By In Baseball

BABIP for Sale (or Rent)

From NBC SportsWorld

So I actually wrote this piece BEFORE Sale’s last start — back when he was 9-0 with a 1.58 ERA. Sale has fundamentally switched his pitching style this year. He is purposely taking a little something off his pitches and consciously going for the strikeout less. This allows him to go deeper into games (he ALREADY has three complete games this year) and creates less wear and tear. There are other advantages too.

But … well, you know the risks of pitching to contact. When balls are put into play, they become potential hits no matter who is pitching. The question of how much a pitcher can control the likelihood of hits is one of the great questions in baseball today. Most pitching coaches and managers and, well, pitchers seem to believe that pitchers have the most powerful impact on Batting Average on Balls in Play (more impact than defense, ballpark factors, luck, etc).

But many analysts and observers (and I lean this way myself) believe that pitchers have almost ZERO impact on BABIP. Fangraphs figures its pitcher WAR based ENTIRELY on strikeouts, walks and home runs.

In this way, Sale is a great person to study. When I wrote the piece initially, he had a .197 BABIP which most of us believe is unsustainable, even for a pitcher as great as Sale.

Then, in his 10th start, he got absolutely rocked because, well, yeah, BABIP. So I reworked the piece.

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24 Responses to BABIP for Sale (or Rent)

  1. DJ MC says:

    Babip is my favorite attorney.

  2. Brian says:

    So, I know its not the same, but when my son pitched in Little League, he seemed to induce weak contact, so grounders were easy outs. Then the next pitcher would go in, and just get rocked.

    I don’t know how you would measure, but the pitcher must have some control

    • I used to think it was a real shame no one ever figured out a way to measure pitcher effects on BABIP, but who needs that now? We’ve got Brian’s son mowing down ten year olds to thank for clearing it all up.

      Let’s make sure we alert FanGraphs that those idiots have been wasting their time and brain cells, fooling baseball decision-makers, players, and fans with their fancy “math”. Hurray for Brian’s son!

      • Marc Schneider says:

        There is no real need to be nasty. He didn’t insult your family.

      • Brian says:

        You know, I was merely commenting on how difficult all the math must be. BAPIP is expected to revert to a mean – that most pitchers are expected to ‘come back’ if it gets too far from ‘normal’


        My highly limited experience was that some pitchers do seem to induce more easily played grounders. Before watching my son go thru Little League, I assumed the pitchers goal was to strike out the other team(what they can control), or, in the case of young kids, throw strikes.

        But, I came to realize, that is must take some skill to induce these weak, easily played grounders.

        And, how do you really capture that? Taking into account shifts? Luck? Skill of the defenders?

      • Pat says:

        Aww, shucks… I can’t remember who wrote it now (Tom Tango?), but after Voros McCracken’s original article, someone went through a ton of data and did actually make some measurements of pitchers’ effects on BABIP. Basically he just just took the number if hits a league-average pitcher would have given up for a pitcher’s number of in-play balls and compared it to the actual number of hits.

        Season by season, things bounced around quite a bit, but over the length of a career it was pretty normalized and you could see some pitchers who were legitimately better than average at turning balls in play into outs. Weirdly, high strikeout pitchers were often pretty good at it—Maddux was great, as expected, but Roger Clemens was maybe even better. Andy Pettitte was unexpectedly worse than average, although I don’t know if they corrected for his shortstop’s defense….

        Man, it bothers me I can’t remember who wrote it. Maybe I’ve got the article saved somewhere.

        (I do agree with Marc that you are being a little bit mean.)

      • Pat says:

        Aha—not Tom Tango, but rather Tom Tippett. He published it under the title “Can pitchers prevent hits on balls in play?” and it was available at the Diamond Mind website at least at some point in the past.

  3. Jim says:

    I agree that a sub-.200 BABIP is not sustainable. But Sale doesn’t need that for his change to improve his performance.

    Over the previous three years, he averaged 10.7 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, and a 0.2973 BABIP. Therefore to get 27 outs he would need to retire 10.7 via K and face an additional 23.2 batters (6.9 of whom would get hits) to retire a total of 27. Through 9 innings he would then allow 8.8 baserunners.

    This year he is averaging 8.7 K/9, 1.8 K/9. Let’s say he maintains those averages and ends the year with a .275 BABIP. To get 27 outs he would need to retire 8.7 via K and face an additional 25.2 batters (6.9 of whom would get hits) to retire a total of 27. Through 9 innings he would then allow 8.7 baserunners. Obviously a BABIP of .260 or .250 brings more dramatic increases.

    This ignores the offsetting impacts of errors, which are slightly more likely in 2016, and GIDP, which are also slightly more likely in 2016. (As well as HBP, which in theory should go down if his velocity is down).

