Talent can go a long way on the baseball diamond, but it can't take you all the way. At some point, luck takes over.
As an aside, that's the way we fantasy owners like it, right? Admit it, this game wouldn't be fun if it were entirely predictable.
There are several statistical measures for the impact of luck on the game, but in this column we'll focus on BABIP (batting average on balls in play), which demonstrates a hitter's or pitcher's level of success on batted balls within the field of play; in other words, everything but home runs, walks and strikeouts. BABIP numbers, when used correctly, can often identify players who were especially lucky or unlucky -- players who might have been helped or victimized by a few lucky bounces. Picking these individuals out can often unearth draft day value selections.
First addressing the topic of "used correctly," before continuing, make sure you first read my BABIP primer. The worst mistake one could make is to assume that Robinson Cano's .324 BABIP means he was obviously lucky or Brandon Inge's .277 means he was obviously cursed, and significantly boost or deflate their rankings on a cheat sheet. As you'll read below, both players were well within range of both their expected and career BABIP numbers, meaning their .320 and .230 batting averages, respectively, might not have been entirely unreasonable expectations.
Let's discuss that important word: "expected." BABIP can only be properly evaluated when put into perspective, and in order to do that, we'll compare what a player should have done and actually did do in the category. "Expected BABIP" calculates what a player might have done had his specific types of batted balls (ground balls, fly balls, line drives and bunts) dropped in for hits at a rate precisely identical to the major league averages in each group.
Those major league averages:
Ground ball BABIP: .237
Fly ball BABIP: .138
Line drive BABIP: .724
Bunt BABIP: .376
The formula: ground balls times .237, plus fly balls times .138, plus line drives times .724, plus bunts times .376 (GB x .237) + (FB x .138) + (LD x .724) + (BUNT x .376).
Listed in the charts below are players' 2009 BABIP statistics, among other handy reference tools. I've chosen to highlight mostly players whose actual BABIP varied most significantly from their expected BABIPs; that seems like as fair a source as any for players who were helped or hurt in the luck department.
A closer look: Atop the list, Ichiro is a hitter who has maintained .380-plus BABIPs in two of the past five seasons, both of which he batted .350-plus. In the other three, however, he batted no higher than .322 and had a BABIP no greater than .350, meaning there's some room for regression. What worries me is that his steals-per-opportunity percentage (9.9, from Baseball-Reference.com stats) in 2009 was a career low, and if that's in any way a sign that his 36 years of age are catching up to him, he might bat a lot closer to .300 than .350 in 2010. Wright's .394 number was the major league's highest, and the best BABIP since Ichiro's .399 of 2004, the year he set the single-season record for hits. As Wright's .345 career BABIP shows, he's the kind of player whose line-drive ability, plus his speed, will always keep him ranked among the leaders, but if he can't either pick up the power pace or cut down on his strikeouts, he might be in danger of a sub-.300 batting average. Span, Bourn, Figgins and Morgan are players who use their legs to beat out a high rate of infield grounders, and sure enough, all of them have career BABIPs greater than .330 and had BABIPs greater than the major league average on ground balls. Calling their performances extremely fluky would be foolish.
Votto's placement on this list might be the most awkward of any. According to Inside Edge, he managed the 45th-best "well hit average" among qualified hitters (.245), but that's hardly a Mauer-like number, nor does Votto traditionally leg out a lot of infield hits. His career BABIP might be small sample size-driven, and it's possible that he's more the .297 hitter he was as a rookie than his .322 of 2009. Coghlan might be an obvious pick by most fantasy owners to regress in terms of batting average, but he possesses a keen batting eye and was much more a speedster in the minors, including 34 steals as recently as 2008. Don't be so quick to assume his numbers will go into the tank.
