The other day I wrote an article using advanced statistic BABIP to identify players struggling with a prolonged stretch of bad luck this season. Today, we will determine some of the most fortunate and are prime candidates for some regression as the season continues.
Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is the average of all plate appearances excluding strikeouts, home runs, and walks. The stat tells how much of a player’s production level results from either good or bad luck. This is false, as low or high BABIP can be justified in certain situations. However, there are factors that can be identified to figure out if a BABIP distant from the league average is indeed a result of luck.
Statistics Used to Identify the “Luckiest” Players
I don’t like saying “lucky” regarding professional athletes being successful because that is kind of crazy, so from here on out, I will refer to it as “good fortune.” With the league average BABIP currently, at .297, any hitter 30 points or higher than that may result from good fortune.
There are three categories used to decipher this based on comparing the league averages. Those categories are line drive rate (24.0%), hard-hit rate (39.9%), and pull percentage (30.1%) to that of the analyzed player. I will refer to these moving forward as the “significant categories.” The combined total percentage of home runs, strikeouts, and walks are also being used, as well as career numbers.
Currently, 40 players are 30 points higher than the league average BABIP. I took those 40 and began eliminating players based on factors that could logically justify a high BABIP. The first thing I did was remove Luis Arraez from the list. What this guy is doing right now is such a statistical anomaly. It simply wouldn’t make sense to compare it to other players. That is another story for another day, though.
I eliminated everyone with a combined home run, strike out, and walk percentage of 45% or more. These players aren’t hitting the ball into the field of play enough for their BABIP to be significant. Guys like Brandon Marsh and Ryan Noda put the ball in play less than half the time they get to the plate. They are not having seasons you’d call particularly fortunate, even though they have two of the highest BABIPs in the league.
Players with a line drive rate over 30% and are at league average or higher in the other categories were removed. This eliminated most star players, such as MVP candidates Freddie Freeman and Bo Bichette. Players in the top 20 percent of the league in hard-hit percentage were removed as well.
Additional Data Points
Sprint speed is a new stat being brought into the equation for this study that was not used in the previous article as it is more of an explanation for high BABIP than low. Players with elite speed can get more hits than slower players, as they are more like to beat throws to rack up infield hits on ground balls. Players with a sprint speed in the top 20 percent of the league AND had a ground ball percentage above the league average were removed. Doing this took the likes of Leody Taveras off of the list.
Of those remaining, I checked their career stats. If players were within 10 points of last year’s BABIP (Joey Meneses) or have had multiple recent seasons in which they also had very high BABIP (J.D. Davis), I did not include them either.
Who are the Most Fortunate Hitters of 2023?
Now that the list of 40 has been narrowed down to five. The following are the five most fortunate hitters right now.
5. Lane Thomas: BABIP .361
A pleasant surprise for fantasy owners this year, Lane Thomas is now owned in 75% of Yahoo leagues. His .290 batting average exceeded expectations for a player who came into the year with a career average below .250. Unfortunately, he will start to look like the 2022 Lane Thomas sooner rather than later. Thomas is in the top 10 percent of the league in sprint speed, so he is at number 5, not higher. He has about league average in groundballs, so he does have the propensity for infield singles, but not at a high enough amount that it would entirely negate his very high BABIP.
Thomas is at the league average for all his batted ball statistics, including line drive and hard-hit rate. Having at or near the league average in these categories should translate to being at or near the league average BABIP of .297. Therefore, his very high BABIP doesn’t make much sense, especially considering it was only .291 last year and has never been higher than .325 any other year. The speed factor will keep him fantasy relevant, but I expect the batting average to dip.
4. Whit Merrifield: BABIP .357
Whit Merrifield is having a resurgence this season with Toronto after a few rough seasons in which many thought he was washed. His batting average is right now is .300, 50 points higher than last year. He is hitting an elite line drive rate of over 31%, but his hard hit rate (26.9%) and pull rate (21.9%) are meager. Even though he is in the 88 percentile for sprint speed, his ground ball rate is well below the league average. Historically, Merrifield has always been below league average in these areas. Still, his numbers are especially low this year, even by those standards.
