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Jeremy Hellickson doesn’t believe in BABIP. Which is fine, because he doesn’t have to.

Mar 15, 2012, 8:23 AM EDT

Jeremy Hellickson Getty Images

Interesting article in the Tampa Bay Times. Marc Topkin spoke to Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson about BABIP — batting average on balls in play.

The idea of BABIP, in case you’re unfamiliar, is that a pitcher can control walks, strikeouts and homers, but once the ball is in play, the fates and team defense have a bigger bearing on whether it’s a hit or not. This has been shown to be out of control of the pitcher by virtue of it not being a predictable stat. Meaning that the batting average on balls in play allowed by any one pitcher varies wildly from year-to-year.

That part of it is often referred to as a pitcher having “good luck.” I kind of don’t like that because most folks in our society — especially athletes — don’t like thinking that the things they do are the result of luck. At least the positive things. They like to believe it’s all innate skill and moxie, so when you refer to things as being a function of luck, they bristle. That’s what Hellickson did too:

“Yea, I just got lucky on the mound,” Jeremy Hellickson says dryly. “A lot of lucky outs … I hear it; it’s funny,” Hellickson said, not quite sure of the acronym. “I thought that’s what we’re supposed to do, let them put it in play and get outs. So I don’t really understand that. When you have a great defense, why not let them do their job? I’m not really a strikeout pitcher; I just get weak contact and let our defense play … I can either handle my business or I don’t …”

Some of my statistically-oriented friends may make light of Hellickson’s comments here. And will definitely make fun of another one he makes at the end of the article — “Wins are by far the most important stat” — but I don’t think that’s warranted. It would be if the words came from an analyst or anyone else trying to objectively assess Hellickson’s performance for, say, awards purposes, Hall of Fame purposes or the like.  But when the athlete himself says it, who cares?

While collecting wins does not make Hellickson a better pitcher objectively speaking, Hellickson’s job is to get outs and, ultimately, help the team win games. It matters no more that he fully understands and appreciates BABIP theory than it matters that an eagle understands aerodynamics.  They do what they do and they try to do it the best they can. Leave it to the analysts — both on the outside and those inside the Rays organization — to figure out why it happened and predict whether it can happen again.

But I would ask Mr. Hellickson one small favor:  if you’re not going to credit the happenstance of a good batting average on balls in play for your success in 2011, please don’t let us find you being quoted someplace about all the bad luck you had,  if your BABIP goes haywire in 2012, OK?

  1. Gobias Industries - Mar 15, 2012 at 8:28 AM

    You’re suggesting that this guy can’t control the ball once its in play?! It’s called mind control, Craigers. Look into it. Perhaps you’ve never seen a lil’ ol’ arthouse called Star Wars?!

    • mcsnide - Mar 15, 2012 at 8:33 AM

      These are not the hits you’re looking for.

    • Francisco (FC) - Mar 15, 2012 at 8:36 AM

      I saw Chevy Chase do this in Caddyshack, it’s quite possible Jeremy has mastered the art. Just imagine him throwing from the mound and going: Be the ball… Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na…

  2. jasoncollette - Mar 15, 2012 at 8:37 AM

    He’s consistent in his comments; said the same thing to another paper on March 5th

    • Francisco (FC) - Mar 15, 2012 at 9:04 AM

      If there’s anything you want a starting pitcher to be, it’s being consistent!

  3. clarenceoveur - Mar 15, 2012 at 8:42 AM

    I know this will sound like Luddite Stats Heresy, or something like that, but he’s probably right. Certainly as it applies to himself. He’s pretty consistently outperformed his peripherals in the minors and his 1st yr+ on the Rays.Some guys can induce generally weaker contact and to this point he looks like one of them.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 15, 2012 at 9:36 AM

      but he’s probably right

      Except he’s sort of not. 10 years ago Voros McCracken showed, via DIPS Theory, that most pitchers really don’t have much control. One case in McCracken’s point is the back to back absurd seasons Pedro Martinez put up in ’99 and ’00. Look at his peripherals:

      ’99 – 13.2 K/9, 1.56 B/9, 1.74 ERA, .323 BABIP
      ’00 – 11.8 K/9, 1.33 BB/9, 2.39 ERA, .236 BABIP

      Both of those are the extremes (full season stats) of his career. After Voros, Tom Tango refined DIPS into FIP which fangraphs uses.

