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Hitter Batted-Ball Distribution: Using Sabermetrics for Fantasy Baseball

Fly balls can turn into home runs. Ground balls never do. It would seem as though fantasy owners want their batters to hit nothing but flies, yet this is not always the case.

Why would this be? The answer, of course, comes down to batted ball distribution and how batters make contact. The league average batted ball distribution in 2021 was 20.7% line drives, 42.9% ground balls, and 36.5% fly balls. Most individual players vary from this standard breakdown, providing insight into their fantasy viability.

The best place to find a hitter's batted ball distribution is by searching them on FanGraphs and scrolling to the fifth chart, "Batted Ball." It's the same chart we used to look at HR/FB in our previous article. Now that you know where to find this information, let's look at how to interpret it.

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The Value of Line Drives

Let's first look at how all major leaguers fared on each of the major types of a batted ball in 2021. Grounders generated a BABIP of .236. Flies were not as productive, posting a .115 figure. This makes sense, as pop-ups seldom fall in, cans of corns to the outfield are only slightly better, and homers are considered out of play and do not count toward BABIP. Line drives turned into base hits far more frequently than either of the others, posting a .678 BABIP. The difference between liners and anything else is startling. Batters want line drives.

Teoscar Hernandez's stellar 2021 provides a good illustration of what a few extra liners can do. Long known in fantasy circles as a guy with decent pop who will probably hurt your batting average, Hernandez put together a career year that included a .296/.346/.524 line on the strength of a .352 BABIP with a 25.5 LD%. He did something similar in 2020, hitting .289/.340/.579 with a .348 BABIP and 25.8 LD% in the shortened campaign.

Outside of those two seasons, Hernandez has paired average LD% rates (21.6% career) with slightly above-average BABIP marks (.324 career including the last two seasons). When BABIP is driven by luck, LD% is usually why. If Hernandez's LD% regresses in 2022, he will probably disappoint fantasy managers in the average department.

This is not to suggest that no one consistently posts above-average LD% rates. For example, Joey Votto's career .342 BABIP is driven by his career 25.7 LD%. Considering the length of his career, it would be stupid to suggest that Votto has enjoyed a lucky decade-plus. Therefore, we give credit to Votto for being a plus-BABIP guy due to a LD% skill, just like we give Starling Marte BABIP credit for his blinding speed. This distinction has to be earned over numerous full seasons, however. Most LD% surges are more fluky Teoscar Hernandez than sustainable Joey Votto.

 

Which Is Better: Ground Balls or Fly Balls?

Unlike LD%, both GB% and FB% are stickier--a player with an elevated rate in one is likely to repeat a similar rate moving forward. By BABIP alone, grounders are better. However, this changes significantly if slugging percentage is considered. In 2021, grounders offered a slugging percentage of .259, only slightly higher than the .236 BABIP they posted. Flies had a .721 slugging percentage, easily offsetting the lower BABIP for most fantasy players. Sluggers like Shohei Ohtani who lift the ball at an exceptional rate have a built-in slugging advantage because of their batted ball profiles.

The ideal batted ball mix, therefore, varies with the player. Elite speedsters want more grounders than flies as they don't have the oomph to hit a lot of homers regardless. One-dimensional sluggers want fly balls, especially since the shift and a lack of speed prevent them from realizing the larger BABIPs associated with grounders anyway. Fantasy owners usually prefer players with power and speed potential to have a higher FB%, as the extra power is more beneficial than a few extra times on base.

Incidentally, line drives averaged a ridiculous .894 slugging percentage to go with their .678 BABIP in 2021, so they are still the batted ball of choice.

 

Conclusion

To conclude, line drives are by far the most productive result for hitters. BABIP's luck-driven fluctuations are frequently driven by LD%, a largely random stat. GB% and FB% are more predictive, and which one is favored depends on the hitter in question. Grounders offer a higher BABIP, but almost zero power. Flies result in base hits less often, but generate much more power when they do.

The intricacies of BABIP could be a never-ending topic, but the information provided so far is generally enough for fantasy purposes. Stay tuned to learn about some other metrics that can help you predict a player's future performance.




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