Image: AP Photo / Ted S. Warren
What is BABIP?
BABIP, or batting average on balls in play, is as close as baseball viewers will get to quantifying luck. Individual BABIP fluctuates for each batter, but generally those with BABIPs above the .300 mark are considered “lucky” and those below “unlucky”. There’s always variation around a certain batter’s true talent BABIP, so within 20 points of this benchmark shouldn’t be flagged as anything out of the ordinary. However, those with abnormally high or low BABIPs could be considered for potential regression or breakout candidates (respectively) for the following year.
A small aside for those interested in the statistical validity of BABIP as a measure of luck. Below are two scatter plots with data of qualified batters’ seasons from 1980-2022. While the current year’s BABIP isn’t the best indicator or overall batter success (likely because wOBA considers walks and HBP, which aren’t included in BABIP), there is undoubtedly a positive correlation.
Compare that to the relationship between the previous year’s BABIP and the current year’s wOBA, and there is no correlation at all. This is consistent with the idea that BABIP shows batted ball luck. While there are outliers (see Tim Anderson), an above or below average BABIP in previous seasons is not an indicator of future batter ability.
BABIP also has an interesting relationship with plate discipline. Being disciplined at the plate, defined here as having a good BB/K rate, can make you a productive hitter. But that’s only one part of the equation; obviously if you can combine that with success on balls in play, you can be a great hitter. The plot below shows this; above the line are almost all high BABIP hitters, below are low ones.
BABIP can almost entirely explain whether or not disciplined hitters are good overall hitters. These numbers could also be used to try and estimate true talent BABIP for individual hitters, but that’s for another article. For now, it’s helpful to understand the relationship that BABIP has with overall batter production. It’s definitely correlated, but those with bad plate discipline numbers will struggle to find sustained success without some luck.
Given all of this, I decided to find the players with the highest BABIP at each position for 2022 (with a 100 PA requirement) and created the statistically luckiest team of the previous season. I’ll briefly discuss each player’s season and whether or not I believe they will repeat this extraordinary luck in ‘23. I’ll give you a hint: most of them won’t.
C – Tyler Stephenson, CIN (.409 BABIP)
While Stephenson’s 2021 offensive campaign seemed to solidify him as an above average hitting catcher, his 2022 raw numbers suggested the ceiling could be higher. The 2015 first round pick battled through a litany of injuries to put up an OPS north of .840 and a wRC+ of 134. Solid, no?
As we know, there was likely a heap of luck that accompanied those numbers; his average exit velocity dipped a mile and half, and his K% jumped seven percent.
Truthfully, Stephenson didn’t do much differently in ‘22 than the previous two years. Sure, his plate discipline numbers wavered a bit, but his xwOBA was only 6 points below his ‘20 and ‘21 number, suggesting that, while there he was affected by multiple stints on the IL, the Reds’ catcher showed remarkable resolve and absolutely could improve next year.
This is distinctly different from other players on this All-Luck team; don’t look to Stephenson to regress much in the upcoming season. In fact, due to his previous injuries and limited time at the major league level, he could improve on or maintain his luck-assisted 2022 offensive ability in ‘23.
1B – Joey Meneses, WAS (.371 BABIP)
The good news is that Meneses, a 30 year old journeyman who signed a minor league contract with the Nats in early 2022 before being promoted to the big leagues in August, was a better hitter than recent departee Juan Soto. He logged a 156 wRC+ and a wOBA just shy of .400 in 56 games, surprising even the most optimistic Nationals fans. The bad news is that, unsurprisingly, this success was largely due to batted ball luck.
The 30 year old led all players with at least 150 balls in play in wOBA – xwOBA, a Statcast-based way to evaluate luck. He’s also first in BA – xBA and second in SLG – xSLG. The plate discipline isn’t there to fall back on, either; he only walked 6% of the time and struck out 22%. Those numbers are unlikely to translate into much in the following years, and when he did make contact, things weren’t great either.
Meneses finished the year with an xwOBACON of .404, good for 80th in the league. For perspective, that’s the same as 2022 Kyle Garlick. I don’t want to be too harsh on Washington’s sole bright spot of 2022, but unless he can walk more, strikeout less, and become a good fielder, I’d consider a league average performance in 2023 to be a success.
