Using Sabermetrics For Fantasy Baseball Part 3: Batted Ball Distribution

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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 I closed the last piece by stating that this is not the case.

Why would this be? Let's take a look, as my series on using sabermetrics for fantasy baseball analysis continues.

Editor's note: Be sure to also check out our 2017 fantasy baseball rankings dashboard. It's already loaded up with tons of great rankings articles and draft analysis. Aside from our tiered staff rankings for every position, we also go deep on MLB prospect rankings, impact rookies for 2017, and dynasty/keeper rankings as well. Bookmark the page, and win your drafts.

 

How to Interpret Batted Ball Distribution

To answer that question, let's first look at how all major leaguers fared on each of the major types of batted ball in 2016. Grounders generated a BABIP of .239. Flies were not as productive, posting a .127 figure. This makes sense, as popups almost never 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 .682 BABIP. The difference between liners and anything else is startling. Batters want line drives.

Boston Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon provided a good illustration of what a few extra liners can do in 2016. He posted a .310/.369/.476 triple slash line last year despite never showing much promise with the stick. The reason was a 24.7 percent LD rate, four full percentage points better than the league average mark of 20.7 percent. Sure, 4 percent may not seem like much, but look at the massive difference between liners and anything else above. That 4 percent was enough to make a bad hitter fantasy relevant.

Despite the sad state of AL catchers, Leon's FantasyPros ADP of 268 suggests no one is expecting a repeat. This is because a player's LD rate tends to bounce around the league average with random spikes and drops, none of which offer much predictive value moving forward. Leon's previous career best was 18.8 percent in 2015, almost three points worse than the average mark he crushed last year. Luck was almost certainly the primary driver of Leon's 2016. When BABIP is driven by luck, LD rate is usually why.

This is not to suggest that no one consistently posts above-average LD rates. For example, Joey Votto's career .366 BABIP is driven by his career 25.5 percent LD rate. Considering the length of his career, it would be stupid to suggest that Votto has enjoyed a lucky decade. Therefore, we give credit to Votto for being a plus-BABIP guy due to LD-rate skill, just like we give Jonathan Villar BABIP credit for his blinding speed. This distinction has to be earned over numerous full seasons, however. Most LD percent surges are more fluky Sandy Leon than sustainable Joey Votto.

Unlike LD rate, both GB rate and FB rate 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 2016, grounders offered a slugging percentage of .258, only slightly higher than the .239 BABIP they posted. Flies had a .715 slugging percentage, easily offsetting the lower BABIP for most fantasy players. This is why Giancarlo Stanton is so good, as his 40.6 percent career FB rate is much higher than the 2016 average of 34.6 percent. He hits with much more power as a result.

The ideal batted ball mix therefore varies with the player. Elite speedsters like Billy Hamilton want more grounders than flies, as his career 3.6 percent HR/FB despite a favorable home park is never producing a lot of homers anyway. Sluggers like Chris Davis want fly balls, especially since the shift and his lack of speed prevents him from realizing the larger BABIPs associated with grounders. Fantasy owners usually prefer players with power and speed potential to have a higher FB rate, as the extra power is more beneficial than a few extra times on base. Incidentally, line drives averaged a ridiculous .900 slugging percentage to go with the .682 BABIP in 2016, 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 driven by LD rate, a largely random stat. GB rate and FB rate 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. Next up, we'll look at the other major component of a player's batting average: plate discipline.