If Line Drives Could Speak

In the Stats 1991 Baseball Scoreboard (an overlooked successor to the Bill James Abstracts), there was an article entitled If Lineouts Were Hits… The STATS guys (led by John Dewan and Don Zminda) analyzed batting stats to see if batters who hit into a lot of line drive outs one year had better luck the next year. The answer was yes — batters who hit into the most line drive outs in 1989 increased their batting averages 18 points in 1990, while those who hit into the least decreased their batting averages 11 points.

Last year, we looked at The Hardball Times’s line drive data, and found, unsurprisingly, that hitting more line drives usually results in hitting for a higher batting average. And a couple of articles later, we found that line drives are particularly well-correlated with BABIP, or Batting Average on Balls in Play. As a general formula, BABIP equals the percent of batted balls that are line drives (LD%) plus .120.

So, when drafting batters for your baseball sim or fantasy team, you really should look at which batters had a BABIP that suffered in comparison to LD%, and vice versa. As the STATS analysts showed fifteen years ago, it matters. And here they are — the “luckiest” batters last year based on the difference between BABIP and LD% (minimum of 300 plate appearances):

Player            PA     LD%   BABIP     DIF
Suzuki I.        762    .183    .401   0.218
DaVanon J.       337    .127    .321   0.194
Sanchez A.       352    .184    .375   0.191
Clayton R.       652    .157    .345   0.187
Newhan D.        412    .188    .369   0.181
Baldelli R.      565    .133    .312   0.179
Bay J.           472    .174    .352   0.177
Ramirez M.       663    .153    .329   0.176
Erstad D.        543    .162    .336   0.173
Bellhorn M.      620    .198    .368   0.170
Hafner T.        576    .186    .356   0.170

Now, Ichiro and Sanchez are the type of speedy players who will naturally lead a list like this. And maybe Darin Erstad and Rocco Baldelli have the same sort of skill. Manny Ramirez and Royce Clayton are probably helped by their home park (though Clayton won’t be hitting in Coors this year). Putting all of that aside, however, my guess is that eight of these ten players will see their batting average decline in 2005. I promise to review that prediction at the end of the year.

So who was particularly unlucky with their line drives last year? Here’s the same list, in reverse:

Player            PA     LD%   BABIP     DIF
Palmeiro R.      651    .211    .255   0.045
Hidalgo R.       359    .180    .233   0.053
Walker T.        424    .231    .285   0.054
Sanchez R.       307    .212    .267   0.055
Spiezio S.       415    .176    .232   0.057
Sierra R.        338    .190    .247   0.057
Phillips J.      412    .172    .230   0.058
Wilson D.        359    .240    .300   0.060
Munson E.        357    .169    .231   0.062
Gomez C.         377    .248    .313   0.066

Lots of slow players on this list. One of the intriguing players is Palmeiro, whose home run output in 2004 would lead you to believe that he’s in a rapid decline. But his line drive percentage says otherwise, and it will be interesting to see how he does this year. It seems certain that Hidalgo and Walker will have better averages in 2005 — particularly Hidalgo in that Arlington ballpark. And the majority of these batters will probably have higher batting averages next year.

Think we can apply the same logic to pitchers? Let’s try. Here’s a list of pitchers who had the highest difference between BABIP and LD% last year. In other words, these pitchers were unlucky with the line drives, and are likely to improve this year (minimum of 100 IP):

Player           IP    BABIP     LD%     DIF
Shields S.     105.3    .307    .140    .167
Halladay R.    133.0    .308    .142    .165
Sele A.        132.0    .313    .157    .155
Lowe D.        182.7    .327    .172    .155
Ponson S.      215.7    .327    .173    .154
Davis J.       114.3    .338    .185    .153
Lackey J.      198.3    .311    .161    .150
Reyes D.       108.0    .313    .163    .150
Lieber J.      176.7    .323    .178    .145
Dickey R.      104.3    .322    .180    .142

This would indicate bounceback years are in store for a couple of high-profile offseason pitchers, Derek Lowe and Jon Lieber. Let’s move onto the second verse, same as the first, only reversed:

Player           IP   BABIP     LD%     DIF
Vargas C.      118.3    .273    .219    .055
Rusch G.       129.7    .287    .227    .059
Greinke Z.     145.0    .267    .206    .060
Elarton S.     117.3    .236    .173    .063
Villone R.     117.0    .258    .193    .065
Leiter A.      173.7    .240    .174    .066
Ishii K.       172.0    .254    .188    .067
Glavine T.     212.3    .261    .191    .070
Tomko B.       194.0    .279    .209    .070
Lilly T.       197.3    .261    .187    .074

These are the pitchers most likely to see their performance go south in 2005, at least according to this data. Perhaps the biggest surprise on the list is the Royals’ Zack Greinke.

