Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying about BABIP and Love SLG. Apologies to George C. Scott and Peter Sellers and anyone associated with the movie ‘Dr. Strangelove.’
In a previous post I addressed the strength of the starting pitching that the Pirates have faced in 2012. Yep, the opposing starters have been slightly better than league average. But the truth of it is, those slightly better than league average hurlers put up Cy Young-worthy stats when they face the Pirates. The offensive struggles have a lot more to do with the players on the roster than they do with the players throwing against them. So, it is time to examine the other notion: bad luck hitters (as demonstrated by a low BABIP) is to blame for the lack of offense.
A couple of thoughts on BABIP before I dive in. Not too long ago when I was studying Six Sigma (add your snarky comment about me being a geek here), I had an instructor who was fond of saying ‘Half of you in this class are below average.’ He was right – not everyone and not every team can be above average in every setting. So, in any given year some teams will have a lower than league average BABIP. Does that mean those low BABIP teams are unlucky? Or do they just have weak hitters? I’ll answer that in a second. Over the last decade, the worst team BABIP in the NL in a given year has been about .280 (give or take 0.005). The Pirates team BABIP right now rests in the mid .260s (it was .267 before the Verlander one hitter). So, there is a good chance that the overall team BABIP will improve. But will that bump in BABIP make a difference? If the club returns to a typical league low level of BABIP, will the offense pick up significantly? I say a .285, .295 or .305 BABIP will not have a dramatic impact unless it is accompanied by an improvement in both OBP and SLG. And I’ll be shocked if our BABIP at the close of the year is above .290. The reason I say that (or write that) is that BABIP is only part of the picture. A lower than anticipated BABIP can be the result of poor luck (to some extent). Or it can be a manifestation of an overall lack of wellness. To answer the question I posed a few sentences ago: A team with a low BABIP and a low OBP and a low SLG is employing weak hitters, not unlucky ones.
I don’t believe the lack of Pirate cleats touching home is due to the low BABIP. Not all teams with a low BABIP have trouble scoring runs. Not all teams with a low BABIP have a correspondingly low OBP and SLG. In other words, talented teams can compensate for actual bad luck (and, therefore, a possibly lower BABIP) by getting on base and slugging. Ideally, you’d have a high BABIP to go along with a high OBP and SLG. But If I had to pick two out of three, BABIP would be odd man out. And it isn’t even close.
Let’s play with some numbers. Thanks to baseball-reference.com (where else?), I pulled the top five teams in runs per game in the NL over the last five years. I also pulled their NL rank for BABIP, OBP and SLG. So, the numbers in the tables below are simply their rank in the 16 team NL in each category.
The average rank for BABIP for the top five run scoring teams in the NL over the last five years is 6.24 (simply added up the ranking for each of the top five run scoring teams for five years and divided by 25) . In every season except 2011, there was a team with a bottom five BABIP who finished in the top five in runs per game. The average rank for OBP for the top five run scoring teams was 3.88. For SLG it was 3.56. Quite obviously, BABIP is a big lever for delivering tallies. But having a low BABIP doesn’t doom you to the lower echelon of scoring. While BABIP certainly correlates to run scoring, both on base percentage and slugging percentage yield a larger impact on runs per game.
The 2012 Pirates team isn’t unlucky. It is employing hitters who collectively don’t get on base and don’t hit balls over the wall (or bounce them over the wall or up against the wall for extra bases). In other words, this team has a significantly below average offense. In addition to being last in the NL in runs per game and BABIP, the Pirates are last in OBP and 15th in slugging. Let’s stop looking for a regression to the normal level of BABIP as the solution. It simply isn’t and won’t be.
Fun fact of the day: in Randall Simon’s first go-round with the Pirates in 2003, he walked 12 times in 321 plate appearances. In 122 PAs in 2012 (including the Verlander one hitter), Clint Barmes has exactly one walk. You’re welcome. Barmes has a long way to go before he is worthy of swinging his bat at a Milwaukee sausage.