A closer look: Perhaps no player stands out on any of these lists more than does Rollins, a speedy player who seems like he was victimized by atrocious luck in 2009. Sure enough, his .251 BABIP represented by far a career low, especially hurt by an abnormally low .629 number on line drives, of which he hit 118. Rollins has been generating a healthy amount of bounce-back buzz, and rightfully so; his luck should turn around at least a little. Kinsler is another out-of-place performer on this list, but understand that his career BABIP still resides traditionally about a dozen points beneath the typical yearly major league average. This isn't a .300 hitter in the making, but he's probably not a .253 hitter, either. Kinsler did have a .181 BABIP on ground balls, the ninth-lowest among qualified hitters, and an odd number considering the other players around him in the rankings aren't exactly fleet of foot: Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Bengie Molina, Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira, to name five.
Second-year shortstop Andrus, however, might be the most shocking inclusion of all on the above list. He's as quick as they come, legging out 22 infield hits and attempting steals on 20.7 percent of his opportunities, the sixth-best rate in the majors last season. Amazingly, he managed only a .228 BABIP on ground balls, beneath the major league average, and a .629 BABIP on line drives -- and he hit those on 21.3 percent of all his balls in play. I know Jason Grey has built on these pages a case for Andrus' chances at a 50-steal season in 2010, but I'm not sure stolen bases is actually the category in which he has the most upside. Either way, I'm firmly in Grey's camp; Andrus has loads of upside.
Other hitters worth discussing
Why limit this only to leaders and trailers, or only players who qualified for a batting title? I've picked out nine names below whose stats might also interest you:
A closer look: Bartlett was the major league's leader in line-drive rate (27.4), and regression to the mean in that category alone might be enough of an argument against him repeating 2009's .320 batting average. In the past he usually landed in the 20 percent range in terms of line drives, and even the best hitters historically struggle to consistently maintain a rate greater than 25 percent in the category. Wieters' placement on this list is somewhat troublesome, but it's also small-sample-size-influenced. He typically generated BABIPs north of .350 in the minor leagues, too, so while it bears watching, let that keep you from declaring him a clear top-100 overall, top-of-the-catching-class pick for 2010. (Though he might not be far off that status.)
Turning the focus to pitching, here were 2009's top 30 pitchers in terms of differential between actual and expected BABIPs, with the "lucky" ones first up:
A closer look: Washburn's status atop this list should come as no surprise to anyone, as he spent two-thirds of last season working in front of arguably the best defense in baseball. Sure enough, his BABIP while with the Seattle Mariners was a sparkling .245, and it rose to a more realistic .281 following his trade to the Detroit Tigers. Washburn isn't the kind of pitcher you want to trust except in the right circumstance. Feldman's placement on this list is particularly troubling, seeing as it's not the only factor that indicates all the starts aligned for him during his breakout 2009. He managed 17 wins, a 4.08 ERA and 1.28 WHIP despite the majors' 11th-lowest strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.74), and he wasn't quite the extreme ground-baller he was in his early days with the Texas Rangers, either. That's not to say Feldman is completely without value in 2010, but one of the things I most liked about him last year was his matchups potential -- I bet he's a matchups play this season, but little more than that.
A closer look: Before you grant Lowe a mulligan for what was a terribly disappointing first year with the Atlanta Braves, especially the second half of the season, keep in mind that he wasn't nearly the ground-baller for them that he was previously in his career. He generated grounders on 56.3 percent of balls in play, his lowest of any year for which data is available on FanGraphs, and significantly lower than his 63.4 percent career number. His line-drive rate also rose, meaning his days of .290-level BABIPs might be behind him. I'm still on the Hamels-will-bounce-back bandwagon, as almost everything in his profile points to near-ace potential -- or at least "solid No. 2 starter." The Philadelphia Phillies did sport a top-10 defense in 2009, going by FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) or simply their total number of errors (76, second-fewest in the game). Hamels' command rates were also right in line with his 2008 numbers, yet his BABIP increased by 55 points.
