There is a lot of luck involved in baseball. After a batter makes contact with the ball, there are many factors out of his control. One way to identify the “lucky” hitters is a statistic called BABIP (batting average on balls in play). Before you shout “Nerd!” and run away, let me explain. It just might help you win your fantasy baseball league.
Regular batting average tells us how often a player gets a hit. BABIP tells us how often a player gets a hit when he puts the ball in play (home runs don’t count). The average BABIP this season is .294. Players have some control over their BABIP, but for the most part it is dependent on luck.
Using BABIP to weed out candidates, we can determine which players have been extremely lucky or unlucky this season. Let’s start with the hitters. Through Tuesday’s games, seven players posted a BABIP of more than .400. Of that bunch, Detroit’s Torii Hunter seems the most likely to regress.* He leads the league with a .420 BABIP; his career BABIP is .309. Hunter’s line-drive percentage is 19, below the league average, which suggests he is not hitting the ball any harder than he has in the past (also, he has just one home run). And yet he’s producing for the first-place Tigers: he has been a top-25 fantasy outfielder this season according to ESPN.com. Don’t expect him to keep it up. If he did, here are what his numbers would look like: .361 BA, 5 HR, 86 RBI, 119 runs, 5 SB. While he should exceed that home run total, he won’t reach those other marks.
Additional candidate for regression: Carlos Gomez, Minnesota Twins
Who should you pluck from the scrap heap? David Murphy of the Texas Rangers is a good bet. Murphy’s BABIP is .202, 110 points below his career mark, despite an impressive line-drive rate of 23.3 percent. His traditional stats have taken a hit, making him one of the worst fantasy performers this season (348th among hitters). Expect Murphy’s numbers to vastly improve as the balls he puts in play start to find green grass instead of leather gloves. A .183 average with 10 home runs and no more than 70 combined RBI and runs? Those extrapolated projections are well short of what Murphy is capable of.
Additional candidates for improvement: Adam Dunn, Chicago White Sox; B.J. Upton, Atlanta Braves; Josh Reddick, Oakland Athletics
Which starting pitchers have been lucky? Let’s start with Jordan Zimmermann of the Washington Nationals. Hitters have posted a BABIP of just .188 against him, second lowest in baseball, despite hitting line drives at a rate similar to the league average. Zimmermann has also stranded 83 percent of his runners (the league average is 73 percent). His 5-1 record and 1.64 ERA have made him the fifth-best fantasy starter this season, but those numbers are likely to get worse going forward.
Additional candidate for regression: Travis Wood, Chicago Cubs
On the flip side, Vance Worley has the worst BABIP in baseball among starting pitchers (.407). It’s as if Worley has faced a lineup of Miguel Cabreras. He is winless with a 6.95 ERA for the Minnesota Twins, making him the fifth-least valuable fantasy starter. If you’re in a deep league, however, he may be worth picking up. His advanced statistics suggest his traditional numbers should look more like Andy Pettitte’s this year.
Additional candidate for improvement: Joe Blanton, Los Angeles Angels
*As was the case with all players considered, I gave weight to experience and past performance when comparing players with similar statistical profiles this season. For example, I’m hesitant to say Miguel Cabrera or Joey Votto is lucky considering they are former MVPs. Likewise, Matt Moore and Matt Harvey don’t have enough starts to gauge their true baseline. Players like Hunter and Worley have enough of a track record to warrant my predictions.