2B – David Bote, CHC (.382 BABIP)
David Bote defies common baseball logic. The Cubs’ second baseman walked under 5% of the time, K’d over 35%, and yet managed a wRC+ of 110. As expected, pretty much all of his offensive success can be attributed to luck; his xwOBA was .289, good for the bottom 50 in the league and almost 40 points below his actual wOBA.
Put simply, Bote couldn’t put the bat on the ball. His Whiff% reached a career high of 33.5%, and his Chase Contact was a paltry 38.2%. When the ball was in the zone, though, he didn’t swing. Bote’s Zone Swing% dropped seven percent from the previous year, and pitchers threw him pitches in the zone over 50% of the time; a career high.
Interestingly, when the 18th round pick did make contact, (rare, but still) he wasn’t terrible. An average exit velocity of 92.4 is elite, and even with a low launch angle he was able to muster an xwOBACON of .415. The potential is there if he can alleviate the plate discipline issues even a little bit and lift the ball more.
SS – Xander Bogaerts, BOS (.362 BABIP)
Xander Bogaerts stands out on this list as the only established major league hitter. And yet, during his fantastic 2022 offensive campaign, he posted the third highest BABIP among qualified hitters. Does this hint at some future regression for the recent Padres’ signee, or can he sustain the batted ball luck a la Tim Anderson?
When one initially eyes Bogaerts’ peripherals, they’re not very different from previous seasons. Aside from a BABIP jump, his plate discipline numbers are largely unchanged, and his xBA and xOBP only saw small downticks.
However, his average exit velocity and barrel numbers plummeted. The former Red Sox shortstop whiffed at a much higher rate in ‘22, and his xwOBA hit a five year low by almost 20 points. His average exit velocity on fastballs dropped by two mph, and his launch angle fell a massive seven degrees.
Those numbers need to be rectified for him to post comparable numbers in the upcoming year.
In fairness to Xander, he went from a first percentile fielder to an 88th percentile. That absurd jump in defensive productivity should help to ameliorate any regression that could come in 2023, but I wouldn’t expect another wRC+ north of 130 with the Pads. The $280 million contract they shelled out to him might turn out to be an overpay.
3B – Charles LeBlanc, MIA (.374 BABIP)
Editor’s Note: Who???
In the BABIP primer, I mentioned that despite the league BABIP being around .300 each year, each hitter can have their own “normal” BABIP. For instance, Mike Trout has a career BABIP of .347. Is he lucky? No, he’s Mike Trout. Looking at previous years’ BABIPs can help us determine whether a number over the league average might be legit.
LeBlanc is particularly interesting when considering this. His 2022 Triple-A BABIP was almost .400, and the sample size is large enough to be considered. Oddly, he only held a .330 BABIP the rest of his minor league career; above average, but not nearly as wild as either of his 2022 campaigns.
Generally, even with his own “baseline” BABIP likely being higher than the average major leaguer, I’d expect LeBlanc to end up as an off-the-bench, utility player in the coming years. His xwOBA from last year was a measly .285, and he struck out more than four times as often as he walked.
LeBlanc’s batted ball profile isn’t particularly impressive either, and the man’s got a noodle for an arm. I’d love him to continue to run wildly high BABIPs into the future, but none of the peripherals are particularly optimistic, and neither his defense nor his speed can currently carry him into a starting role.
LF – Bubba Thompson, TEX (.389 BABIP)
Thompson can’t hit for power, he can’t hit for contact, and he doesn’t walk. But he can run fast. BABIP often favors those who don’t put the ball in play often, but when they do, they reach base, either by having Stantonian power or Thompsonian speed. This isn’t to say Bubba will continue to run abnormally high BABIPs, though. He ended the year with a .203 xwOBA and an xBA significantly under the Mendoza line, suggesting that this mark is unsustainable.
The 2017 first round pick is still new to the league, and according to FanGraphs he has good raw tools that have yet to be realized in-game. Bubba’s real deficiency is his plate discipline; he hasn’t walked over 10% of the time at any level of the minors, and all of his above-average offensive performances came with the help of unsustainable BABIPs.
Because he’s so young, it feels wrong to prescribe poor offensive performance for the 24 year old Ranger in the coming years. For context, go look at Trout’s rookie 2011 season; it’s actually similar to Thompson’s. As is common with players on this BABIP team, if he can learn to walk and put the ball in play more, he won’t have to rely on luck to put up half decent numbers. Easier said than done, though.
