Commentary

Branyan has been somewhat lucky

Updated: June 2, 2009, 1:12 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

May is in the books, and as promised, it's time to take a look back at those batting average on balls in play (BABIP) numbers to unearth some hidden fantasy nuggets.

To refresh your memory, I maintained a month ago I'm no fan of casually accepting BABIP numbers as a whole. Different players produce different results; for instance, ground-ball pitchers will have radically different overall BABIPs than fly-ballers. As such, I think it's an important exercise to not only examine a player's overall number in the category, but also break it down by batted-ball type (ground ball, fly ball, line drive or bunt) as well as compare it to his historical performance in each category.

Judging by readers' comments about last month's column, though, it seems that a decent share of people are still only just boarding the BABIP bandwagon. Yes, BABIP might be old hat to some, but for the newer crowd, I thought I'd first take a few moments to respond to some questions readers had on the topic:

Jared: Tristan, your own numbers show that ground balls are more likely to go for hits than fly balls. So why did you say that Webb, a ground ball pitcher, "should have had a BABIP below the league average." If Webb gives up more ground balls than most pitchers, then his BABIP should generally be higher than the league average. Otherwise, I really enjoyed your BABIP article.

TC: Jared, ground balls are more likely to result in hits than fly balls, but the fact remains that the major-league BABIP on ground balls is .238, well beneath the .300 MLB mark for all batted balls (ground balls, fly balls, line drives and bunts). Webb has generated ground balls on 62.3 percent of his batted balls in his career, so the majority of those stand a far greater than average chance of being converted into outs. And, sure enough, he has a career BABIP of .291.

Damon, Urbana, Ill. I was wondering, how do you distinguish a fly ball from a line drive? Some hits could go either way.

TC: I don't, Damon. I pull my data from Baseball-Reference.com, which gets theirs from Retrosheet.org, who presumably makes the call on type of batted ball. I do agree with you that there's a fine line between a line drive and a fly ball, but if you go back the near-decade for which batted-ball data is available (and most accurate), there's a negligible difference in BABIP by batted-ball type from year to year. That says to me those sources are pretty darned good at differentiating, but it also says that a full year's worth of data is a much healthier sample size than, say, 10 line drives hit by one player in the month of May (where even one debatable batted-ball type could greatly skew the results). It just reminds you that this should serve mostly as a helpful exercise, not the be-all and end-all in your decision-making.

Kevin, Seattle Fantastic article, Tristan. One question: How can guys like Nelson Cruz have a .000 BABIP on fly balls, yet have home runs on fly balls? Isn't a home run counted as a hit for this chart?

TC: No, Kevin, and what he's referring to was Cruz's .000 BABIP on fly balls in the month of April, in spite of a 20.0 home run/fly-ball percentage. Home runs aren't counted in a player's BABIP; the "BIP" part refers to balls in play, which excludes the "three true outcomes" (walk, strikeout, home run), the only ones a player can completely control. It's meant to measure both a defense's efficiency in converting batted balls into outs -- obviously balls hit over the fence can't be converted into outs -- and a hitter's fortunes regarding balls he hit into the field of play dropping in for hits.

What I've done this month is break the numbers down into different groups: First, my top-10 picks for most and least fortunate hitters and pitchers, and then listed in charts at the bottom are the May leaders and trailers in the categories. Also note that where players' total batted-ball percentages don't add up to exactly 100, the remaining amounts were bunts, which I've excluded in the charts based on being minuscule sample sizes.

MLB averages through May: .238 BABIP on ground balls, .145 BABIP on fly balls, .725 BABIP on line drives, 8.7 home run/fly-ball percentage, 2.5 home run/line drive percentage. All BABIP data comes from Baseball-Reference.com.

Ten most fortunate hitters (full season)

Branyan might be your poster boy for "luckiest player in baseball." The guy is a career .237 hitter who finished May at .323, and only once in his career did he have a BABIP on ground balls this high, and that was in his 158 at-bat 2004 (.321). Outside of that he hasn't even come close to .297, and his career home run/fly-ball percentage is a mere 13.0, already above the league average. I'll defend Branyan on precisely two aspects: He's going to continue to play regularly, and he has light-tower power. But if you're a believer he'll finish at even close to a .300 batting average, I'll offer to tack on a few bridges while dealing him off to you. …

[+] EnlargeJoe Mauer
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesMauer is currently two homers shy of his career high of 13.

Mauer was May's potential poster boy for "luckiest player," as there was actually a point in the month where in checking these numbers, his home run/fly-ball percentage soared north of 40. In addition, the guy does have a .247 career BABIP on ground balls, so that also helped drive his .414 May batting average. You don't need me to tell you that Mauer is not going to finish with his current full-season pace of 54 homers and 158 RBIs. What I will tell you is that he's driving the ball more than ever before (that 36.0 fly-ball percentage would be a clear career high), and at 26 years old he's at an age where a power spike isn't unthinkable. I'd call the back problems that cost him all of April a greater risk than the chance that his performance goes into the tank, but obviously if you can hook someone on his being a .350-hitting 40-homer type, make the deal. But I do believe he's capable of a .320-30 season, and wouldn't sell him much cheaper. …

Pence is probably the next-most obvious fluke on the list, as a guy who hits more than 50 percent of his batted balls on the ground cannot possibly sustain a .341 batting average. Sure enough, his number in the ground-ball category was .298 a year ago, already generously high, but I look at all his full-year paces in the other Rotisserie categories (16 homers, 16 steals, 62 RBIs) and can't help thinking "snore." He's 28th among outfielders on the Player Rater, and with his youth might fool some into thinking he's a clear top-25 choice, but I'm not so convinced he's going to rise up that list as he will tumble.

