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Thomas McFeeley Staff Writer February 6, 2013 8:29PM EDT
We tend to rely (perhaps too heavily) on last season’s numbers when we draft in Fantasy baseball.  We get swayed by a high batting average, especially if we pick Adam Dunn earlier in the draft. Batting average is as important as HRs and RBIs, but is it as reliable to predict?

Looking at the top 10 in MLB batting average over the last three seasons, we notice one thing right away: eight of the names on this top 10 list are not there the following season. While they might re-appear in two seasons, only Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Braun and Joey Votto have repeated.  (Cabrera is the only one on the list all three seasons. Votto would have been if he had enough at-bats to qualify for a batting title in 2012; Braun made the list in 2011 and 2012.

But as we scratch the surface, we also noted:

  • In 2011 and again in 2012, only one of the top 10 hitters increased his batting average from the previous season, and one of them, Votto in 2012, did so in an injury-shortened season.
  • If you made the top 10 list one season you are due for an average plunge; in 2012 the top ten from 2011 averaged a 32-point fall; 2011 saw the top 10 plummet an average of 23 points.
  • Three of the 20 hitters saw their average fall by exactly 61 points.

What that tells us, of course, is that a high batting average tends to, at least in part, be a matter of good luck. Cabrera is a top shelf hitter, no

Joe Mauer's career .345 BABIP should keep his average over .300. Photo credit: Keith Allison

doubt, but is Josh Hamilton a .359 hitter (as he was in 2010) or the .298 hitter he was in 2011? Is Omar Infante one of baseball’s ten most gifted hitters, as he was in 2010 with a .321 average, or is he the .276 hitter he was on 2011?

The answer to the questions above, you might say, is “somewhere in the middle” but it’s a safer assumption to say “something closer to the bottom number.”

Last week in my Deep Dive column, I took a close look at line drives, particularly how pitchers are helped or hurt by the percentage of line drives they surrender. That research revealed these 2012 numbers:

 Type of contact # hit in 2012 % of balls in play Percentage turned into hits (batting avg.)
Ground Balls 56,419 44.8 .264
Line Drives 26,350 20.9 .690
Fly Balls 43,071 34.2 .226

Math may not be your strong suit, but the chart is clear – ground balls are better than fly balls and line drives are far superior to either.  If you hit only line drives (and never struck out) you’d be looking at an almost .700 batting average.

If you put the ball in play, at least you have a chance to get a hit; if you strike out you have no chance to get a base hit.

So let’s look at Omar Infante:

Year GB% FB% LD% Batting AVG
2010 47 34 19 .321
2011 42 36 22 .276
2012 41 39 20 .274

It should be noted that Infante strikes out very little: 62, 67, and 65 times respectively, so this speedster puts the ball in play more than most hitters.  While it appears he used a higher ground ball rate to leg out some hits, his highest batting average came in the year with the fewest line drives (remember the .700 batting average for line drives)?  Further, in 2008 he had a 30% line drive rate and a .293 average.  In 2008 and 2009 he had a GB% of 33 and 34 respectively, giving more evidence that his sudden spike to 47 percent in 2010 had much to do with his surge in batting average.

Logic tells us also that since the ground ball rates have come down since 2010, that the 47 percent was the exception and not the rule. And at age 31 this season, Infante won’t improve his average unless he hits more line drives.

A look at Jose Reyes is very interesting also:

Year GB% FB% LD% Batting AVG
2011 42 37 21 .337
2012 46 32 22 .287

Reyes, like Infante, is a speedster, so the rise in ground ball percentage, the fall in fly ball percentage and the very slight increase in line drives is all good news, right? Then why did his batting average fall 50 points?   For that, we look to his Batting Average of Balls in Play (BABIP). In his .337 season, he had a BABIP of .353 (the league average tends to be .290 to .300). The following season it dropped to .298. So in 2011, he just seemed to hit it where they ain’t.

So, let’s get back to the batting average leaders.  Here are their 2012 BA and BABIP followed by their career marks in both categories as well:

Name 2012 BA 2012 BABIP Career BA Career BABIP
Buster Posey .336 .368 .314 .339
Miguel Cabrera .330 .331 .318 .345
Andrew McCutchen .327 .375 .290 .326
Mike Trout .326 .383 .306 .358
Adrian Beltre .321 .319 .280 .294
Ryan Braun .319 .346 .313 .340
Joe Mauer .319 .364 .323 .345
Derek Jeter .316 .347 .313 .354
Yadier Molina .315 .316 .279 .290
Prince Fielder .313 .321 .287 .303

We see Posey, Cabrera and Braun have lofty career BABIP stats, so they are most likely to remain on the top 10 list in 2013 – they just find gaps or holes and hit the ball harder than most on a consistent basis. Molina and Fielder boosted their line drive rates by about 5 percentage points each last year. Unless that’s a new skill, they should regress back near their career totals.

So when you’re drafting this spring, and you fall in love with Andrew McCutchen you have to ask yourself: what if he hits .290 this year instead of .327? After all, that is a greater likelihood than him repeating his 2012 in batting average.

Try to find draft lists that include BABIP as well. If it’s well above .330 (or much higher than a hitter’s career or best season) proceed cautiously. You might lose significant batting average points, not to mention runs and RBIs along the way.




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