By Eno Sarris //
The more we learn, the less we know. For example, we know about batting average on balls in play (BABIP). We know that the league BABIP is usually around .300, and that a player’s unique mix of batted balls can be used to judge a player’s specific expected BABIP (xBABIP). But what happens when a player with some major league track record in the bank is showing a poor batting average but a BABIP that is just about luck-neutral?
Consider Ian Desmond. The shortstop is flawed, but he had power and speed while coming up in the minor leagues, and power and speed at shortstop is almost always playable in fantasy baseball. The problem with Ian Desmond right now is that he has a .234 batting average to go with his three home runs and 20 stolen bases. And his BABIP is .295. And his xBABIP is .286. He’s not unlucky on batted balls right now, but he has a batting average that’s thirty points under his career number in the category. Why?
Obviously, BABIP is not the only component of batting average. The elements that go into a batting average are diverse. Contact is part of it – you have to make contact to get the ball in play. Power is also part of it – power can turn a liner to the shortstop into a liner into short center field. Plate discipline is also a component. You want to avoid swinging at pitches outside of the zone, and you want to make contact on pitches inside the zone. In all three of these categories, there’s some hope for Desmond owners.
At first glance, contact is a problem for Desmond. He’s striking out in a quarter of his at-bats right now and his whiff rate (8.8%) is above average (8.4% this year). But already there’s something not quite right. He’s only slightly more likely to swing and miss than the average player, but his strikeout rate is 5% above average. Given that fact, and the fact that Desmond has improved his whiff rate over last year (10%), it seems likely that Desmond will strike out a little less often going forward.
Power is also not going Desmond’s way right now. He has a below-average ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average) right now and has shown better power numbers in the past. In fact his current ISO (.098) would be his lowest number since rookie ball. His minor league ISO was .129 and his Double-A ISOs were both above .155. His major league ISO is .131. And power is the last statistic to stabilize over the course of a season. Give him a good week and he may find his power stroke once again. All it takes is a few doubles.
Lastly, though Desmond does not have great plate discipline, he has made improvements. He is reaching at balls outside the zone less than he has in his career (29.3% this year, 31.4% career, 29.5% is average this year). He’s also making more contact than he has in his career (80.3% this year, 79.2% career, 81% is average this year). Maybe he’s a little too passive right now – he’s only swinging at 63.2% of pitches within the zone, and league-wide that number is 64.7% and his personal career number is 65.5%. But he’s not reaching, and just a few more swings at solid pitches within the zone could really help.
Give Desmond a little more power – possibly from swinging at a few more pitches within the zone – and subtract a few strikeouts, and his batting average will improve. Given the fact that he’ll probably still strike out more than the average player and still won’t show much better than average power, his batting average won’t be awesome. But with power and speed, at shortstop, a .250+ batting average would work in most leagues. If it won’t work for your team, you’re probably best off looking for a new man in the middle.
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