Ball-in-Play Leaders and Laggards: American League Hitters

The holidays are upon us, and transactional activity is about to take a short hiatus, if history is a guide. (Though I do remember Jeff Suppan signing as a free agent on Christmas Eve when I was with the Brewers, but I digress.) Just some fun data for readers to chew on as they sip their beverage of choice over the next few of days.

Today, let’s take a look at the 2014 offensive ball-in-play (BIP) frequency and production leaders and laggards in the American League. Sometime around New Year’s, we’ll check out the NL. Caution: there is a fairly healthy dose of Danny Santana information to follow. Continue at your own risk.

Below are the top and bottom-10 American Leaguers in popup, fly-ball, line-drive and ground-ball percentage, for hitters with a minimum of 215 total balls in play last season:

POP % FLY % LD % GB %
C.Carter 16.72% Zunino 42.08% Loney 28.02% Aoki 60.51%
Reddick 15.56% Lowrie 39.22% De Aza 27.73% Kendrick 58.86%
Dozier 14.38% Castellanos 38.70% Avila 27.16% Jeter 58.17%
Cespedes 14.19% Forsythe 37.99% Calhoun 26.59% Suzuki 57.72%
Moustakas 13.71% Vogt 37.82% Castellanos 26.23% Eaton 55.96%
S.Perez 13.66% Moss 37.54% B.Holt 26.14% Andrus 55.51%
Gillaspie 13.30% Jaso 36.91% Fowler 25.71% J.Jones 53.02%
C.Santana 13.07% JD.Martinez 36.48% Freese 25.48% Kiermaier 52.94%
Encarnacion 12.73% Pearce 35.95% J.Abreu 25.45% Ma.Gonzalez 52.27%
Bautista 11.91% McCann 35.93% Mauer 25.14% Martin 50.88%
————– ———– ————– ———– ————– ———– ————– ———–
A.Jackson 3.39% B.Holt 22.73% Solarte 17.77% Cespedes 31.88%
Aoki 3.04% Me.Cabrera 22.18% Flaherty 17.73% Pearce 31.82%
B.Holt 2.84% L.Martin 21.66% Joyce 17.53% B.Roberts 31.78%
Choo 2.80% Jeter 21.44% Myers 17.47% Castellanos 30.65%
Brantley 2.56% J.Jones 20.00% Schoop 17.35% Moss 30.60%
Freese 2.26% Eaton 18.65% Donaldson 17.32% Vogt 30.57%
Bourn 2.19% Andrus 18.38% Gordon 17.30% Reddick 29.57%
Jeter 1.70% Kendrick 18.14% Kiermaier 17.25% Zunino 28.96%
Kendrick 1.69% Suzuki 15.07% Beckham 17.23% Lowrie 28.83%
Mauer 0.85% Aoki 14.72% Kinsler 17.06% C.Carter 28.76%
————– ———– ————– ———– ————– ———– ————– ———–
AVG 8.06% 28.65% 21.11% 42.19%

Let’s handle the frequency data relatively quickly, as the real fun is in the production data. We would certainly all agree that, from a hitter’s perspective, a popup is a very bad thing. After all, major league hitters batted .015 AVG-.019 SLG on them last year. Despite this, some very good hitters have high popup rates. They swing hard, and quite often, popups and Ks are the price you have to pay for the corresponding production. Blue Jays Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are two prime examples, and both have actually seen their popup totals trend downward as they have improved as all-around hitters in recent seasons.

What you don’t like to see are hitters like Salvador Perez and Conor Gillaspie, to name two, on the popup leaderboard. There isn’t enough reward accompanying the risk; I see Perez as this era’s Tony Pena, an exceptional defensive receiver with some good offensive seasons early, ultimately evolving into a glove-only player. The popup laggards who actually hit the ball hard on occasion — the Choos, Brantleys, Kendricks and Mauers, in particular — are well positioned to hit for average deep into their decline phases, as they give away relatively few “free” outs.

We can talk about the fly- and ground-ball leaders and laggards in tandem, as many players are on both lists. A relatively low number of AL regulars, 15 in 2013, hit more fly balls than grounders. Those players on the whole collapsed from a cumulative OPS+ of 118 in 2013 to 92 in 2014, with only one player’s performance improving. There were 16 such regression candidates in the AL in 2014, and the nine most extreme among them — all but J.D. Martinez — are on the top-ten fly-ball list.

The fly-ball laggards, by definition, have limited offensive upsides. Elvis Andrus isn’t going to become the offensive player the Rangers paid for if he never hits the ball in the air with any authority. Melky Cabrera will be a very interesting case to watch this season. He is moving to one of the most fly ball-friendly ballparks in the majors, but will he hit enough fly balls to be able to truly take advantage?

