball the other way, especially when you hit the ball on the ground. Here are the top performers when it comes to base-hits on weakly-hit ground balls this season:
- Ramiel Tapia: 22
- David Fletcher: 20
- Isiah Kiner-Falefa: 18
- Nate Lowe: 16
- Nicky Lopez: 15
- Jean Segura: 15
What would you know? Almost all of these players are overachieving their expected statistics! This takes into the TA7 Score, which quantifies a player’s percentile rank in thriving in the ways to overachieve your expected batting average. Luckily, the formula is rather simple:
- (Percentile HP to 1st + Percentile HP to 1st + Percentile GB Rate + Percentile Oppo%)
Note that while ground ball rate and oppo% have similar weights, home-to-first time remains the most essential variable for overachieving your xBA. Overall, if you rank one standard deviation (68th percentile) above the pack in TA7 Score, you’re batting average should be .027 points higher than your xBA. Should you rank 1.5 standard deviations (81st percentile) above the pack, that number goes up to .043, although the sample is more limited. Speaking of which, here are the highest-ranking players in the TA7 Score, going back to 2015.
Historical Examples (Every Player In The 81st Percentile or Better Prior To 2021)
NOTE: Only Players That Qualify For Batting Title In Terms of Plate Appearances
Even without any sort of raw power, Dee-Strange Gordon remained a productive MLB contributor for several seasons thanks to his ability to post a high batting average. His elite speed (96th percentile) was the key factor here, allowing him to beat out infield base-hits, but he also ranked in the 81st percentile in opposite field% and in the 94th percentile in ground-ball rate. Sure enough, he was one of the top overachievers of their expected batting average during his peak years.
Leury Garcia is another interesting name to spotlight here. A journeyman utility player, the 30-year-old got his chance to be a starting player for the White Sox in 2019, and responded with a .279 batting average, even though his expected batting average was just .242. With one of the fastest times to first (4.05), and the ability to hit the ball on the ground and the other way, he is once again overachieving his expected batting average by a considerable margin. With his multi-positional flexibility, his ability to hit for average and steal a few bases has made him an underrated contributor for fantasy teams in recent years.
Current Examples (Every Player In the 68th Percentile In 2021)
It’s good to see Tim Anderson on this list. I’d also like point out the great alignment between getting hits on opposite-field ground balls and earning a high TA7 score, which isn’t a coincidence by any means.
Tapia has a gift for hitting the ball right into the hole between the short stop and third base, as evidenced by his spray chart here:
Righties benefit from less shifts overall, but lefties who can beat the shift? That’s where you can really see gaps between actual batting average and expected batting average. For some reason, Royals infielder Nicky Lopez is being shifted 6.7% of the time, despite the fact he’s only pulling the ball 24.6% of the time. The 26-year-old may not hit the ball hard (12th percentile exit velocity) at all, but he’s a fast runner who keeps the ball out of the air, nor does he pull the ball. Based on his spray charts, a great proportion of his hits have come on ground balls in the infield (or just out of the infield), and while he’ll likely overachieve (.062 difference) his expected batting average by less next year, he should consistently rank high on this list for years to come.
Investigating xBA Overachievers In 2021
To assess whether there’s some validity to the top-20 xBA overachievers in 2021, let’s see what their TA7 Score is:
|Cedric Mullins II||61||.302||.275|
We’ve already touched on Lopez, and Marcus Semien’s success here is more to him overachieving his power numbers. The one to spotlight, though, would be Randy Arozarena. While he doesn’t have an extremely high TA7 Score, that doesn’t mean I’m not a firm believer in him continuing to overachieve his expected batting average. The 26-year-old has done a fantastic job hitting his “topped” balls either up the middle or to the opposite field, allowing him to have a .120 gap between his batting average and expected batting average in those situations; his speed also plays a factor. Luckily, he’s making improvements with regards to his strikeout rate and barrel rate, so he won’t be as reliant on this part of his game in the future.
Jean Segura is someone who has consistently performed well in the TA7 Score, as has Starling Marte. Another player I’m keeping a close eye on is Josh Rojas. He’s been a valuable fantasy contributor with multi-position eligibility, and a well-rounded skillset. However, can he maintain his .269 batting average? Even if he doesn’t, I think he’s someone we can expect to run a high BABIP with a lack of pop-ups (2.2%) and speed, though he’s less of a certainty than some of the other players in this group.
Namely, I’d be looking at Rangers’ first baseman Nate Lowe. While he’s not an overly fast runner (58th percentile), he ranks in the 99th percentile in opposite-field rate (36.1%), has a 53.6% ground ball rate, and also just a 1.4% pop-up rate. Plus, because he has so much raw power, he still has been able to muster a 9.7% barrel rate despite not hitting the ball in the air much. Expect him to hit for a decent batting average with some pop and stolen bases, with some increased upside if he made a swing change and completely tapped into his power.
Thus far, Tim Anderson still hasn’t hit the massive fate of “regression” that many believe he is destined for, but that’s not how we should look at it. Rather, his baseline performance is higher than expected, based on other factors that are difficult to quantity. There appears to be an art when it comes to hitting for average, such as even sprays and eliminating pop-ups, which is underappreciated in today’s game. Hopefully, this provides more of a spotlight for the likes of Raimel Tapia, Nicky Lopez, and Nate Lowe, who I’ll have a close eye on next year. As for Anderson, his home-to-first speed is heading in the wrong direction, but he’s also been dealing with a hamstring injury this season. As likely a top-ten shortstop in fantasy drafts next year, let’s hope he continues to pave the way for hitting for a high batting average by being on the right side of the BABIP gods! Yes, batting average isn’t a critical “real-life baseball” statistic, but one of the great aspects of category leagues for fantasy baseball is that players of all different skillsets can be productive contributors. As you look to bump up your team batting average, use the foundation of the TA7 Score as a way to gain an edge over your opponents!
Ready to get prepared for next season? Of course, you are! Check out Ryan Venancio’s 5 Waiver Wire Pickups for 2022.
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