    Besides allowing (very) slightly fewer baserunners, it also keeps Sale in the game, and he’s presumably a better option than his bullpen.

    Then the question is: Is it reasonable for him to have a BABIP of .275? Greg Maddux managed to have a BABIP that averaged 30 points better than league average for 7 consecutive years, bridging two teams in three ballparks. I don’t think you can chalk that up to luck. Then again, while Sale is very talented, he’s not Greg Maddux.

    • MikeN says:

      Maddux’s career is longer than that. Couldn’t it just be luck?
      What are the odds of being 30 pts better than league average?
      Then calculate the odds of doing it seven years in a row, and the odds that someone would do it out of the hundreds of players.

      • Jim says:

        Maddux had worse than league average BABIP for his first two years, then better than average for 18 of his last 21 years in the majors, including the 7 year span when he averaged 30 points better than league average. I’m inclined to give partial credit to luck for 1995 (50 points below league average BABIP, 19-2, 1.63, 83% of runners stranded; an historically great year for even Maddux). But no, I’m not willing to say he got lucky 18 of 21 times, and REALLY lucky for 7 consecutive years in what would logically be the prime of his career.

        There absolutely are guys – good pitchers – whose BABIP career chart bounces all over the place. Clemens is one example, suggesting that his 1986 year had some luck to it (1986 BABIP: .237. 1985 and 1987: .271, .290). Voros did show that these guys are the norm. However, it seems clear to me that Maddux knew how to do something to induce batted ball outs.

  4. Sham says:

    This is a fairly alarming article, at least it should be to Sox fans. I get the notion of going deeper in games, but by attempting to approach this in part by consciously avoiding strikeouts is…misguided at best. With 2 strikes on a hitter, the most efficient thing to do is strike out that hitter on the next pitch. So, throw your strikeout pitch. Continuing to pump sliders and fastballs, thereby extending the at-bat and putting more wear on your arm, is nonsensical.

    The idea that pitchers have literally no impact on BABIP is farcical (that hanging curve that a hitter smashes off the wall on a beeline is pure luck on the hitters part? Come on), but the fact remains that around 30% of balls put in play become hits. Less outs = more batters = shorter starts.

    I can’t believe no one is telling him this. Isn’t this what a pitching coach is for? Isn’t this where analytics come into play? Seems like another situation where pitcher wins shades everything. “Well, he’s 9-0, so it must be smart.”

    • Jim says:

      He’s not consciously avoiding strikeouts or trying to extend the at-bat when he gets to a 2 strike count. He’s trying to induce a weakly hit ball (or get a K, which he is still doing a reasonably high percentage of the time), as opposed to trying to get a hitter to chase out of the zone once or twice before coming back to get the strikeout.

      He is averaging fewer pitches per inning this year by a significant amount. We will see whether that can continue.

      • ferb says:

        Refusing to throw your best strikeout pitch with 2 strikes would be the definition of “consciously avoiding strikeouts”, no?

        • Jim Peck says:

          He’s 3rd in the American League in strikeouts. So no, he’s not “consciously avoiding strikeouts”.

    • Brian says:

      He may feel that pitching 2 or 3 sliders is easier on his arm than cranking up his fastest fastball.

      But, I think you make a very legitimate point

  5. Scott says:

    An additional aspect that might be at work here is health, which was mentioned in the article. Sale might think that he can’t keep throwing angry on every pitch and have a long career, a perfectly reasonable assumption. He could do this an avoid injuries and extend his career – both of which are in his interest (although not the Sox’s). had he been explicit about this being the primary reason, a lot of fans and media members would be very upset with him.

  6. jroth95 says:

    ISTM that pretty much every piece of evidence uncovered since Voros’ original DIPS articles has gone against the strong DIPS claim; I’m kind of shocked that Joe is clinging to circa 2002 faith in it. We’ve known since at least 2005 that inducing infield flies is a repeatable skill. We’ve known since about 2012 that pitchers can induce grounders to shifted fielders—that’s why modern shifts are much more effective, and ubiquitous, than the simplistic Boudreau Shift—and now Statcast data show that pitchers have a great deal of control over exit velocity and angle.

    But sure, let’s just ignore all that and say that everyone regresses to .300 BABIP and 10% HR/FB.

    • Anon says:

      Was going to post the same thing – Statcast is significantly showing that pitchers have more control over BABIP than previously thought by giving better quantification on exit velocity. It’s also been known virtually since McCracken’s theory that some pitchers have more control than others so the point virtually from the outset has been not that pitchers have no control, but that pitchers have less control than people assumed for decades.

      That said, no way was Sale going to keep up a .197 BABIP.

    • mrh says:

      Can you post links to some of this research Thanks.