Then there’s the line-drive percentage leaders and laggards, which are much more random on a year-to-year basis. Line-drive rates are much more variable from season to season, but in any given year, they can create fluky career years and “off” seasons. Some players, like James Loney and Joe Mauer, churn out high liner rates on a seasonal basis. Jose Abreu and Kole Calhoun have limited track records, but they too appear to potentially be the types of players who can at least come close to repeating their performance in this category going forward. Alex Avila? Brock Holt, even Nick Castellanos? I wouldn’t bet on it. Avila strikes out constantly, Holt is a grounder machine in a park that rewards fly ballers, and Castellanos also has his extremely high fly-ball rate working against him. I’m not very bullish on those three for 2015.

Then you have the liner laggards. A low liner rate in the midst of a solid overall season legitimizes that performance. Alex Gordon, a line-drive laggard in 2014? What happens if he simply raises his liner rate to league average, and keeps everything else the same? Ditto Josh Donaldson. Wil Myers has now been limited by a poor liner rate in both of his MLB seasons. Is that who he is, or is stabilization in his liner rate, along with his wrist, all that’s holding him back?

Without further ado, let’s delve into the production by BIP type data. For each major BIP type, each leader and laggard’s AVG and SLG is listed, as well as their production relative to the league average for that BIP type, scaled to 100:

J.Abreu 0.510 1.633 441 Pearce 0.855 1.273 186
C.Carter 0.422 1.441 328 Iannetta 0.821 1.282 179
Arcia 0.432 1.272 284 D.Santana 0.767 1.183 155
Encarnacion 0.381 1.305 269 Joyce 0.815 1.074 151
Rasmus 0.419 1.210 261 Flowers 0.774 1.113 148
JD.Martinez 0.420 1.188 255 N.Cruz 0.720 1.161 143
C.Davis 0.375 1.250 251 Lind 0.750 1.104 142
Napoli 0.419 1.140 242 B.Miller 0.740 1.100 139
Dunn 0.402 1.126 231 Beltre 0.778 1.028 138
Bautista 0.377 1.162 229 Reddick 0.755 1.038 135
————– ———– ———– ———– ————– ———– ———– ———–
Infante 0.188 0.398 36 Lowrie 0.598 0.717 75
J.Bradley 0.189 0.392 36 Vogt 0.585 0.732 75
Jeter 0.178 0.386 33 Teixeira 0.609 0.688 74
Andrus 0.200 0.347 33 Aoki 0.559 0.742 72
Y.Escobar 0.176 0.361 31 Aybar 0.559 0.735 71
Aviles 0.182 0.299 26 Freese 0.570 0.709 70
Eaton 0.167 0.319 26 Andrus 0.560 0.706 69
Aoki 0.159 0.286 22 Dv.Murphy 0.551 0.710 68
Sogard 0.155 0.259 19 Callaspo 0.569 0.638 65
Suzuki 0.146 0.244 17 Calhoun 0.510 0.646 57
————– ———– ———– ———– ————– ———– ———– ———–
AVG 0.281 0.719 100 0.664 0.880 100


D.Santana 0.353 0.397 210 JD.Martinez 0.432 0.760 200
Trout 0.346 0.392 203 Trout 0.405 0.792 196
Lind 0.352 0.371 199 J.Abreu 0.412 0.756 190
Hardy 0.343 0.376 194 Pearce 0.372 0.713 161
A.Jones 0.341 0.367 189 D.Santana 0.416 0.617 156
Norris 0.336 0.369 187 C.Carter 0.345 0.729 154
Gillaspie 0.333 0.373 186 Rasmus 0.356 0.708 154
Cain 0.331 0.373 185 Flowers 0.390 0.643 152
Vogt 0.339 0.356 184 Mi.Cabrera 0.379 0.637 147
Altuve 0.325 0.376 182 N.Cruz 0.349 0.676 144
————– ———– ———– ———– ————– ———– ———– ———–
Moustakas 0.160 0.183 44 J.Bradley 0.287 0.385 68
Arcia 0.160 0.173 42 Dominguez 0.269 0.415 68
Kipnis 0.150 0.168 38 Beckham 0.265 0.411 66
Dunn 0.157 0.157 38 K.Morales 0.265 0.411 66
Zunino 0.147 0.160 35 Jeter 0.294 0.356 65
Avila 0.135 0.156 32 Moustakas 0.249 0.428 65
Teixeira 0.137 0.153 32 Infante 0.280 0.376 65
Swisher 0.143 0.143 31 Aviles 0.275 0.376 63
McCann 0.137 0.137 29 Callaspo 0.251 0.327 51
C.Davis 0.129 0.140 27 Sogard 0.250 0.300 47
————– ———– ———– ———– ————– ———– ———– ———–
0.247 0.269 100 0.325 0.507 100

First, it should be noted that SH and SF are counted as outs for the purposes of this presentation, so the figures above do not 100% line up with actual 2014 BABIP.

