Factoring in luck when it comes to batting average for fantasy assets

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/teams/was" data-ylk="slk:Washington Nationals">Washington Nationals</a> slugger <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/8875/" data-ylk="slk:Bryce Harper">Bryce Harper</a> is among baseball’s unluckiest hitters when it comes to ground balls this season. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Washington Nationals slugger Bryce Harper is among baseball’s unluckiest hitters when it comes to ground balls this season. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Batting average on balls in play was always short-hand for good luck on grounders. Some no matter how hard hit get smacked right to a fielder. Others meekly find a way to somehow dribble between outstretched gloves and softly roll unto the outfield grass. Yes, BABIP also addresses fly balls but Texas League bloopers and fielders losing a can of corn without laying a glove on it are relatively rare events.

Batting average on ground balls also gets rid of the messiness of not counting homers as balls in play. Yes, certain hitters can run their way into ground ball hits but we know who those speedsters are and have excluded them here (plus Leonys Martin, .429 on grounders doesn’t move his needle on mixed-league worthiness given he’s a fly-ball hitter). Other players you can argue hit harder grounders but again, a lot of times, especially in the era of the shift and infielders playing in the short outfield, that isn’t expected to produce the types of gains in expected average the we saw in prior eras.

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We normalized all of the players so that everyone hits .256 on grounders, the MLB average. The actual ground ball hits and ABs comes courtesy of our friends at MLB-stat provider Inside Edge. Stats are through Monday. The next step was simply removing the surplus/lucky hits from the hitters who are among the leaders in batting average on grounders and, conversely, adding them to the trailers. The result is a clearer picture of the batting average each player should have. Call this Super BABIP.

The league-leader in average on grounders is Yoenis Cespedes (11/24, .458). He’d lose five hits if his average on them was the league rate, lowering his overall batting average from .254 to .214. That’s really what he should be hitting given a strikeout rate (37.3%) that is about double what we would have projected. Of course, that K rate itself probably is a fluke.

Right behind Cespedes is J.D. Martinez at 19/43, .442. He’s hitting .349 because of his seeing-eye grounders but a normal success rate on them would cost him eight hits and lower his average all the way down to .262. (Martinez has hit a lot of grounders.)

Andrelton Simmons is .389 on grounders and is a ground-ball hitter (21/54) That’s seven surplus hits and lowers his average to .292 when we remove them vs. his .350 actual. Savvy readers will see a pattern here with all righties so far. That is until …

We come to lefty Mike Moustakas, who is .381 (16/42). His average thus is normalized with five less hits to .253 from .291.

Jed Lowrie is 16/42 on grounders, or five hits more than we should expect. His average thus should be .309 and not .345. Lowrie is such a Golden (and Green) God this year that it’s hard to mess him up even with sabermetrics. Lowrie is a switch hitter. So there is decent evidence here that righties are better at avoiding shifts and thus maybe better average bets on grounders. I’m not convinced; but it can be argued.

What about the trailers?

One of the most incredible stats in the young season is that Gary Sanchez is 1/32 on grounders. That means he’s lost seven hits and that his average now should be about what you paid for: .259 and not his .198 actual.

Joey Votto is disappointing with a .282 average (which has risen greatly recently) but he’s just 4/37 on grounders. With the nine hits he should have instead, his average now would be a perfectly Votto-like .323. We fixed Votto!

Bryce Harper is just 7/42 on grounders and should be 11/42 and hitting .271. But this seems like too many grounders given he’s walked 40 times already. To me the grounder rate is the lede with Harper.

We get diminishing returns with three other slumping hitters. Carlos Santana should have five more hits, Anthony Rizzo four, Matt Carpenter (only 21 grounders) three. But that raises their averages to just .211, .219 and .188, respectively. So their problems in average go beyond bad luck on ground balls.

Carpenter’s just giving away too many at bats with Ks. It seems like he’s really trying to work counts and draw walks and he’s done that well. But this passivity seems to be costing him the ability to hit. I pulled swing rate on pitches that are high probability strikes (75-to-100%) and Carpenter was among the trailers here (with Joe Mauer). The passivity may be the result of lost confidence due to a hitting slump that has extended now into a second year.

There’s no obvious problem with Santana. I’d confidently bet on him rebounding to projected levels.

Rizzo’s Ks and BBs are way out of whack given how closely they tracked in 2017. But he missed time so let’s give him 30 more plate appearances before getting worked up.

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