Ten least fortunate hitters (full season)

Did you know Atkins has a career OPS of .657 in the month of May, and in 2007 actually carried a .223 batting average and .632 OPS into the month of June? He batted .338 with 22 home runs, 91 RBIs and a .959 OPS in 106 games the rest of that season, and his career numbers in the above categories are .245 (GB BABIP), .114 (FB BABIP), .709 (LD BABIP) and 9.4 (HR/FB%). It's no wonder I recently turned down a recent trade offer for him. Atkins owners have only one significant worry: that he gets traded away from Coors Field. Fortunately, his sluggish start greatly decreases the chances the Rockies will get the price they want for him. Maybe the slow start was for the best? …

I am still very much on the Beltre, Drew and Lopez bandwagons. Beltre is a noted second-half performer; always has been. But what you might have already forgotten is that Drew had an OPS 164 points higher after the All-Star break than before it last season, and Jose Lopez's was 197 points greater after than before. It's not unthinkable they're each developing a Beltre-like wait-until-late trend, and at 26 years old for Drew and 25 for Lopez, both are still plenty young enough to get their seasons on track. …

No matter your opinion on "Big Papi," poor fortune must be accepted as a contributing factor to his atrocious start. (Of course, the other factors are his declining bat speed and the firestorm of media attention he has gotten from his slump adding to the pressure on him.) Not that I see Ortiz reverting to his MVP ways any time soon, but even at his worst I see a lot of Travis Hafner's 2007 in him, or better yet, Ortiz's own 2008. Think a .260 batting average and 25-homer power scaled to remaining games, so if you can get him at a price cheaper than those projections, by all means consider it.

Ten most fortunate pitchers (full season)

Duke has been about as fortunate as he could possibly be through 10 starts, and it's not like the bump up to his strikeout rate -- the primary difference between the Duke of 2009 and 2006-08 -- is enough to excite you (5.3 this year, 4.3 the past three seasons). Heck, it's not even in line with his breakout 14-start half-season of 2005 (6.2). That home run/fly-ball percentage in particular is completely unsustainable, especially since he's on pace for a career high in fly balls allowed (33.6 percent is high for him). I'm a clear seller. …

[+] EnlargeMatt Garza
J. Meric/Getty ImagesGarza's current K/BB ratio of 2.36 would be the best of his career.

I tend to be the yin to Christopher Harris' yang with regard to Garza, and it's a fun little debate he and I tend to have about the kid around the office. But even I would admit Garza's numbers in this area suggest he's pitching a bit over his head. Point to you, Christopher, I'd consider selling him, too. … I often wonder whether Maine would stand any chance at a successful fantasy season in even a league-average home ballpark, as the guy has positively unreal numbers for a pitcher who has averaged 5.0 walks and 6.4 strikeouts per nine innings. Just because I think you'd get a kick out of it, I'm actually a Maine owner in my simulation league and my home park is Coors Field. Needless to say, he's not especially successful, and that leads me to believe he's a mirage. …

One final note: If you're of the belief that Zack Greinke's stellar start has been driven by a great share of good fortune, you'd be wrong. His BABIPs by batted-ball type are .228 (ground balls), .171 (fly balls) and .800 (line drives), not at all out of line with the league averages, and he has demonstrated so much improvement in the command department that there's a very real chance we're looking at a unanimous Cy Young season. Don't sell; at the very worst I see him being a top-10 arm from today forward.

Ten least fortunate pitchers (full season)

Baker is the ultimate boom/bust pitcher to me, as his shoulder issues and gopheritis from earlier in the year have me as much worried about his future prospects as his bad-luck batted-ball numbers have me thinking he has plenty of room for growth. I continue to think he's a risk worth taking for the price tag, but again, bust was in that first sentence. … Just because it's relevant in evaluating his year-to-date numbers, consider that Hamels' career home run/fly-ball percentage is 11.0, and it was 9.1 last year. It'll be higher than the league average just by nature of his home ballpark, but still. … Danks is my ultimate May buy-low candidate. He's a top-25-caliber talent who has been much more unlucky in BABIP this year than he was lucky last year, and his BABIP on ground balls was an unsightly .370 in the month of May. Last year, it was .217.

Slowey was on my April list of bargains and rattled off a 4-1, 3.86 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in six May starts, yet he makes my list of "unfortunate" pitchers again. Not that I'm forecasting future Cy Young totals (in 2009), but if you extract his May BABIPs (.308 GB, .185 FB, .810 LD), once again he actually registered numbers noticeably above the league averages despite command ratios well within line of his career norms. That says to me his May performance is very much legitimate, and might even be lower than his true value. Slowey has been lucky on exactly one front: He's a fly-ball pitcher who hasn't had a high home run/fly-ball percentage (6.9, down from 9.3 last year).

May BABIP top 15s by batted-ball type (Hitters)

Hitters must have hit at least 20 ground balls or fly balls or at least 10 line drives to qualify.

May BABIP bottom 15s by batted-ball type (Hitters)

Hitters must have hit at least 20 ground balls or fly balls or at least 10 line drives to qualify.

May BABIP top 15s by batted-ball type (Pitchers)

Pitchers must have allowed at least 20 ground balls or fly balls or at least 10 line drives to qualify.

May BABIP bottom 15s by batted-ball type (Pitchers)

Pitchers must have allowed at least 20 ground balls or fly balls or at least 10 line drives to qualify.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here.

ALSO SEE