CF – Rob Refsnyder, BOS (.394 BABIP)
Rob Refsnyder is…good? The Red Sox outfielder posted a 146 wRC+ in 2022, almost doubling his ‘21 number. The xwOBA was also an impressive .374, only 7 points below his actual wOBA. Interestingly, there wasn’t much change in the way of plate discipline or exit velocity from ‘21 to ‘22. He walked less, struck out more, and his sprint speed dipped below average.
From what I can glean, Refsnyder’s success came down to a better approach against breaking balls. His expected numbers against fastballs remained the same from ‘21 to ‘22, but his exit velocity and xwOBA against the breaking stuff skyrocketed. He saw a 10 mph increase in EV and a 100 point increase in xwOBA; genuinely an astonishing increase. He had some bad luck against fastballs in ‘21, and with that normalizing alongside a 100 point difference between his wOBA and xwOBA against breaking balls, the journeyman finally found sustained success at the plate in 2022.
There will undoubtedly be regression in 2023. All of his damage came against fastballs and breaking pitches; he struggled mightily against offspeed offerings. Regression in his batted ball luck against breaking balls is all but assured, and while there are absolutely positives to this past season, the sample size wasn’t very large. It’s possible that he just got hot for his time in the bigs, and he’ll return to being a below average hitter with a solid arm.
Or, he could win MVP.
RF – Trayce Thompson, LAD (.389 BABIP)
Trayce “Cash Considerations” Thompson, as Dodgers fans affectionately call him, finally broke out in 2022. Trayce assumed the starting role at the end of the ‘22 season as the Cody Bellinger flame finally faded in LA. While Thompson didn’t have the defensive prowess of the new Cubs’ center fielder, his bat more than made up for it. His 153 wRC+ trailed only Freddie Freeman on the star-studded Dodgers, and an xwOBA of .366 seems to indicate that the production was legit.
His ‘21 season was relatively short, but there were clear signs of improvement from 2018 (his last season in the bigs). The exit velocity jumped almost seven mph, and he began walking significantly more. While his plate discipline numbers declined in ‘22 (again, 2021 was such a small sample it’s tough to regard any rate stat as accurate), he retained a walk rate of over 12%.
Truthfully, I don’t see any real reason Thompson can’t continue his offensive tirade into 2023. Likely there will be some regression, but he’s proven that he can maintain a high BABIP in the past. In 2015, when he finished the year with a 146 wRC+, he had a .341 BABIP. As well, his minor league stint in Detroit saw him post a 152 wRC+ with a .356 BABIP, seemingly showing that he is a three true outcome player who can maintain a high BABIP.
The better Thompson brother will likely see even more off-speed pitches, which he struggled against, in 2023, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the BABIP fall back into the .340s or 50s. Even with this, it’s possible that he ends a full season with a wRC+ north of 130, which would have made him a top ten offensive outfielder in 2022. But maybe I’m just a Dodgers fan.
DH – J.D. Davis, NYM/SFG (.360 BABIP)
Had I written this last year, J.D. Davis would have led the team by about 20 points. He posted a .426 BABIP last year, and followed it up with another standout year in the BABIP department. His career mark is at .344, so we should consider that .360 isn’t that far outside of his career average; Davis might be the only player on this list who one could reasonably conclude got unlucky in 2022.
His xwOBA was 20 points higher than his wOBA, and his average exit velocity was in the 95th percentile in baseball. I mean take a look at these Savant profiles. The top is J.D. Davis, the bottom is Aaron Judge.
J.D. Davis is obviously not Aaron Judge, but they have remarkably similar batted ball and plate discipline profiles. There could actually be improvement next year, both in overall offensive production and even in the BABIP department.
He’s shown that he can sit in the high .370s and above, and he has the Savant profile to reach those lofty marks without requiring a large disparity in xwOBA and wOBA.
Despite the somewhat unheralded names on this team, they aren’t bad offensively. Extrapolating across a whole season, this offense accumulates 32 WAR, which would have put them fourth in baseball ahead of the Mets.
Now, obviously, this is pretty rudimentary math, and I have spent most of this article arguing my case for why these players won’t continue their performance. No matter; this is a much more fun way to predict how this team would do.
If I would have shown you these players before the season, I doubt you would have given them over 10 combined WAR on the season. And yet, given a full year of these players’ performances, they’d put together a top offense in baseball. Better to be lucky than good.