      Now, the latest research shows that certain pitches have more control over the outcome than others (Rivera for instance). However, it’s not that some pitchers have 0 control and those, like Rivera, have 100% control. The pitchers who tend to produce weak contact tend to have lower than expected BABIPs. For a more indepth look, here’s Mike Fast’s Baseball Prospectus article from 11/22/11:

      His conclusion:
      The reasons that balls fall for hits are complex. We saw in the previous article that pitchers have significant control over how hard batted balls are hit. We saw here that the speed of the batted ball interacts with the vertical launch angle to determine whether the ball is likely to fall for hit….

      Further research is also needed to better understand and quantify what pitchers and batters are doing to create weakly-hit or solidly-hit batted balls. There are many potential avenues of investigation. Certainly, factors such as pitch location, type, and speed could be important. Batter stances, swing planes, and swing speeds could also be important factors, though they are more difficult to measure. Ultimately, a model of the ball-bat collision utilizing data about the incoming pitch trajectory and outgoing batted-ball trajectory could be the most useful explanatory tool.

      • APBA Guy - Mar 15, 2012 at 12:59 PM

        Clubhouse Confidential has been consistent in referring to an individual pitcher’s “baseline” for BABIP, a notion that recognizes that there exists an as yet unquantified influence by an individual pitcher on the their line drive rate, and the correlation of line drive rate to BABIP.

        Using Pitchfx to analyze this stuff will probably lead to something like a Schrodinger’s equation, but the research does point to individual pitcher variability in BABIP, so that throughout their careers, some pitchers, like Tim Hudson, will have consistently lower BABIP than the .300 norm, yet still have sizeable variability in other performance metrics.

  4. stex52 - Mar 15, 2012 at 8:48 AM

    I have a bit of a problem with the statistic myself, but I will try to be a little more rigorous about it. Many pitchers have a clear tendency toward ground balls; are they really systematically equivalent to fly ball pitchers in BABIP? It is pretty counter-intuitive if they are. I know that a lot of teams with the smaller fields don’t regard them as equivalent.

    I don’t claim to be much into the statistics of it; not sure I would be that interested in anything but the results. But BABIP is one I have more problems buying into without some data and explanations.

    • paperlions - Mar 15, 2012 at 9:01 AM

      Ground ball pitchers tend to have a slightly higher BABIP because ground balls (even weak ones) have a greater chance of being a hit than fly balls. BABIP is only batting average, it doesn’t account for double plays or slugging. Ground ball pitchers give up fewer HRs and get more DPs, so they are more likely to “outperform” (in terms of runs allowed) their BABIP than fly ball pitchers.

      • stex52 - Mar 15, 2012 at 9:59 AM

        Thanks for the explanation. Now, what do we use BABIP for? Is it a way to normalize performances between otherwise equivalent-looking pitchers? And if certain types of pitchers tend to “outperform” the statistic, doesn’t that mean it has a rather limited application?

        Always appreciate your responses.

      • stex52 - Mar 15, 2012 at 10:01 AM

        Just read church’s comments above. That may help answer these questions.

      • seanmk - Mar 15, 2012 at 11:04 AM

        it’s not totally true that GB pitchers give up less home runs. It’s more apt to say that good pitchers tend to give up less home runs, and if anything it’s shown that high GB pitchers can give up more home runs with their fly balls, probably because they can’t live up in the zone and their mistakes get crushed. Of course the parks they play at have a factor as well.

      • paperlions - Mar 15, 2012 at 11:45 AM

        BABIP is just used to determine if a pitcher’s performance over a particular stretch of time represents true performance or natural variation (i.e. good luck or bad luck) in chance that can be expected to change in the future.

  5. jerseypatriot76 - Mar 15, 2012 at 8:51 AM

    It is nice to see that Jeremy, at a young age gets what playing a team sport is all about, winning. Stats are useful more to the people who do not actually play the game. Who really remembers what their OPS was when they played the game? But, you never forget a big game that either you won or lost.

    • paperlions - Mar 15, 2012 at 9:02 AM

      Wins are the most important stat, for the team. Pitcher wins are not an important indicator of anything about performance of a particular pitcher.

  6. Jonny 5 - Mar 15, 2012 at 8:56 AM

    BABIP does not believe in Jeremy Hellickson either.

  7. randomdigits - Mar 15, 2012 at 9:04 AM

    I wouldn’t believe in BABIP or FIP either if they told me that I had a total luck sack of a season last year.