  7. KHAZAD says:

    Somehow missed by Joe was the fact that Sale struck out 7 in 3.1 innings in his one bad start, so it is not as if he were “avoiding” Ks.

    Of course a .197 Babip is unsustainable, but I do believe pitchers have more control over types of contact than modern thinking does. I will also say that most analytical stats give almost zero penalty when analyzing offense between a strikeout and any other kind of out but base the bulk of their pitcher analysis on their ability to get strikeouts. It just doesn’t go together at all. One of these philosophies is wrong, and truthfully they should probably meet somewhere in the middle.

    If you can save a couple of pitches per inning by trying to get bad contact early in the count, I think it is worth it. You can change your approach with two strikes just like hitters do and have the best of both worlds.

    Comparing Sale’s K/9 this year to last year, which was by far his career best, seems a little extreme, but let’s just say to pick a number that he is giving 2 Ks per nine by his new approach. That would be about 1.55 extra opportunities for contact in an average 7 inning start, so even with the exact same Babip, it would only be about .46 extra hits per outing. Besides that, if he can make just a little bit of that contact weaker, it will make up for that, and indeed could lower his Babip a more reasonable amount than it has been so far over a period of time. Not to mention the fact that there could be less extra base hits. A lot has been made of the similarity of pitcher Babips over a long period of time, but there are significant and noticeable differences in ISO between pitchers that correlate strongly with a pitcher’s skill level. Pitchers definitely affect contact.

  8. Marc Schneider says:

    It’s hard for me to believe that pitchers don’t have some control over balls in play. If the pitcher throws a sharp breaking slider on the outside corner, the hitter is likely to either miss it or hit a weak ground ball. Some of those weak ground balls might find holes and become hits but most will not. I understand that there is obviously less control over a ball that is hit than on one that is missed entirely (i.e, a strikeout), but, clearly there is some connection between the quality of the pitchers and the quality of the contact. No doubt that a pitcher is better off with a significant number of strikeouts, which lessens the possibility for balls finding holes, but pitchers don’t usually strike out 20 guys.

    As far as pitching to contact, to me it always meant not avoiding strikeouts on purpose but not being afraid to have the ball hit. In others, being aggressive in the strike zone rather than nibbling around the corners trying to avoid contact and running up the pitch count. Scherzer is a great example of this; when he struck out the 20 guys, he only threw 23 balls because he was being aggressive and challenging hitters. Now, obviously, he doesn’t strike out 20 every game but he pitches aggressively. Recently, this may have led to more home runs, but he generally is very efficient and is able to pitch deeper into games without really sacrificing good stuff. He doesn’t go out trying to strike everyone out, but he is still throwing quality pitches. That, to me, is the point of pitching to contact.

    • Brian says:

      Your statement:’No doubt that a pitcher is better off with a significant number of strikeouts, which lessens the possibility for balls finding holes’

      You can be much, much more efficient pitching to contact. You are right about the risk – but often – they are weakly hit – you would hope – so those holes are more easily closed.

      Again, talking about my son – pitching in a game the other night- first inning 12 pitches. Second inning 10. third inning 12. He gave up one hit – it found a hole – but, no runs, and 3 innings – 9 up 9 down (pick off cleaned up his one hit) Included in that, was 3 K’s

      And then – tiring (he had pitched earlier in the week) – his pitches strayed over the middle of the plate – his movement was less – and the batters teed off. And – he was too tired to fire his fast ball by batters.

      But – how do you capture all that statistically? He was clearly pitching very well, until he wasn’t…

      • Marc Schneider says:

        You missed the whole point of my comment. In my view, pitching to contact doesn’t mean trying NOT to strike guys out, but trying to make as good a pitch as you can in the strike zone. If you do that, and you have good stuff, you should get a significant number of strikeouts. And strikeouts are good because they eliminate the chance of errors by the defense or of bloops falling in. Your notion seems to be that pitchers should try to let the hitter hit the ball and, to me, that makes no sense. First, if you do that, a certain number of pitches will be hit hard. You can’t possibly have make every pitch hit weakly if you are trying to let the guy hit it. So, more balls are likely to become hits. Second, getting strikeouts doesn’t NECESSARILY mean the pitcher is being inefficient, unless by that you mean throwing the absolute fewest pitches possible and I don’t know anyone who really thinks that is the way to pitch because, even if it were possible, you wouldn’t want to throw strikes on every single pitch.

        I just don’t see what relevance your son pitching in a Little League game has to do with the majors.

        • Brian says:

          My point about Little League is that it threw it into stark relief for me.

          Compare two pitchers, both throwing strikes.

          One seems to continually induce weak grounders, the other hard hits to gaps.

          That is what I first came to understand, in Little League

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