I would make another bold prediction at this point, except for one caveat. We really don’t know how persistent the ability is among major league pitchers to manage the number of line drives allowed. In fact, the evidence I’ve seen would indicate that, once a major league pitcher reaches the major leagues, his line drive-stopping capability is pretty much the same as every other pitcher’s.

In other words, the line drive is usually a result of the batter’s skill, and not a lack of the pitcher’s.

To get a better handle on which pitchers are likely to improve or decline next year, let’s turn to a favorite stat of mine, FIP, or Fielding-Independent Pitching. FIP is a measure of the “Three True Outcomes” that a pitcher can control (strikeouts, walks and home runs), translated into ERA.

Here are the pitchers whose 2004 ERA was much higher than their 2004 FIP, and hence are likely to improve this year (minimum of 100 innings pitched):

Player           IP      ERA     FIP    Diff
Fassero J.     111.0    5.51    4.35    1.16
Millwood K.    141.0    4.85    3.82    1.03
Obermueller W. 118.0    5.80    4.86    0.93
Acevedo J.     157.7    5.94    5.01    0.93
Vogelsong R.   133.0    6.50    5.57    0.93
Lowe D.        182.7    5.42    4.50    0.92
Van Poppel T   115.3    6.09    5.21    0.88
Fossum C.      142.0    6.65    5.80    0.86
Sparks S.      120.7    6.04    5.30    0.74
Benoit J.      103.0    5.68    4.97    0.70
Johnson J.     196.7    5.13    4.46    0.67
Wood M.        100.0    5.94    5.31    0.63
Santos V.      154.0    4.97    4.34    0.63
Ponson S.      215.7    5.30    4.68    0.62
Benson K.      132.3    4.22    3.63    0.58
Davis J.       114.3    5.51    4.95    0.56
Prior M.       118.7    4.02    3.55    0.47
Burnett A.     120.0    3.68    3.21    0.47
Alvarez W.     120.7    4.03    3.56    0.46
Lidle C.       149.0    5.32    4.90    0.42
Hermanson D.   131.0    4.53    4.12    0.41
Mussina M.     164.7    4.59    4.18    0.41
Jennings J.    201.0    5.51    5.10    0.41
Redding T.     100.7    5.72    5.32    0.40

Derek Lowe is on both this list and the list of “unlucky line drive” pitchers, as is the Indians’ Jason Davis. Lowe will certainly improve this year, particularly in Dodger Stadium. I’m less sure of Davis’s rebound, primarily because his lower FIP was primarily the result of a low home run total, and there’s no assurance he will continue to avoid the gopher ball in 2005. However, between his FIP and LD%, there seems to be a good chance he will get his ERA into the 4′s again.

Here’s a list of the players you can expect to do worse next year, based on the difference between ERA and FIP (minimum of 100 innings:

Player           IP      ERA     FIP    Diff
Leiter A.      173.7    3.21    4.78   -1.57
Elarton S.     117.3    4.53    5.87   -1.34
Zambrano V.    128.0    4.43    5.53   -1.10
Lima J.        170.3    4.07    5.11   -1.04
Villone R.     117.0    4.08    5.10   -1.02
Vargas C.      118.3    5.25    6.22   -0.97
Greinke Z.     145.0    3.97    4.94   -0.97
Perez O.       196.3    3.25    4.20   -0.95
Westbrook J.   215.7    3.38    4.27   -0.89
Peavy J.       166.3    2.27    3.16   -0.88
Lopez R.       170.7    3.59    4.45   -0.87
Marquis J.     201.3    3.71    4.57   -0.86
Zambrano C.    209.7    2.75    3.59   -0.84
Webb B.        208.0    3.59    4.43   -0.84
Trachsel S.    202.7    4.00    4.82   -0.82
Day Z.         116.7    3.93    4.73   -0.80
Moyer J.       202.0    5.21    5.98   -0.77
Kennedy J.     162.3    3.66    4.37   -0.71
Bell R.        123.0    4.46    5.17   -0.71
Ortiz R.       204.7    4.13    4.82   -0.68
Lilly T.       197.3    4.06    4.74   -0.68
Glavine T.     212.3    3.60    4.25   -0.65
Milton E.      201.0    4.75    5.38   -0.63
Suppan J.      188.0    4.16    4.79   -0.63
Redman M.      191.0    4.71    5.29   -0.57
Ishii K.       172.0    4.71    5.28   -0.57
Pavano C.      222.3    3.00    3.56   -0.57
Franklin R.    200.3    4.90    5.45   -0.56
Santana J.     228.0    2.61    3.16   -0.55
Buehrle M.     245.3    3.89    4.41   -0.52

Every pitcher on the “lucky line drive” list made this list, except for Rusch and Tomko. I think you’re very likely to see declining performances for most of the pitchers on both lists, as well as those at the top of this list.

As for Zack Greinke, I hope this isn’t a true indication of his fate in 2005. Royal fans could use a break.

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