Let’s start with the fly-ball production table, which has the fewest surprises, and is likely the most directly tied to player talent. The leader list contains some of the premier ball impacters in the game, and Mike Trout just missed the top ten. Perhaps the most interesting inclusions are Oswaldo Arcia, a significant 2015 breakout candidate if he can make more consistent contact; Chris Davis, despite his significant decline from the previous season; and the thoroughly mediocre Adam Dunn. This underscores the fly ball-friendly nature of US Cellular Field, as the nine others on this list hit the ball materially harder in the air. Based on hard and soft fly-ball rates, I assigned players a fly-ball authority score from 88 to 110. Dunn’s was 103, the lowest of this group; Abreu’s 106, interestingly, is tied for 6th. Their home park was their very close friend.

Among fly-ball laggards, Jackie Bradley, Jr., stands out among a sea of slap hitters. His fly-ball authority score was actually 102 (only one other player among the laggards, Yunel Escobar, was above 95) last season, and he played his home games in a park even more friendly to fly balls than US Cellular. He simply hasn’t yet learned to use the Green Monster. Minor adjustments, and more contact in general, could make Bradley a very interesting offensive player.

Line-drive performance is loosely based on talent, in comparison; there is an awful lot of luck involved here. The liner authority score scale ranges from 90 to 107, and the two players who achieved the top score — Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson — aren’t among the top-ten producers. Steve Pearce’s career year was largely driven by his outlandish performance on liners. And then there’s Danny Santana, of whom we shall speak quite a bit over the remainder of this piece. He is the only line-drive leader to have a sub-100 liner authority score (95). Sure, he’s fast, and that will earn him the extra base here and there, but his massive production on liners is largely luck-based.

On the flip side, there are three 2014 Oakland A’s on the liner-production laggard list. That’s bad luck. Then there’s Calhoun, who’s among the liner frequency leaders, but ranked dead last in the AL in liner production. That should positively regress moving forward.

Sitting atop the ground-ball production leaders is our good friend Danny Santana. His speed should work to his advantage in this department, but should he be the most productive AL hitter on ground balls? I would think not. The grounder authority scale ranges from 90 to 114, and he again sits way down toward the low end, at 95, one of only three of the ground-ball leaders below 100. What are slow, righty hitters like J.J. Hardy and Derek Norris doing on this leaderboard? Their grounder performance puffed up their overall numbers in 2014, and is ripe for regression in 2015.

The ground-ball laggard list is largely populated by dead pull, weak roll-over contact guys, most of whom are lefthanded. Mike Zunino is a very interesting case. He is the lone true righty among the grounder laggards, and his overall profile stands out in many other ways. He hits more fly balls than anyone, is about the most dead-pull hitter in the league, is at the top of the strikeout and bottom of the walk scale, and had a miserable .254 OBP despite leading the league in hit by pitches. He is a strong defensive receiver, and even a half season at Triple-A to focus on his bat shortcomings could have turned him into a monster. The big leagues is an awfully tough place to make the necessary adjustments.

At the bottom right are the overall BIP leaders in laggards, essentially your BABIP rankings for 2014. The overall BIP authority score scale runs from 89 to 110. Only two players on the overall leader list have an authority score below 103 — US Cellular dweller Tyler Flowers (101), and good old Danny Santana (93). Please, please purge Santana’s actual 2014 performance from your mind when attempting to project his value moving forward. He’s a nice multipositional, speed-based utility piece, but he’s as close to a slam-dunk massive regression candidate as I’ve seen in recent seasons. To a lesser extent, JD Martinez and Steve Pearce, reasonably authoritative hitters now established as solid complementary bats, are pretty clear bets to regress somewhat in 2015.

Among the laggards, I like Bradley the most moving forward. He plays quality defense at a skill position, and his 2014 numbers were undermined by subpar production on fly balls despite reasonable authority, in a park that typically pumps up fly ball performance. He was a pretty unlucky guy. It remains to be seen how he’ll fit into the Red Sox overall plan, but the guess here is that he’ll be much better the next time around.

Best wishes to one and all for a happy, healthy holiday season. May your plates, cups and stockings be full, your BABIP be strong, and may your club be relevant deep into next September.

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7 years ago

Why does the BIP Avg not align with BABIP? What is the difference? Similarly, why do the averages by batted-ball type not match with the splits on a player’s page? Very interesting stuff, just looking for some clarification.

7 years ago
Reply to  SS90

“First, it should be noted that SH and SF are counted as outs for the purposes of this presentation, so the figures above do not 100% line up with actual 2014 BABIP.”