In his prime, Merrifield regularly put up a BABIP of over .350 however has not come anywhere close since 2019. In comparing Whit’s 2023 significant stats to 2019, the last year he had a .350 BABIP, it looks like a bit of good fortune this year. 2019 Merrifield had a much higher hard-hit rate of 31.2%, a higher line drive rate, a lower fly ball rate, and a notably higher pull rate. The power was also much better, almost three times the home run rate. In short, Merrifield was a much better player in 2019 than he is now. His 2019 batting average was only 2 points higher than what he is currently hitting in 2023. That leads me to believe that even though he is back to being a relevant fantasy option, he will likely regress to around the .280 range by the season’s end.
3. Thairo Estrada: BABIP .352
As a Yankee fan, I always have a soft spot for the Baby Bombers teams, so it was nice to see Thairo Estrada having a breakout year. Unfortunately, the numbers indicate it may not last much longer. There seems not to be any explanation for why his BABIP is so high. His line drive rate is slightly above the league average, but his hard-hit rate is quite low at 33.7%. The line drive rate is four percent higher than his career average, while his hard hit rate is rated at what he has been doing for his career.
Estrada is fast but is still outside the top 20 percent in sprint speed. That, combined with the fact he is hitting ground balls at the lowest rate of his career, makes the possibility of infield singles not enough to be significant. Speaking of his career numbers, this is Estrada’s fifth season, and he has yet to surpass a BABIP of .290 in the previous four. His 2023 BABIP of .352 looks like an outlier that should soon see some regression closer to the mean.
2. Nick Castellanos: BABIP .402
Nick Castellanos has become a notorious internet meme for having awful luck regarding the timing of his big hits over the years. Well, in 2023, he has had a reversal of fortunes, albeit this is solely baseball related and not a meme. Before the 2022 season, Castellanos signed with the Phillies as a highly coveted free agent coming off of a career year. However, his first season in Philadelphia left much to be desired for Phillie fans and fantasy owners alike. 2023 is an entirely different story, though. Castellanos is sixth in the MLB with a .315 batting average and is a top-20 fantasy player. He has been a big reason the underperforming Phillies are still in the thick of the playoff race.
His BABIP indicates that he could take a step back, unfortunately. Hard-hit rate of 45% is good, but only in the top tier for some of the league. His line drive and pull rate are slightly higher than the league average. While this is respectable, nothing can justify having a tremendous 105 difference from the mean BABIP. In fact, Castellanos’s numbers are quite similar to that of Francisco Lindor. Lindor was deemed the unluckiest player in the league. Despite the matching numbers, Castellanos has a BABIP that is a massive 168 points higher than Lindor’s .234. Let’s expect the gap between the two to close more moving forward.
1. Austin Hays: BABIP .407
Writing this is getting depressing because I feel as if I’m raining on the parade of great stories. This is particularly upsetting to write, as Austin Hays is amid an incredible hot stretch that has led to him becoming the current AL batting leader. His play is helping Baltimore maintain the top wild card spot while star centerfielder Cedric Mullins is on the Injured List. The numbers say that this meteoric rise for Hays will come back down to Earth soon and hard.
Of everybody on this list, Hays is the only one with a below-average line drive rate. It is considerably lower at 21%, as is his pull rate. His hard-hit rate is solid but needs to be top-tier. What really sticks out is his flyball rate. Fly balls in play (nonhome runs) are the most likely outs when analyzing batted balls. Hays has a flyball rate of 34%, eight percent higher than the league average. Not only is that the highest flyball rate on the list by far, but it is also the thirteenth highest in the entire league. Many of the worst BABIP guys in the league are among the only batters ahead of him in that category.