    Now if my FIP was a run lower then my ERA, I would believe in it big time.

  8. megary - Mar 15, 2012 at 9:05 AM

    Hellickson is more of a fly ball pitcher (at least he was last year) and yes, flyball pitchers will generally have a lower BABIP than ground ball pitchers simply because they are more easily tunred into outs. Still a .231 BABIP is not sustainable, regardless how fantastic the Rays defense.

    This doesn’t mean that Hellickson will be worse this year than last year however, because it doesn’t take into account a normal growth curve for a pitcher his age.

    I think his bigger problem is that he walked way too many hitters given that he doesn’t strike enough out. Jose Molina will help him get more strike threes, though. As good as any other catcher in framing the ball.

  9. phukyouk - Mar 15, 2012 at 9:25 AM

    soooooooo.. it’s like santa clause to him?

  10. papacrick - Mar 15, 2012 at 9:50 AM

    I agree with him. Some guys hit it harder than others. I’m gonna go on a limb and guess that Miguel Cabrera’s career babip is higher than Ozzie Guillen’s. This really is a stupid stat

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 15, 2012 at 9:59 AM

      This really is a stupid stat

      Why is it a stupid stat?

      • stex52 - Mar 15, 2012 at 10:05 AM

        “Stupid” might be a strong word. But I just read your comment above. It does sound like the present analysis is that it is limited in its usefullness. If some pitchers do have some control over results, then we need a better model.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 15, 2012 at 10:16 AM

        If some pitchers do have some control over results, then we need a better model.

        We do, but unfortunately this is the best we can do with the information at hand. It was far easier for Voros, 10+ years ago, to look at the basic information available, and be peer reviewed, and have people unable to disprove his theory.

        Now with the proliferation of pitch f/x, and those who have access to hit f/x, we are able to come to more refined conclusions than before, and end up with articles like Mike’s that I posted above [unfortunately Mike was an excel wiz and pitch f/x guru who was hired away from BP to the Astros, so he won’t be writing any more articles like that =\].

        However, too many people look at BABIP as some magical predictive stat and make claims like: Pitcher X’s BABIP was far below normal, he’s going to regress the following year and be worse. Or Pitcher Y’s BABIP was far above normal, he’s going to regress the following year and be far better.

        Either way, people are looking at the BABIP solely and trying to draw conclusions based on it, rather than look at the underlying causes. Does the individual have a usually lower/higher BABIP than normal? Does the pitcher generate a ton of groundballs/popups? Did the pitcher change his repertoire? All of these could have direct effects on BABIP not just regression.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 15, 2012 at 10:18 AM

        Doh, paragraph three I should have used average instead of normal, meaning average across baseball rather than the pitcher’s normal BABIP. Sorry for the confusion

      • stex52 - Mar 15, 2012 at 10:34 AM

        Let’s hope BP’s loss is the Astros’ gain. God knows they need help.

        I should have recognized his name in your post.

    • jwbiii - Mar 15, 2012 at 11:58 AM

      papacrick, Nobody is arguing that BABIP bounces up and down around something close to the MLB average for hitters; only for pitchers. The largest part of BABIP for hitters is how often they hit line drives. Miguel Cabrera hits an above average number of line drives; Brandon Inge (Sorry, no data for Ozzie Guillen) hits a below average number of line drives. I would bet that Miguel Cabrera will have a higher BABIP than Brandon Inge.

      For pitchers, over the course of hundreds of innings, this difference should even out, which is what Voros McCracken found. Is Jeremy Hellickson’s career .230 BABIP over 225 innings a Small Sample Size Theater production or a real, repeatable skill? Stay tuned.

  11. superpriebe - Mar 15, 2012 at 12:03 PM

    I think you’ve overlooked the double standard that it’s okay to be the victim of bad luck, but almost everything good is due to skill. I’m thinking here of Crash Davis explaining the difference between hitting .250 and .300

    “That means if you get just one extra flare a week – just one – a gorp… you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes… you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week… and you’re in Yankee Stadium.”

    When JH is victimized in almost this exact manner by bad luck this year, he will certainly feel he was unlucky…and he will be right.

    Here’s what I wonder: Would JH be willing to agree that hitters who faced him last summer were unlucky. After all, they did not benefit from the usual number of dying quails, gorps, etc. I’m guessing he might, although he clearly feels the defense behind him is impenetrable.

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