“I want you to pull this one down the left field line,” coach said. He packed roughly 90 mph heat and I knew a fastball was coming. Crack! I smoked a frozen rope right over the third baseman’s head and watched as it landed right on the chalk. Odyssey.
“Ok, this time poke it down the right line.” Smack! This liner landed a few inches inside the line and just as good for extra bases. Coach had also shown me how to hit with power, altering my swing to get considerably more torque, thus enabling me to drive the ball into the gaps and down the lines.
Fast-forward about two decades, in the thick of my rookie introduction to fantasy baseball, I diligently researched this new field and quickly found myself drowning in a sea of bombastic saberheads and overbearing McCracken acolytes. Most of them seemed to be saying that what happened that day was pure luck and they had the stats to prove it. I also recall in that day that OBP was king and defense was next to meaningless.
Like any science, things get better over time. The SABR community realized they were undervaluing defense. BABIP’s link to batted ball data is better understood. Sabermetric tools are invaluable and approaching draft day without them is akin to boxing with one hand tied behind your back. On the other hand, they are merely tools, not oracles that speak for themselves. Sometimes, stats stripped of proper context can lead us to the wrong conclusions. That doesn’t mean I have all the answers, just a healthy skepticism eyeing a market that might be overreacting…or is it?
Jose Altuve never posted a BABIP higher than .321 in a single season previous to 2014, which saw him hit .360. That means the BABIP dragon will come in March, swallowing up those fools that draft El Pequeno Gigante in 2015, right? After all, a BABIP of .360 is by definition unsustainable, no?
This is not an exhaustive list. I just picked out some of the more recognizable names. If a .360 BABIP is unsustainable, Rod Carew, Yasiel Puig, Starling Marte, Ty Cobb and others didn’t get the memo. The point isn’t that Jose Altuve is the second coming of Ty Cobb, but rather to eradicate the notion that a .360 BABIP by definition is unsustainable. Not to mention that Chris Johnson is no Ty Cobb either, but he sports a career .357 BABIP. But after 1,000 at-bats, BABIP stabilizes, right?Rogers Hornsby’s annual BABIP the first five years of his career: .275, .350, .339, .304, .335. Rogers Hornsby’s annual BABIP the next five years: .394, .409, .392, .386, .422. Rod Carew’s BABIP the first two seasons: .341, .320. Rod Carew’s BABIP the next two years: .381, .415.
Contrary to popular belief, baseball players are not immutable, nor are their batting stances, approach, swing, etc. Coaches don’t just fill out lineup cards and sit on the bench talking about movies and restaurants while checking their Facebook pages on their smart phones. Baseball is a game of adjustments. Coaches facilitate this process. Players implement those adjustments to varying degrees of success or failure. Did Altuve make any adjustments? The Astros second baseman’s strikeout percentage dropped five points from 12.6% to 7.5%. Only Victor Martinez struck out less. That drastic increase in contact, was that luck too? His line drive rate was stable, so the average gains didn’t come there, and his ground ball rate dipped slightly. Mixed signals here but on balance, while I understand the concern, I think it’s overblown. A .341 BA and 56 SB’s leaves room for considerable regression while still making his owners happy they trusted in him.
Michael Brantley is another darling of the regression fear mongers. On this one, I’m going more with my eyes and my gut. Living in Ohio, I got to see the Indians left fielder more than the average Joe. My pitchers went up against him all too often and he’s the opposing hitter that scared me the most. Seemed as though he was always scorching the ball. His walk rate went up, strikeouts went down, ISO% spiked, and SB% increased to 96%. I’m not sure that will motivate Terry Francona to give him the red light. Brantley increased his LD% and cut down his infield fly rate. Doctor Smooth looked like a different hitter in 2015. I don’t know if he will repeat his 2014 stats, but I can tell you he didn’t get lucky last year.
Robinson Cano is also known as somebody else’s problem. Safeco Field is where power goes to die even though supposedly lefty power isn’t suppressed as much. I will let someone else chase Cano’s power ghosts of years past.
Josh Donaldson is one cat not on anyone’s regression list. Excitement about the move to Rogers Centre has pushed Donaldson up into the early second round, occasionally peaking into the first. The Bringer of Rain often brought long cold streaks and a power outage after the All-Star break. Perhaps calling six home runs from August on a power outage is a little harsh, but I’m concerned. His long droughts remind me of Dan Uggla’s long cold spells. It seemed Donaldson was only punishing mistake pitches towards the end, when reports of a knee ailment surfaced. Knee injuries scare me because I know them all too well. Downside? A .245 BA, 15 HR’s and DL time. I’ll let someone else flip that coin.