Nolasco is another pitcher bound to bounce back, as his expected BABIP was almost right in line with his actual career number. I've talked plenty of times on these pages about how his five-plus ERA was a complete aberration, and there's as good an example why as any. Pay particular attention to Lee's numbers, as the advantage he gains from moving to Seattle should not go unrecognized. As mentioned earlier, the Mariners sport one of the game's most skilled defenses, and it's important to recognize that from 2004-08 with the Cleveland Indians, the two times the team ranked among the top 11 in baseball in UZR, in 2005 and 2008, Lee had his best seasons. Everything might be in line for a clear top-10 fantasy starter campaign.
Sanchez's BABIP might scream out "aberration," but don't be so hasty. He was a different -- and improved -- pitcher in 2009, with a slider that wreaked havoc on opposing batsmen and a 73.8 percent contact rate on all pitches, which could in large part explain why his line-drive rate dropped to a career-low 15.5 percent. Sanchez's stuff is filthy; I think his 2009 did more to set a new baseline expectation than it did serve as an outlier.
Finally, Harang was the final cut from my "Kings of Command" top-10 options, though he did fit the qualifications, so I'll take the opportunity here to sing his praises. No pitcher was unluckier on ground balls, as he had a major league-high .299 BABIP on those, which is odd considering Cincinnati Reds second basemen and shortstops as a whole ranked among the top 10 in the majors in UZR at those positions. Assuming a full recovery from his appendectomy, Harang should have one more good year left in his right arm.
Other pitchers worth discussing
In the chart below, I've picked out nine more pitchers who, despite not leading or trailing in the above categories, might also interest you:
A closer look: Paulino's numbers bear watching, as he's another pitcher who generated a lot of swings and misses. When hitters did make contact, however, they were quite successful, especially on ground balls (.362 BABIP). That's a number that almost has to come back toward the big league average, and with his strikeout potential, he might yet have a place on NL-only rosters if he can crack the rotation. Oddly enough, Pineiro's BABIP was almost right in line with both his expected number and his career number, yet most fantasy owners' immediate reaction to his 3.49 ERA and 1.14 WHIP of 2009 were that they were flukes. He was the major league's leader in ground-ball rate (59.0 percent), and his BABIP on those (.222) wasn't far off the big league average, either. Pineiro's key to success will be retaining the command of his heavy sinker, not retaining his good luck, because, frankly, his statistics weren't luck-generated.
Finally, we'd be remiss to not discuss the impact of BABIP on closers, as that's still a critical part of fantasy baseball, yet those players never tend to log the innings necessary to qualify for the ERA title. The chart below highlights the numbers of all 30 projected Opening Day closers (as of the onset of spring training):
A closer look: I've already discussed Lyon's BABIP on multiple occasions this winter, but how about Nunez as another closer whose number in the category hints that some ERA/WHIP regression is probably in his future? Nunez was quite lucky on line drives, allowing a .500 BABIP on those, tied with Broxton for the lowest of any of these relievers. Conversely, Dotel is a pitcher whose name fantasy owners might want to tuck away. He'll be a late-rounder at best in mixed formats, and his reputation as a lackluster closer might serve to scare some owners away. Nevertheless, his BABIP was already high and he has escaped homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field, which can only help his cause.
Luck completely uninvolved?
Finally, let's take a look at the 19 qualified hitters and 16 qualified pitchers whose actual BABIP numbers were no more than 10 points removed from either their expected or career BABIPs. Consistency counts for a lot in fantasy, and the knowledge that the 35 players in the two charts below appeared least affected by the luck factor might inspire greater confidence that your draft day evaluations of them are right on the money.
And what of Cano, mentioned at the onset of this column? He narrowly missed the cut -- his actual BABIP was a mere 11 points above his expected number, though being one point off the cut-off is hardly anything to quibble about.
Feel free to experiment with your own BABIP conclusions, too, as a full analysis of every player who appeared in a game in 2009 might mean as many as 100-plus pages of scrolling. We don't have the space for that, and besides, it's the extreme examples that are most relevant to fantasy owners.
Sticking with the "luck" theme: May all your luck be good this season!
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.