In the first installment of this series, I discussed how there seems to be a significant difference between the majors and minors in terms of how difficult it is for a batter to post an elevated batting average on balls in play. Just as a refresher, here’s the table from that piece, indicating the number of hitters at each level that posted BABIPs .350 or higher in 2011 (min. 300 PA):
MLB: 18 of 265 (6.79%)
AAA: 54 of 225 (24%)
AA: 44 of 235 (18.72%)
Hi-A: 41 of 234 (17.52%)
Low-A: 42 of 242 (17.36%)
SS-A: 39 of 129 (30.23%)
RK: 108 of 268 (40.30%)
Minors total: 236 of 1245 (18.96%)
So, clearly many players can post gaudy BABIPs in the minors, but few can in the majors. The question then, of course, becomes: What exactly happens to the minors’ top BABIP performers?
In order to get a better idea of this, I decided to look at the most extreme cases–the players with BABIP figures above .400. Here, I’m going to take a look at the 15 players who posted .400+ BABIPs in 2008. Why 2008? Many of these guys are fresh in our memories as MLB’ers, and three years gives us some perspective on their progression.
Before we begin, let me quickly outline what I’m going to be looking at with these players
1) Was the .400+ BABIP in 2008 a fluke? How much so?
2) What elements conspired to allow the player to attain the lofty BABIP?
3) What happened to his BABIPs in 2009-11?
4) What drove any changes in 2009-11?
Ben Revere, .416 BABIP in Low-A
From the day he was drafted, Revere was billed as a speedy slap hitter. He posted a .358 BABIP in short-season in his 2007 debut, and then went on to this huge number.
There’s no doubt Revere has superb contact skills, as his strikeout rates are usually in the 7-10% range. He also has great speed. Between those two attributes, it seemed logical that he would be an elevated-BABIP player.
However, his BABIP figures never approached this height again. It seems that this is a classic case of “getting the bat knocked out of his hands” at higher levels, as Revere has struggled to hit the ball with any authority, culminating in a meek .042 ISO in the majors in 2011. His minors BABIPs have been between .325 and .339 in the past three years, and he holds a .289 mark in 130 MLB games.
Roger Bernadina, .415 BABIP between Double-A and Triple-A
Bernandina’s track record never had this sort of inflated BABIP, so this looks like something of a fluke. He’s always been about a 20% strikeout guy, and while he does have speed, he doesn’t hit the ball with the sort of authority a .415 BABIP would indicate. He has just a .287 mark in the majors over nearly 1,000 nondescript plate appearances, and his other minors BABIPs have been in the low .300s.
Lorenzo Scott, .414 BABIP between Double-A and Triple-A
This actually doesn’t seem to be too ridiculous for Scott. He had a .412 BABIP in 2006 and a .359 mark in 2007, so this didn’t just come out of nowhere. There’s a weird paradox, though, with a guy striking out 27.3% of the time and posting a ridiculous BABIP. You have to wonder, if he’s having such trouble hitting the ball, how the heck does he manage to square it up so well on the rare times he does make contact? Scott does have speed, and his very patient approach likely ensured he swung at a lot of mistake pitches.
He would post a .355 BABIP in 2009, and then top .400 again in 2010, but he was already 26 in 2008, and his strikeout problem never made him more than a mildly interesting sleeper guy. He completely fell apart in 2011, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s now out of baseball, BABIPs be damned.
Dan Robertson, .413 BABIP in short-season-A
A pretty similar case to Revere, though Robertson was never anywhere near the caliber of prospect Revere was. He’s consistently had very low strikeout rates and has flashed some speed, but his lack of bigtime pop caught up with him as soon as he got to full-season ball. His BABIPs have been between .309 and .322 since, despite playing in some pretty nice places to hit and facing pitchers often much younger than he.
Josh Whitesell, ,411 BABIP in Triple-A
You might remember Whitesell as a fringy first baseman who exploded in 2008, hitting .325/.425/.568. Obviously, he brought some power to the table, and like Scott, Whitesell was a patient hitter who saw good pitches to hit, but part of his crazy BABIP was the Pacific Coast League environment. He had a .256 mark in 142 MLB plate appearances, and his BABIPs before and after sat around .330, though he did get back to .385 in 2010 before heading to Japan.
Jim Negrych, .407 BABIP between High-A and Double-A
Negrych was just a grinder with an outside shot at a utility career before this season, when he suddenly surged to hit .370 in High-A and .310 in a late-season Double-A stint. He brought a great approach to the table (11.9% BB, 12.4% K), but lacked the speed or power to really convert the skeptics. His BABIP was .322 the year before and .299 the year after, so this looks fluky overall.
Caleb Gindl, .405 BABIP in Low-A
Gindl had a .429 BABIP in his pro debut in 2006, so like Revere, he certainly was ripping the ball around in the low minors. However, he falls more into the Whitesell/Scott category of high-walk, high-strikeout guys who wait for the one pitch they like and smoke it, as he struck out 24.9% of the time in this season. Other than that selective approach, there aren’t a whole lot of other great BABIP indicators here, as Gindl’s power and speed were (and are) both just average, which has made him a “tweener” outfielder in the eyes of many. He would have a .314 BABIP in 2009 and .307 in 2010 before bouncing back up to .357 in 2011 thanks to the PCL.
