No matter how much time, scouting and analysis you put into your fantasy baseball team(s), there's one painful reality you must accept:
Luck will carry you home (or luck will ruin you).
That statement might not come as news to you, I realize. If you've added your name to the ever-growing list of passengers on the batting average on balls in play (BABIP) bandwagon, surely you're already familiar, to some degree, with measuring a player's luck. Problem is, I have a fundamental problem with how a large number of fantasy baseball players evaluate the category: It's not the kind of thing you can take at face value.
I'll give you an example: You can't take a look at Brandon Webb's .291 BABIP of 2008 and say, "Well, he was a little bit lucky," and then examine Bronson Arroyo's .321 and say, "Boy, he was wrecked by poor fortune." Webb generated a ton of ground balls, 431 of them to be exact. Therefore, he should have had a BABIP below the league average. Arroyo served up line drives on 21.7 percent of his pitches that were put into play. Therefore, he should have had a BABIP well north of .300. It's common sense: A line drive has a significantly higher probability of falling in for a hit than a ground ball, and a ground ball has a higher chance of being a hit than a fly ball.
It's for that reason my advice to the ever-growing BABIP fan base is twofold: (1) if you want a better sense of the lucky and unlucky, break down the numbers specifically by batted-ball type, and (2) make sure you take into account the kind of player you're looking at -- is he a speedster, more apt to leg out a soft ground ball, for instance? -- and his historical performance in the category.
I'm not claiming this is any new thought; the proponents of xBA (expected batting average), of which I am one, can tell you all about the value of examining batted-ball types and using that number to determine what a player should be hitting. But then we're delving into some heavy-duty stuff, and while much of the xBA discussion is old hat to some, to others it's a bunch of scientific mumbo-jumbo. The latter group might very well respond that what a player should be doing is irrelevant because it doesn't show up on our score sheets. What matters is what he is doing. (To the old-hat crew: Such a statement might sound like lunacy to us, but seeing as traditional fantasy baseball scoring is what it is, crazy to say, there's actually some truth to it.)
For that reason, I've decided to provide you with the specific BABIP data by batted-ball type, and let you decide its merits. (Obviously, I think this stuff is quite relevant or else I wouldn't have written this column.) With help from Baseball-Reference.com, I've listed the greatest outliers in the category for both hitters and pitchers in each group. A couple of notes: These statistics are for the month of April, and the month of April alone. We can take a look again once May ends; this is not the type of statistic, in part because of the small sample size, that needs weekly examination. Also, for each outlier, I've provided his 2008 statistics in the category for reference.
Hitters: Ground balls
The MLB average BABIP on ground balls in April was .235. From 2004 through '08 it was .239. (Players listed below had to have hit at least 20 ground balls during the month.)
Thoughts: You won't see the name of top-10 fantasy player (thus far) Aaron Hill on this list or either of the two below, but it's worth noting that the two categories in which he was most above the MLB average were BABIP on ground balls (.324 on 34 of them) and home run/fly ball percentage (15.6). The latter demonstrates that Hill's home run rate is bound to fall back to earth -- his career number in the category entering the year was 4.6 percent -- but I'm not bothered by the other number, especially since his BABIP on ground balls in his horrible 2008 was .306. There's a very real chance that if Hill can stay healthy, he'll contend for a batting title, and at the very least, he should be a lock for a .300 average and 20 homers.
That's an extremely low ground-ball BABIP for a guy as quick as Curtis Granderson. He hasn't been beneath .277 in the category in any of the past three seasons, and his career number sat at .290 entering the season. Even in his breakout 2006 season, Chris Duncan's BABIP on ground balls was .287. He's bound to come back to earth in batting average, and I'm betting it's probably going to happen soon. Rickie Weeks is one player whose ground-ball BABIP has historically ranged well above the MLB average. Check out his numbers in the category going backwards by year: .341 (2008), .290, .336. He's over .300 for his career, and he's a speedy type who can leg out hits. This start might well be legit.
Two things can explain Jimmy Rollins' atrocious start: One, he's hitting more ground balls than he ever has in his career (a career-high 48.6 percent of his batted balls), and he has been extremely unlucky with the ones he has hit. I think his best years are behind him, but barring an unreported injury, there's no way he's close to this bad either.
Hitters: Fly balls
The MLB average BABIP on fly balls in April was .141, and the average percentage of fly balls that were home runs was 9.3. From 2004 through '08, those numbers were .138 and 9.2. (Players listed below had to have hit at least 20 fly balls during the month.)
Thoughts: I never believed Carlos Quentin could maintain the 20.7 home run/fly ball percentage he posted in 2007, but through a month's time, he actually increased that number (to 25.0 percent). Don't point to U.S. Cellular Field as the reason because Quentin has hit five of his eight home runs on the road. Chances are he'll be a bit less fortunate in the category as the season progresses, but the fact that he hasn't managed a hit on 18 fly balls that have been kept in play and has a beneath-the-league-average .500 BABIP on line drives suggests that for every home run slashed from Quentin's pace of 54, he'll probably increase his current .244 batting average by several points. Looks like his 2008 was no fluke.
Have faith, Brandon Phillips owners. His BABIP was beneath the MLB average in all three categories: On ground balls (.129 on 31), fly balls (.000 on 20) and line drives (.700 on 10). Phillips has historically finished beneath the league averages across the board, but not by this much, and it's not like he's striking out more than usual. He can't help but find better fortune ahead. Brandon Inge had a 28.0 home run/fly ball percentage in April. His previous career high? It came in his 27-homer 2006, when it was 14.3. He doesn't appear on any of the hitting lists, but David Ortiz hit 43 fly balls in April and not one went for a home run. He hasn't had a home run/fly ball percentage beneath 14.8 in his Red Sox career and his BABIP on ground balls was .067, low even by his slow-footed ways. No matter how bad you think Ortiz has looked thus far, bad luck absolutely has hurt him.
