Intrepid newspaperman Ken Rosenthal reported over the weekend that the Toronto Blue Jays have considered signing Alberto Callaspo to play second base for them in 2015 and maybe beyond 2015. A “potential buy-low, bounce-back candidate,” is how the Blue Jays conceive of Callaspo, according to Rosenthal. Indeed, having recorded a -1.1 WAR in 2014, Callaspo has done himself the favor of setting a low enough bar of performance such that he can improve upon it merely by not even playing. A well conceived plan, that.
A cursory inspection of Callaspo’s player page reveals his clear strength: the ability to make contact. Or the capacity to avoid the strikeout, one could say. Either version is fine: swinging-strike rate and strikeout rate are so tightly correlated, there’s little practical difference between the two. In either case, the point is the same: Callaspo has excelled at putting the ball into play.
By way of illustrating Callaspo’s skill in this regard, consider the following table, featuring the top-10 lowest strikeout rates among the 223 major-league batters to have recorded 1000-plus plate appearances since the beginning of 2012:
One finds that Callaspo is 10th by that measure — which, in this case, is also to say that he’s in about the 95th percentile.
Contact rate is correlated pretty strongly with batting average. For example, the nine players above Callaspo have combined for a .291 average over the last three seasons — a figure roughly equivalent to a 65 hit tool as measured on the 20-80 scouting scale. The 10 worst batters by strikeout rate over the least three years, meanwhile — a group featuring Adam Dunn and Danny Espinosa and B.J. Upton — have produced a combined .233 batting average. That’s about a 35 hit tool in scouting parlance.
The case of Alberto Callaspo, however, illustrates how the hit tool — from a quantitative point of view — isn’t informed by contact rate alone. For while Callaspo has made contact at a rate better than almost every other major-league regular over the past three seasons, he’s recorded just a .245 batting average during that same interval — much closer to Dunn and Espinosa and Upton, in other words, than his contact-heavy counterparts. The reason: he’s produced just a .259 BABIP since 2012, the 13th-lowest such figure among that same sample of 223 hitters mentioned above.
The rate at which a player makes contact and also the rate at which those batted balls become hits — those are the two variables which most directly inform the hit tool, or at least how one measures the hit tool. A regression applied to our group of 223 hitters from 2012 to -14 reveals a strong correlation between an expected batting average calculated with strikeout rate and BABIP as variables* and then actual batting average itself.
*Formula: AVG = (K% * -0.25) + (BABIP * 0.68) + 0.10
For a club like Toronto that has interest in Callaspo, there’s an essential question that must be answered, and it’s based on the sample sizes at which strikeout rate and BABIP become reliable. For while the former begins to stabilize in less than 100 plate appearances, the latter requires the equivalent of 1,200 plate appearances — no less than two seasons’ worth of playing time, in other words. For a player such as Callaspo who’s exhibited a considerably above-average ability to make contact (i.e. the skill that becomes reliable in small samples) and below-average ability to convert those batted balls into hits (the skill that requires a much larger sample), Toronto has to ask the question, “Is his poor BABIP a result of variance or skill?” Their estimates of his value to the club will be greatly informed by the answer.
Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.
The real question that everyone is asking concerns pronunciation — How do you pronounce Cistulli?