Dexter Fowler, .405 BABIP in Double-A
Fowler had a .351 mark in 2006 and a .361 mark in 2007, so this was a bit high but not that surprising. He combines the high-strikeout, high-walk selective approach with very good speed, so he’s able to hit a lot of line drives while also beating out a lot of infield hits. He was one of the 18 players to come up with a .350+ BABIP in the majors last year (.354), and owns a career .342 mark–obviously, that’s not .405, but it’s just nine points below Ichiro’s career rate, so it’s about as good as it gets.
Daniel Nava, .405 BABIP in High-A
Nava doesn’t really fall into either the high-contact-and-speed or the high-walk-and-strikeout camp. He does work a lot of walks without striking out, though, which means that he has both a great eye for mistakes and the ability to make great contact. He would go on to post nearly a .400 BABIP the next year, but his BABIP figures fell to earth in Triple-A along with his K/BB ratio. Nava was 25 in High-A in 2008, so by the time he reached Triple-A, he was already in his prime, so there wasn’t a whole lot of further improvement he was likely to make.
Terry Tiffee, .404 BABIP in Triple-A
Put a guy with some pop and a 10% strikeout rate in one of the friendliest places in the minors, and boom! you have a .378/.416/.561 line, buoyed by a .404 BABIP. The former Twin had a horrific .235 BABIP in 261 MLB plate appearances, and had posted a .286 mark in Triple-A (in a much tougher environment) the year before. Fluky.
Fernando Perez, .402 BABIP in Triple-A
Here’s a Triple-A BABIP in the tougher IL, and it looked legitimate at the time. Perez had a .402 BABIP in 2007, and a .399 mark in 2006, so this was right in line with his previous efforts. Perez had blinding speed and a patient approach, somewhat like Fowler, but he missed almost all of 2009, and his BABIPs have been around .300 since. Given his combination of little power and tons of strikeouts, he didn’t have great odds in the first place, and without the great BABIP he’s now off the radar.
Randy Ruiz, .401 BABIP in Triple-A
The first and only player on this list with a genuinely bad approach, Ruiz had a K/BB ratio worse than 5/1 in this season. He was also basically a DH with very little athletic ability, and he wasn’t in an easy environment. As you might expect, then, it’s tough to explain how this happened, beyond “he hits the ball really hard, I guess.” Ruiz would go on to post a .338 BABIP in 238 plate appearances in the majors, for what it’s worth, though his minor league figures were never in this realm before or after.
Doug Deeds, .401 BABIP in Double-A
Another guy who was old for his level, Deeds was 27 in Double-A. There’s not a whole lot about his profile that stands out as exceptional, and his BABIPs in other years were usually in the low-to-mid-.300s. Mostly a fluke, partially driven by an older player having a good sense of what Double-A pitchers tended to do.
Max Ramirez, .400 BABIP between Double-A and Triple-A
Ramirez brought a stellar approach to the plate, and he packed a punch, consistently producing mid-.300s BABIPs before this season, in which he hit an absurd .347/.439/.628. After a poor 2009, he’s back in mid-.300s form the past two years in Triple-A. A bit of a fluke here, but he has above-average BABIP ability, at least in the minors.
Aaron Cunningham, .400 BABIP between Double-A and Triple-A
Cunningham, like Ramirez, showed good pure hitting skills that allowed him to consistently post mid-.300s BABIPs in the minors, so he happened to luck into a .400 mark one year. In four brief MLB stint, his BABIPs have gone .345, .194, .349, .187, so it’s hard to know where it would stabilize if a team left him alone for 500 PAs.
So, what, if anything, can we glean from this?
1.) Often, even very elevated minor league BABIP numbers aren’t random. Remember, these are the extreme of the extreme, and yet, guys like Revere, Nava, Perez, Scott, and Gindl all had track records that made their BABIPs fall in line. Others, like Ramirez and Cunningham, were somewhat fluky, but aren’t too surprising–they had a true talent around .350, so a random fluctuation took that up a few dozen points.
2.) However, there are total flukes, even at the extremes. Some of the players, like Negrych and Tiffee, never posted anything remotely close to .400 before or after, nor did they have skillsets that really suggested high BABIPs.
3.) There are a lot of different ways to get to a .400 BABIP. There are speedy contact guys like Revere, lumbering power hitters like Ruiz and Whitesell, and everything in between. This certainly wasn’t a list of Ichiro wannabes. There is thus no one profile that seems particularly susceptible to posting high BABIPs.
4.) As a player advances, BABIP tends to regress as their weaknesses are magnified. This is a key point. It seems that a lot of these players put up high BABIPs while they can sort of “hide” their flaws, and then when they’re exposed, the BABIP plummets. Revere showed a lack of power, Nava and Scott couldn’t maintain their approaches, and Gindl and Robertson’s lack of a plus skill was more problematic against advanced pitchers.
This fourth point is probably the biggest takeaway. In order to profile as a .330+ MLB BABIP player, a player has to have a diverse collection of indicators that point to plus BABIP ability, like speed, a feel for contact, and a selective approach. It’s not enough to just post the BABIP–you have to have the well-rounded skillset that will bend but not break against MLB pitching. That’s what made Fowler successful and the other players more problematic.
In Part 3, I’ll take a look at the 18 players with .400+ BABIPs in 2011, and what the coming year(s) might hold for them.
Topics: Aaron Cunningham, Ben Revere, Caleb Gindl, Dan Robertson, Daniel Nava, Dexter Fowler, Doug Deeds, Fernando Perez, Jim Negrych, Josh Whitesell, Lorenzo Scott, Max Ramirez, Randy Ruiz, Roger Bernadina, Terry Tiffee