Adam Jones has been especially fortunate with his fly balls. Both of his numbers place well above the league averages, and I'm not convinced a guy who has hit ground balls on 50.8 percent of his batted balls is capable of maintaining a .300 batting average. He has legitimate power and might be able to keep his home run/fly ball percentage relatively high, but you own him because of his 20/20 potential, not because he's a batting-average specialist.
Hitters: Line drives
The MLB average BABIP on line drives in April was .735, and the average percentage of line drives that were home runs was 2.5. From 2004 through '08 those numbers were .725 and 2.4 percent. (Players listed below had to have hit at least 10 line drives during the month.)
Thoughts: The only players with 10 or more line drives who had a higher home run/line drive percentage in April than Melky Cabrera were Carlos Pena (23.1%), Prince Fielder (21.4%), Lyle Overbay (20.0%), Jermaine Dye (16.7%), Albert Pujols (15.4%), Grady Sizemore (15.4%) and Carlos Quentin (14.3%). Now tell me that there isn't something to the wind at the new Yankee Stadium. Cabrera homered on two line drives there in the first month of the season after having only two home runs on 234 line drives in his entire career entering 2009. Cabrera's percentage on fly balls, incidentally, is 33.3 percent. Again, he has capitalized on some very good conditions at his new home ballpark.
One of the reasons Nick Markakis is off to this kind of hot start is that he's getting better lift on the ball, as evidenced by the numbers. Lucky line-drive BABIP or not, it's nice to see him hitting line drives on 20.5 percent of his batted balls and fly balls on 39.7 percent after being more of a ground-ball hitter in his earlier seasons. He's 25, so it shouldn't be taken as a fluky development. And there's your explanation for Bill Hall's .304 April batting average. His batted-ball rates aren't any different than they have been in the past -- he has hit line drives on 19.6 percent of his batted balls in 2009, actually down from 21.5 percent for his career -- and he's not making much more contact either. Total fluke.
Pitchers: Ground balls
(Players listed below had to have allowed at least 20 ground balls in April 2009.)
Thoughts: I admit I didn't think Chris Volstad could be as successful as a sophomore as he was in a rookie season in which he averaged 5.5 strikeouts per nine innings and had a home run/fly ball percentage of 4.1. Apparently I was wrong; he has his strikeout rate up to 8.0 and has been insanely fortunate on his ground-ball BABIP. Little chance he's going to maintain a 2.67 ERA, and since he now has a 2.83 ERA and 1.24 WHIP through his first 20 career games (19 starts), I'd say he's the ultimate sell-high candidate. Sooner or later he's going to hit an adjustment period.
If Aaron Harang's ground-ball BABIP was that high in April, could you imagine what kind of numbers he might provide with a little better fortune? Kevin Slowey's BABIP numbers very much support his case as a big-time buy-low candidate. Both his .357 BABIP on ground balls and .833 BABIP on line drives were noticeably higher than the league averages, he had a 9.5-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and his home run/fly ball percentage (8.9) is well within range of his 2008 number (9.3). I called him a top-25 starting pitcher candidate in the preseason, and I stand behind that statement today.
Pardon me for trumpeting the obvious, but Jason Marquis' April might be baseball's biggest mirage. In addition to his low BABIP on ground balls, his number on fly balls (.167) was significantly beneath the league average, as was his home run/fly ball percentage (5.9). Not only is he a sell-high candidate, he's a "sell-for-anything-you-can-get" candidate.
Pitchers: Fly balls
(Players listed below had to have allowed at least 20 fly balls in April 2009.)
Thoughts: Kevin Millwood's numbers here might be what convinces you he's pitching over his head, but they shouldn't. He had a .136 fly-ball BABIP and a 9.4 home run/fly ball percentage in his first three years in Texas, which actually represent low numbers for a pitcher who calls Rangers Ballpark his home. What should tell you Millwood is bound to fall back to earth is that his BABIP on ground balls is .200 and his BABIP on line drives is .478. He can't maintain those rates.
It speaks volumes of how poorly Oliver Perez was pitching that he had both a fly-ball BABIP and a home run/fly ball percentage significantly beneath the league average, yet managed a 9.31 ERA through four April starts. Oh, and by the way, if you watched Daniel Murphy play defense in April, you know it's not like Perez's outfield was helping him much. Everything in Jon Lester's profile indicates a guy battered by bad luck, and it's not like he was one of the game's worst in April, with a 5.40 ERA and 1.53 WHIP in five starts. His strikeout rate was up (9.9 per nine innings), and his BABIP on fly balls (.292) and line drives (.824), as well as his fly ball/home run percentage (14.3), were significantly higher than they were in his breakout 2008 (.158, .730 and 6.2).
Pitchers: Line drives
(Players listed below had to have allowed at least 10 line drives in April 2009.)
Thoughts: Wow, Joe Blanton has been getting tattooed. In addition to the increase in line drives allowed (27.1 percent of his balls in play) and .000 BABIP on them, he has a career-high 21.4 home run/fly ball percentage. Sure enough, according to FanGraphs.com, Blanton has lost about a mile per hour, on average, on his fastball this season, which leads me to wonder whether something might be wrong with him.
Kyle Lohse is one pitcher who through one month has qualified as fairly lucky, and while his 2008 was slightly luck-generated, it wasn't nearly so much as this one. That's an extremely low BABIP for a pitcher who has served up so many line drives; he has allowed home runs on only 3.2 percent of his fly balls; and his BABIP on grounders is .213, 25 points beneath his 2008 number. At the very least he shouldn't be expected to exceed his 2008 performance, and I'd bet that at year's end, his 2008 numbers top his 2009.
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.