Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Stat Abuse: Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP)


It has happened again – a national writer has got my dopper in an uproar after trying to sound all geeky and quote an “Advanced Baseball Metric” in support of an opinion.

It was Ken Rosenthal’s fault.

Braves third baseman Chris Johnson is batting .338 with an .844 OPS, but there’s a caveat to his success: he leads the majors with a .421 batting average on balls in play, well above the league average of .296.

Johnson’s high BABIP indicates that he is likely to regress at some point, but there also is this: He entered Sunday with the third highest line-drive percentage in the majors, behind only James Loney and Joe Mauer.

By the way:  after his 3-for-4 Sunday night game, Chris is now #1 in the National League with a .338 batting average.  But I guess Kenny expects that to slip.

Hey Ken:  he already had regressed.  Now he’s just locked in.  Check out this chart:

Chris Johnson

BABIP

Strikeout Rate

March/April

.460

21.8%

May

.389

28.1%

June

.355

18.7%

July

.458

19.1%

Since AS Break

.455

12.5%

Through May, Chris was part-timing it with Juan Francisco.  In June, Chris became an everyday player… and clearly made some adjustments in doing so.  But it seems that the transformation is complete – and much for the better:  his strikeouts are way down, his average is up, and that pesky BABIP stat is through the roof.

Oh yeah – I was complaining about BABIP.  This stat eliminates strikeouts and any other result in which a batter fails to put the ball in play.  His batting average is then computed based on those ABs alone.  It is often spoken of as a “luck” factor – even by fangraphs, the source of all of this data today.

Let me throw another stat at you:  line drive percentage.  Rosenthal mentioned it…he should have looked a little deeper.

In the majors, Chris Johnson is third with 28.5% of his plate appearances ending in a line drive hit somewhere.  Fourth on that list is Freddie Freeman (27.8%).  Freddie’s BABIP is “only” .365 and Johnson’s is .421.  So what’s the difference?

I submit that the difference between the two is power.  Check out the hit charts for each player (Turner Field only):

 

Chris Johnson’s hit chart                                                      Freddie Freeman’s hit chart

The difference is in how many of Freddie’s liners reach the outfielders… and some beyond, of course.  Johnson’s hitting is landing – more often – in front of the outfielders.  That’s simply the kind of hitter he is.  In fact, it looks like no left fielder has yet to record a fly out against Chris – at least when he’s hitting at home.  Johnson will occasionally display gap power – and those show up on this chart, too, but there are many more such balls at that distance from Freddie’s chart… and many more outs.

Stats need to be read in context.  The context here is that while Chris Johnson decides to avoid the weight room, he should continue to be a high BABIP hitter.  This isn’t about luck and it isn’t about a “regression.”  This is simply because his line drives get past the infield and then fall short of the outfielders… roughly at the distance umpire Sam Holbrook thinks infield fly balls still exist.

Yes, I’m still bitter.  But a 3 game sweep helps.  A little.

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Tags: Atlanta Braves Babip Chris Johnson Freddie Freeman Ken Rosenthal

  • cheadrick

    Wow, I was griping about those very comments Rosenthal made last night, and I couldn’t have explained the BS any better. Nice article!

    • http://tomahawktake.com/ carpengui

      Thanks – I’m especially pleased with the caption added to the photo!

      • cheadrick

        HAHA I just saw that… vertically challenged. Nice visual.

  • JerrodKnight

    … great explanation, man. The common assumption, among sabermetricians as much as regular reporters like Rosenthal, would be to examine the difference between Johnson and Freeman and attribute it to greater luck enjoyed by the former. But your broader use of empirical evidence, encompassing visualized data, along with your experience in watching the games, has led you to a keen and correct conclusion. Indeed, from viewing the Braves regularly, I concur that Johnson hits lower line drives that fall in front of outfielders more often than Freeman, and the graphs confirm that observation. Of course, the benefit of Freeman’s ‘airier’ line drives is that they help yield greater home run power.

    To be sure, Johnson has seemed to enjoy more than his share of bloop hits and his batting average will probably come down somewhat, at some point. After all, he is on pace to strike out over 100 times, something that doesn’t lend itself to a .340 or .350 batting average (he’s hitting .347 at the time that I write) over the course of a full season. But clearly, Johnson has not constituted some lucky fluke, either. He has become a line drive machine to all fields, talking very smooth and level swings.