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The Rays And Regression: 2011 xBABIP Notables

After yet another loss to the not-that-great Orioles, we Rays fans have to wonder whether parts of our lineup are just plain broken. Well, one of the tools that really helps us is xBABIP. A player's batting average on balls in play, or BABIP, tends to normalize at a very specific range (somewhere between .250 to .330). Several significant factors influence BABIP (such as speed and line drive percentage), but the chief factor is luck -- especially in a season's early going.

So we can use expected BABIP (or xBABIP) to try to predict where luck has dealt a fiendish hand to the hitters. God did not hand down a transcendent xBABIP formula on Mount Sinai, so there are a variety ways and formulas for finding xBABIP out there. I don't always use xBABIP, but when I do, I use Chris Dutton's xBABIP.

Let's look at some notable players on the Rays roster.

All these numbers are as of yesterday, before the beginning of the the game. The ultimate difference should be minimal, however, after just one game.

Reid Brignac -- .239 BABIP / .306 xBABIP / .303 career BABIP
The Rays have thus far gotten more production in just a handful of Elliot Johnson plate appearances than they have from almost 100 appearances from Brignac. That is a bad sign for the Cajun, who also sits at 0.0 runs above average defensively (per UZR).

Behold the silver lining! Dutton's xBABIP suggests Briggy has been a touch unlucky and is a legitimate regression candidate. As far as silver linings go, though, that's not much. Briggy sports a career .278 wOBA, which is around what we anticipate he should return to -- maybe .300 if he develops a little. Maybe league average (.320ish) if he develops a lot.

Casey Kotchman -- .356 BABIP / .319 xBABIP / .271 career BABIP
As many of you know, anytime a writer says something mildly positive about Kotchman, Steve Slowinski leaves said writer an expletive-filled voicemail detailing how wrong the writer is. At risk of yet again enraging the oft-ireful Steve, I'm going to go a head and say, "A .319 xBABIP is pretty dang nifty!"

If Kotch can avoid plummeting to the depths of his career BABIP (which is now about 90 points lower than his 2011 BABIP), then he could easily sport a .380 OBP and be a legit contributor on offense as well as defense.

HOWEVER: I became immensely suspicious when Kotch's Magic BABIP came back a whopping 50 points higher than his career norm. So I ran his career numbers through Dutton's xBABIP and the results were a big let down: Despite his career BABIP being in the .270s, xBABIP says his career numbers should be in the .320s. More than likely, this means Kotchman's speed (which is well below average) and base running ability (again, also below average) render his otherwise impressive xBABIP meaningless.

Hopefully 2011 is the year that all changes, but Kotch would need lots. And lots. And lots. Of magic.

Dan Johnson -- .140 BABIP / .283 xBABIP / .244 career BABIP
Woof. That's all we can say about Johnson's season thus far. Last year, he had a terrible BABIP through 140 plate appearances (he's had 81 thus far in 2011), but he was still able to produce via walks and homers. This year, he's been just flat-out unproductive.

If we put Johnson's career numbers into the xBABIP calculator, we get a similar situation to the Kotchman one, where it appears his skill set leads to an over-zealous BABIP forecast (xBABIP says .300 when it really was .244). By extension, it seems like we could apply a 56 point penalty to his present xBABIP, bringing him into the .220s range for 2011.

Here's the deal with Johnson: His hitting has been above average in three separate major league seasons, but in those seasons, he received everyday PAs. He's not getting that here in the majors right now, so his production will liklely remain painfully low until something opens up or he goes down to Durham. (Also, facing only lefties is certainly not helping either.)

Matt Joyce -- .414 BABIP / .333 xBABIP / .302 career BABIP
The Rays young out-fielding stud has a ridiculous ~30% line drive percentage. With that, he's got a crazy good BABIP (.414) -- but, whoa!, slow down here! No one -- and I mean no one -- sustains a .400 BABIP. Dutton's xBABIP helps us tone that down a little -- .333 is still good, but not unreasonable if he continues to hit this way.

Which brings me to my next point: Will he continue to hit this way?

I don't know, it's hard to believe I guy can destroy pitches as a 30% rate for a whole season. Even Jose Bautista is hitting 17.8% this year (excluding his ridiculous three home run game on Sunday). As a season progresses, even batted ball data changes. Right now, Kotchman appears to be hitting a lot of line drives and Johnson appears to be hitting a lot of pop ups. We cannot reasonably expect this will continue forever -- both pitchers and hitters are constantly getting into funks or making little adjustments (for better and worse).

So no, I do not think it is reasonable for us to say, "Matt Joyce has become a line drive robot, eating the souls of fastballs and spitting out nothing but frozen ropes."

John Jaso -- .224 BABIP / .304 BABIP / .271 career BABIP
Here's another case where, like Dan Johnson, last year's success has meant little in the way of this year's BABIP. In addition to Jaso's walk percentage nearly halving, the left-handed catcher has also undergone a severe BABIP reduction, so much so that we must suspect bad luck is afoot.

Indeed, Jaso's xBABIP reports an impending regression, which should not surprise those who have watched him this year -- his line drive rate is up 2 percentage points!

Step One for Jaso's offensive renaissance: Walk more. His BABIP will come around, but if his walks do not, then it will not matter much because Jose Lobaton will be using his locker before the season finishes.