Riding the Waves of BABIP Variance with Chris Colabello

When Chris Colabello’s first ball in play this season, a line drive with a recorded exit velocity of 103 mph, went directly into the glove of opposing shortstop Brad Miller, it seemed a cruel yet fitting reminder that nothing is given at the start of a new season.

Not even for Colabello, who appears to have used a strong 2015 season to finally lock down a secure job in the major leagues. He produced offense at a level 42% above league average last year when controlling for park factors, and he did so for a playoff team, eventually forcing his way into more than the short side of a platoon with Justin Smoak. He’s not set to play every day for the Toronto Blue Jays this year, but he should have the larger share of a time-split at first.

He appears to have, at long last, made it. Assuming he can keep it up, that is, which few think is a certainty. For most of his baseball career, people have been looking for reasons why Colabello won’t succeed, even now that he’s doing so.

Undrafted out of a Division 2 college, he spent seven seasons dominating the independent Can-Am League before finally catching a break. Then he forced his way into a cup of coffee with the Minnesota Twins thanks to an MVP campaign at Triple-A in 2013. So naturally, that brief initial stint saw him struggle, thanks in part to posting the worst batting average of his career at any level, a .194 mark that was sandbagged by an uncharacteristically low .253 BABIP. He got another shot with the Twins in 2014, but after a record-setting April, he cooled remarkably, ultimately getting waived after the season.

“I think when you first get to the big leagues, there’s always an aspiration to get results,” Colabello told me in Dunedin during the final week of spring training. “The game is so much about process, especially for hitters. Being able to take care of your swing, trusting what you’re doing, trusting what got you there. But certainly there’s an emphasis, personally I think, more on the outcome, just because you want to stick around and you want to prove to people that you belong here.

“It’s hard to call it pressing, but when you’re in search of something, it’s usually a little bit tougher to come by.”

The 32-year-old had done enough in Minnesota to intrigue one team, at least. The Blue Jays claimed him from the Twins, designated him for assignment, and, once he cleared waivers, outrighted him to Triple-A for organizational depth. Like he had at every stop but Minnesota, Colabello hit, earning Player of the Month honors for April and a subsequent call-up to the Jays on May 5.

With two tours of duty under his belt and a new part-time role on a team with designs on the postseason, Colabello’s mentality was different this time around.

“It’s about going out, going to work every day, doing everything you can have control over, the stuff that’s in your power, and letting the cards fall where they may,” Colabello says, conceding that he’s speaking in cliches but that these statement exist as cliches for a reason. “I think that’s more of what I did last year. I wasn’t really in search of results ever. When you can shift your emphasis to helping a team win baseball games, it takes so much pressure off you individually, because you really can look past moments in time where you weren’t successful, because you’re so in tuned with what’s going on around you.”

Where the cards fell, by the way, was just about everywhere there wasn’t a fielder.

A day after his call-up, he recorded four hits. He never looked back, appearing in 101 games total for Toronto and setting career highs with 360 plate appearances, 15 home runs, and 54 RBI. He slashed .321/.367/.520, a line that produced a robust .381 wOBA and helped Colabello fulfill a long-time goal.

“I always wanted to be the guy that could hit .300 as a kid,” he says. “I never was OK with .270. And I understand that you can be successful and hit .270, and that’s not what determines how good you are, but .300 was always the number that kind of stood out. So I always wanted to figure out how to do things to hit .300.”

Colabello focused on keeping the barrel of his bat in the zone for a longer period of time, which helped lead to a spike in line-drive rate and a more varied spray chart. He pulled most of his ground balls hard, trimmed his strikeout rate, and got aggressive early in counts in an attempt to use the entire field.

As his comfort going the other way grew, he was able to counter-adjust to opponents who were trying to figure out his early-season surge.

“I think when I started being the best version of myself is when I started trusting the fact that I could hit the ball over the right-center-field wall,” Colabello says. “One thing I noticed a lot last year, it seemed like every team had a different shift for me, because they weren’t really sure how to play me. It would sometimes move within a series. Guys would go full pull-side shift and I’d be like, ‘Alright, the four-hole’s open,’ and try to direct the ball that way.

“That’s the cat-and-mouse game, that’s trying to take advantage of things where maybe you might lack a little bit in physical ability or athleticism or skillset, using your mind to be able to help you adapt.”

