Ike Davis and BABIP: Should This Really Be a Story?
As I wrote last week, Ike Davis has been pretty good since his return. He’s hit .306/.482/.447 since coming back from Las Vegas. He’s third in the majors with a 209 wRC+ (and eighth with 1.2 fWAR) since the All-Star Break. He’s reached base 26 times in 38 plate appearances so far in August (among a Franchise-Record tying 12 straight starts in which he’s reached base twice) with 15 walks and only 6 strikeouts. Instead of talking about Ike’s recent dominance, the conversation has taken a negative spin. Why? Alongside that .306 batting average is a through-the-roof .417 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). For reference, the MLB average BABIP this year is .296, and has hovered between .293 – .303 each year since 2000.
Aug. 11, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA: New York Mets base runner Ike Davis (29) celebrates with catcher Anthony Recker after scoring in the first inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
BABIP, of course, isn’t so simple. Just because that’s the norm doesn’t mean that a player can’t be well above that line. Derek Jeter has a career BABIP of .354 for example. Mike Trout has a sky-high .378 BABIP over the past two seasons, but that’s only the third best mark over that span – behind Joey Votto‘s .391 and Chris Johnson‘s .383. That said, Ike Davis clearly isn’t a guy who portrays high average, so it seems particularly anomalous.
But let’s look into it, maybe?
In July, Ike hit a modest (albeit discipline-icious) .242/.382/.355 with 1 home run and 18 strikeouts in 62 at bats. The calculation for BABIP, quite simply, is in its name – Batting Average on Balls in Play. To calculate, keep in mind that home runs and strikeouts aren’t considered in play, and that sacrifice flies – while not recorded as at bats – are still the result of balls put into play. So the formula is simply (Hits – Home Runs) / (At Bats – Home Runs – Strikeouts + Sacrifice Flies). Ike got 14 hits (15 H – 1 HR) on 43 balls in play (62 AB – 18 K – 1 HR) in July, giving him a BABIP of .326.
Taking it further, we can use Ike’s batted ball profile (things like his line drive rate, ground ball / fly ball rate, etc.) to develop an expected BABIP (xBABIP) – to see if someone’s overperforming their expectations. If someone’s xBABIP is well below the actual, it suggests that a player has been lucky, and will regress. If it’s well above the actual, it suggests the opposite. This article details the specific formula through which xBABIP can be derived, but it’s fairly monotonous and knowing the exact numbers isn’t necessarily important right now. Plugging Ike’s July information in, we see that his xBABIP is .323, which is virtually identical to the expected value!
What does this mean? Well, it suggests that Ike’s July numbers weren’t the result of luck. But what about August?
So far this month, Ike’s got 11 hits on 17 balls in play – a whopping .647 number that’s hard to match. And, indeed, the .298 xBABIP he’s sporting does indeed suggest significant regression. But here’s the thing – it’s virtually meaningless. Why? Because it’s a sample of 17 balls put into play. Fangraphs suggests that BABIP doesn’t stabilize until a whopping 820 balls in play, so we’re looking at roughly 2% of a reliable sample. Beyond that, we’re still at the point where we can say things like “Hey, remember when Ike blooped that double against the Rockies?” or “Last night Ike floated one barely beyond the reach of Andre Ethier.” And it bears significance, because without those two hits his BABIP would drop a full 118 points!
What *is* important to note, is that Ike Davis will not be hitting .478 for the rest of his career, let alone the rest of August. His BABIP will, expectedly, drop toward the norm. But that in itself isn’t reason for pessimism, and here’s three reasons why:
Aug 2, 2013; New York, NY, USA; New York Mets first baseman Ike Davis (29) hits a single against the Kansas City Royals during the second inning of a game at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
1. Home runs aren’t counted toward BABIP (because, as we alluded to above, the stands are not part of the playing field). Ike hasn’t hit many – just one since the All-Star Break. Many have pointed out that this is much the result of Ike not getting pitches to hit. And where, early on, Ike would end up flailing wildly at breaking pitches in the righty batters’ box, he simply isn’t anymore. And it shows, especially in his 6:15 K:BB ratio this month, and the fact that he’s walked in 25.4% of his plate appearances since his return to the majors. Eventually, because of this, he’s going to begin to get pitches to hit, and we know what Ike can do to a fastball.
2. Ike’s plate discipline. Ike’s always been a guy who draws a fair share of walks (his 12% career walk rate ranks 20th in the MLB since 2010), but he’s turned it on quite a bit of late. The reason for this, of course, hasn’t been the result of him trying to walk but just him trying not to do too much. Pitchers don’t throw him strikes? He’s not swinging at balls anymore. Before he was demoted, 61.3% of the pitches Ike saw were strikes (be they called, whiffed, or fouled). Since his return? 52.6%. With a walk rate nearing 15% on the season, Ike’s batting average could take a hit and he could still post an excellent on base percentage because of his willingness to shrink the strike zone. Ike’s willingness to lay off bad pitches (and, in extension, his willingness to attack pitches he likes) has reasonably led to better, stronger contact and a better average. Tying back into point one, as he begins to see more pitches in the zone, his walk rate will likely drop (and BABIP, if for nothing else but regression) but both will likely come hand-in-hand with an uptick in his power numbers.
3. Ike’s BABIP on the season is still below where it’s expected. Trends are meaningful. If a guy is hot for a few weeks, it’s worth recognizing, especially when it follows a prolonged cold streak. But, as we noted above with BABIP stabilization, we still need a fairly large sample. Ike’s overall BABIP in 2013 is .284 (50 hits on 175 balls in play). His xBABIP currently is exactly .300. 16 points isn’t much (3 more hits, based on the current sample), but it suggests that Ike likely won’t regress to where he was in April and May.
There are a lot of questions surrounding Ike’s future with the Mets – Can he be consistent for a full season? Can he be the defender we thought he could be after a gold glove worthy rookie campaign? Will he ever hit left handed pitching (and, by extension, will he ever get that opportunity)? Don’t let his recent BABIP spike be one of them. It’s not some specter conjured up to tell you that Ike’s recent success is a ruse; it’s a number that’s been artificially inflated by an Oliver Perez-esque walk rate (which, in this case, is a good thing) and an 8-16 stretch over his past six games. That’s it.
Let Ike play baseball, and worry about the numbers when there are enough of them to mean something.
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