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Old Young Players Defy BABIP

Recent Cardinal prospects show a common trait beyond their advanced age upon entering the majors.

Deep Freese.
Deep Freese.
Ed Szczepanski-US PRESSWIRE

A week ago, Eno Sarris writing at Fangraphs, posted an article about the Cardinals recent crop of pre-arbitration players and their age. The premise was that the emergence of players like Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter who are premiering at what is considered an "old" age for baseball players -- 24 or older -- may be a trend. This included players like David Freese and Jon Jay in addition to Craig and Carpenter. Sarris attempted to test this theory and came to the following conclusion:

These things don’t often have a clean answer. The Cardinals are a competitive team, and sometimes it takes a bit to crack their starting lineup. They don’t take college players more than most, but perhaps they have been successful on the college players they have taken. And maybe to their credit, they are willing to give older rookies a shot at regular playing time despite their age.

The Cardinals don’t quite prefer them old. But even with older players, they are ready to play ball. It might just mean more peak years under team control.

The one critique I have is that I would have rather of seen the # of plate appearances those players received rather than a straight count of how many older players debuted. As Sarris says, however, these things don't often have a clean answer. And I'm not really hear to further his argument. Rather, I want to point out something odd I saw when considering his argument.

Here are the BABIP leaders for 2012 (min. 100 PAs) when I take out the pitchers:

Player BABIP
Jon Jay .355
David Freese .352
Matt Carpenter .346
Matt Holliday .337
Allen Craig .334

In 2012, the league average BABIP was .297. Skip Schumaker (.332) and Yadier Molina (.316) were the other two players, out of 13, to have above average BABIP. Look at that list though. Four of the top five players are some of the "old" graduates the Cardinals have added to the roster in recent years. (You can brush up on BABIP here.)

A single season BABIP does not indicate true talent level. It takes close to two season's worth of plate appearances for it to stabilize. (When you regress BABIP to the mean, once you reach about 1200 PAs, you would use less than 50% of league average value in your regression.) Right now, only Jay and Freese have enough plate appearances to make strong statements about their true talent level so take Carpenter and Craig's values with a grain of salt.

League average BABIP has been remarkably average in recent history. Over the last 5 years, it has only been as low as .295 and as high as .300. Even going back further you'll see it residing within a ten point spread centered around .300. What do the values for our four old young guys look like during their major league careers?

Player PAs BABIP
Jon Jay 1185 .348
David Freese 1234 .359
Matt Carpenter 359 .335
Allen Craig 857 .329

What does this tell us? The truth is, I'm not sure. Or, at least, I'm reluctant to draw too deep of conclusions about the Cardinals organization from it. It is reasonable to assume, based on the evidence at hand, both Jon Jay and David Freese have a true talent BABIP well above league average.

The next place to look would be at batted ball rates (line drive, flyball, groundball) and see what the hitting profile of each player is. Do the hit more line drives than average? Do they hit fewer flyballs than average? Is there something in the plate discipline data that makes them different?

Perhaps the more intriguing question is whether the Cardinals are targeting players like this in their draft selections. That is impossible to know. First, there's the problem of survivor bias. These four players who have recently graduated to the majors exhibit some similarities but the Cardinals have drafted hundreds of hitters in the last few years. How many fit the same profile as these four at draft time and never made it out of the minors? (Brett Wallace and Zack Cox are two guys that many pre-draft scouting reports liked as pure hitters with more line drive power than pure power. Were they examples of failures opposite the success of the above?)

I found the list above to be interesting. Namely because both Jon Jay and David Freese were players I was once very skeptical of in the minors. Conversely, Matt Carpenter and Allen Craig have long been hitters I've liked. There is good reason to be skeptical of players who post abnormally high (or low) BABIPs. Those numbers often retreat toward the league average. After a while, you have to concede that there may be something unusual about these high end BABIP hitters. For the Cardinals, that also happens to be the same players they've called up despite their advanced ages.

Coincidence? Maybe. Interesting? Certainly.