Source: FanGraphs

His HR/FB mark spiked to 23.4% in the process, but a well below-average fly-ball rate overall precluded a more marked home-run spike. The focus on hitting to all parts of the park was paramount to his surge, and while he’d like to get the ball up a bit more often, he realizes that he can’t accomplish everything at once.

“I’d rather hit more fly balls, to be honest with you,” Colabello says. “The name of the game is to hit the baseball hard, as a hitter. You can’t really determine trajectory and plane, and things like that, but you do the best you can to give yourself a chance in the box. ‘To not be perfect and still do damage.’ I heard Chipper Jones say that a bunch of years back. I need to have the ability to not be perfect and still be good at what I do.”

And last year, he was very good at what he did.

He’s entering 2016 with the most obvious path to playing time that he’s ever had, coming off of his best major-league stint, and he’s once again on a team with its eye on the playoffs. He may not have the luxury of a guaranteed lineup spot every day or a multi-year deal, but 2015 served as an affirmation that the process he’s been trusting throughout his circuitous path is the right one.

“Comfortable’s probably the wrong word. I think there’s a confidence in what you’re doing,” he says. “The power of the mind is a beautiful thing. I think that’s what you really have to focus on in any situation, really think of positives that are coming out. Whether you’re getting hits or not shouldn’t dictate how you feel about yourself. What you’re doing to be better and what you’re doing to control things in your power to help the team on any given day, I think those are the things that I have to focus on.”

There’s a catch with his success, though. Colabello’s grown familiar with there always being a catch when things are going well.

“The reality of it is, in baseball, the hardest part to do is to avoid thinking negatively,” Colabello says. “Because there’s so much around you, and people have a tendency to point out the negative to you pretty often. “

The catch, in this case, is pretty glaring. For all the good work that Colabello put in, all the balls he squared up well, all the positive indicators in his profile, there remains a large, flashing, neon sign on his FanGraphs page: a historically high BABIP.

While he technically didn’t qualify for leaderboards, Colabello posted the highest BABIP for a player to record at least 350 plate appearances since Rogers Hornsby in 1924. Incredibly, 41.1% of the balls Colabello put in play landed for hits, lifting him to that .321 batting average despite also striking out in more than a quarter of this plate appearances. He’s a statistical rarity in this sense, as an unlikely high-strikeout, high-average bat: no other player hit .300 while striking out more than 25% of the time last year. Even with a line drive-heavy profile, plenty of hard contact, and the ability to go the other way, Colabello’s BABIP outperformed his xBABIP by 77 points, the largest gap in the league.

“There are certainly times when you come to the field and you’re feeling good and you could go up in the box and stand on your head and probably find a way to put the barrel on the baseball and have something sneak through,” he says. “Those are the waves you have to ride in this game, and it’s important to stay somewhere in the middle, mentally.”

What’s encouraging is that Colabello’s xBABIP was still a robust .334, not high enough for him to hit .300 again without trimming the strikeout rate, but strong enough for him to approach .270. A regression from one of the highest BABIPs ever isn’t a prediction (or inevitability) that stands to make Colabello a bad player, maybe just one who isn’t 42% better than league average at the dish.

For his part, Colabello says he doesn’t pay much mind to his BABIP, though he seems in tune with how the metric plays out on the diamond. He mentions the small sample size of his initial call-up, points out the nature of stabilization points, and acknowledges the variance that occurs beneath those points. That’s not really surprising, as BABIP, while perhaps declining in actual descriptive utility as the wealth of batted-ball information grows, is one of the metrics that’s pretty plain to see on the field, and Colabello has more experience with its highs and lows in his short career than most.

In other words, that rocket of an omen into Miller’s glove probably didn’t faze him much.

“There’s people that are always trying to find a reason why it shouldn’t be the way it is,” Colabello says. “For some people, that can be motivating. You know, people always say, ‘When people say something about you, you can either prove them right or prove them wrong.’

“And I just really like proving people wrong.”

Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.

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Great article. I remember Colabello’s numbers jumping out at me towards the end of last year when I was trying to familiarize myself with some of the guys farther down the rosters on playoff teams & became immediately enthralled with his story/journey to the bigs.

Here’s to hoping that Balbino Fuenmayor can follow Colabello’s path & be the next Indy Leagues success story.