Luck: Good and bad news NYY fans

“You know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is?  It’s 25 hits.  25 hits in 500 at-bats is 50 points, OK?  There’s six months in a season.  That’s about 25 weeks.  That means if you get just one extra flare a week – just ONE – a gork, a ground ball, a ground ball with eyes!  You get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week and you’re in Yankee Stadium.”

Crash Davis

I was actually aware of the understated impact randomness had on baseball well before Crash gave the speech above.  Fans love their small sample sizes and they love their notions of “clutch” and other imaginary nonsense, but the reality is randomness and luck are a huge part of the game – way more than most fans want to admit.  I could’ve told you this when I was a teenager who spent hours upon hours playing Strat-O-Matic in the eighties when I noted Wade Boggs’ 1983 through 1985 seasons.  His batting average went from .361 in ’83 down to .325 in ’84 then back up to .368 in ’85.

I narrowed it down to two possibilities:  A) One of the best hitters any of us have ever seen just completely forgot how to hit for an entire season, then remembered again the following season, or B) he hit into some really bad luck in 1984.

I went with “B”.  And to be clear, Boggs’ case was not an unusual one.  Many position players and pitchers have seasons that are aberrations. And yes, I get that unpublicized injuries and philosophical approaches can be factors, but quite often it’s good old fashioned luck.  Quite often, it really is just one dying quail a week.

With that in mind, I’ve always liked Batting Average on Balls in Play as a good barometer of randomness.  If a player has a BABIP much higher than his career average, it’s probably (probably, not definitely) due to his batted balls going in the direction of grass and not fielders – ground balls with eyes and dying quails.  If a batter has a BABIP much lower than his career average, it’s certainly possible (likely?) many batted balls, even if they are well hit, headed right toward fielders’ gloves.  (Side note:  You have to compare a player’s BABIP to his own career averages, not to league averages or other players.  Players like Judge and Stanton will naturally have high BABIP because when they put it in play, generally speaking, the ball is hit very, very hard.)

With that in mind, I looked to see if there were Yankees that had noticeable changes in their 2019 BABIP when compared to their career numbers, and here’s what I found:

Gio Urshela.  Over his three previous seasons, Gio had BABIP of .266, .256 and .281.  Last season it was .349.  Three.  Forty.  Nine.  (Insert cringe, wipe nervous sweat from brow.)  That’s bad.  On the surface that would suggest Gio has a big crash to earth coming in 2020.

But we all know Gio was better at…well…everything last season.  Is it possible he made a tactical change that he can maintain?  My first thought was to see how hard he hit the ball last season compared to others.  Because as we mentioned about Judge and Stanton above and as common sense would dictate (unless you’re Matt Versagian, who doesn’t understand this concept) the harder you hit the ball, the better your chances of getting a hit.

In Gio’s three previous seasons, Gio had 378 batted balls and an average exit velocity of 86.6 mph.  Last season he had 359 batted balls and a 90.5 mph average exit velocity.  That’s good news.  That suggests he made some changes, got better and simply hits the ball harder now.

But still, the jump in BABIP is staggering.  My best guess?  Gio is a much better hitter than he showed prior to last season, and is in fact, a good everyday player.  But expect to see a regression and a drop in performance from his great 2019.

Brett Gardner.  Good news, folks.  Gardner had his best season in 2019, so I was assuming there was some good fortune involved.  In reality, he had a .265 BABIP last season, down 40 points from his career average.  So not only did Gardner not get many dying quails, but he likely hit many balls right at fielders. (This would also explain his 2019 OBP being lower than his career average.) Given that his average exit velocity was up a tick last year compared to his career average would also suggest that simple assumption is probably accurate.

Unless Gardner gets old overnight, which is always a possibility, expect another very productive season from him.

Oh, by the way, are you worried about DJ?  Don’t be.  As I wrote last year, DJ actually showed improvement back in 2018, but had a bad luck season and didn’t have a lot to show for it.  Last season’s BABIP was more or less in line with his career average.

Did I miss something?  Let me know.

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