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hitting em where they ain't

john sickels wants to know: whither the nl central? "Do the Cardinals take this division handily?" he asks. "How soon will age catch up with them? Their farm system is improving but is this happening fast enough?" head on over and weigh in.

on to other matters. most cardinal fans rightly considered tony womack's outstanding 2004 season to be a fluke; he exceeded his career norms in batting average and on-base pct by 25 to 30 points. so none of us were terribly surprised to see his batting average drop by 58 points in 2005. it was almost too easy to predict.

my SB Nation brother jeff at Brew Crew Ball had a great post yesterday that attempts to identify the tony womacks of 2005 -- those who had fluke years and are likely to regress in 2006. his device is batting average on balls in play, or BABIP. jeff calls it "H/BIP," but it's the same thing:

"H/BIP" . . . measures how often a ball in play turned into a hit. This is heavily influenced by luck. While a fast guy like Brady [Clark] will tend to do better than average, numbers vary somewhat randomly from year to year. My point in all of this? H/BIP is one way to measure how lucky a player was. Carlos Lee, over his career, turns BIPs into hits about 29% of the time, but only managed 26% last year. If he had merely achieved his career average in his approximately 500 BIPs last year, the 3% difference would've given him another 15 hits or so, increasing his batting average to .290--much closer to his career average.
in other words, carlos lee was an anti-womack. he didn't hit the ball with any less authority than usual in 2005; he just hit the ball right into the defense more often than usual. when his luck turns (as it eventually must) and the hits start falling, lee's batting average will rise commensurately.

or so goes the theory. jeff backed up this line of reasoning yesterday with some empirical investigation. first he identified the majors' 30 luckiest hitters in 2004 -- those whose BABIP in 2004 exceeded their career BABIP by the largest amount. then he tracked their performance in 2005 to see if the hits kept falling. with one exception, they didn't: 29 of the 30 players saw their batting averages decline, and the one guy whose average went up did so by only 2 points. while a couple of the declines were mild ones -- jason varitek dropped from .296 to .281, michael barrett from .287 to .276 -- most were in the range of 30 to 50 points. tony womack ranked #22 on that list; he exceeded his career BABIP in 2004 by 27 points.

the upshot, says jeff, is this: "Very good BIP luck (relative to the player's career) is more or less unsustainable. Based on this small sample, anyway." that's an important caveat -- the sample is only one year. but those are some pretty emphatic results. so what does this tell us about 2006? jeff helpfully provided a list of 2005's luckiest hitters -- those whose 2005 BABIP most exceeded their career BABIP, and may therefore be due for a big decline in 2006. head on over there (via the link above) to see the full list; here are a few implications for the home team:

  • not surprisingly, abe nunez (the 2005 cards' answer to tony womack) ranked as the 8th luckiest hitter in 2005 per BABIP, exceeding his career standard by 32 points. most of us already thought it unlikely that nunez would hit .285 again in 2006; here's some data to back up our impression.
  • juan encarnacion ranked 6th on this list, exceeding his career BABIP by .034. that's not good. encar'cion's 2005 improvement was largely batting-average driven -- or, by this line of analysis, luck-driven. so we prob'y shouldn't be too shocked if he reverts to his typical .270 / .325 / .435 batting line in 2006.
  • derrek lee comes in at #14 on this chart, beating his norm by .028. again, this conforms with the typical fan's gut instinct -- viz., lee is not really a .335 hitter and will probably regress toward his career average (.276) in 2006.
encarnacion is the only 2006 cardinal on the list, which is a good thing. i checked a few other redbirds to see how they fared:
eckstein .306 .301
edmonds .314 .328
pujols .318 .324
bigbie .300 .331
spivey .314 .328

i'm happy to see that luck does not appear to have played a particularly large role in eckstein's stellar 2005 line. also, check out bigbie's spread; maybe he's due for a bounce this season.

there's another mode of stat-analysis out there that purports to measure batters' luck: jc bradbury's prOPS, about which i posted last month. bradbury's system is based on different data from jeff's system; jc uses more intricate batted-ball data like line-drive percentage and GB/FB ratio. nonetheless, his results true up pretty well with jeff's. let's just take the top 10 players on jeff's "luckiest hitters" list for 2005. the left column shows the number of points by which the player exceeded his career BABIP in 2005; the right-hand column shows the number of points by which the player exceeded his expected BA, per prOPS:

expect'd BA
per prOPS
lofton .046 .048
conine .039 .017
cameron .038 .025
c guillen .036 .044
encarnacion .034 .017
a kennedy .033 .032
nunez .032 -.019
b roberts .032 .013
clayton .031 .010
damon .031 .024

when two different systems, using different base data, are singing in harmony like that, it's usually a sign that they're on to something. if i was in a fantasy baseball league, i'd stay the hell away from the 10 guys on the table above.