Batting Average on Balls in Play, or "BABIP" as it is known, has shown to be a pretty remarkably reliable statistic in major league baseball. It is a statistic that divides all batted balls landing in the field of play (i.e., hits minus home runs) and divides it by the number of at bats that did not end in either home runs, strikeouts or a sacrifice fly. History shows us that the MLB average stays right around .300 for BABIP. In the minor leagues, that number isn't as tried and true as playing conditions vary and talent at the level varies greatly. A talented prospect having a .400+ BABIP isn't a sure sign that he is due for regression necessarily -- it could just mean he is too good for the level.
At the start of play on Friday, the BABIP numbers for the leagues with Mariners affiliates looked like this:
Double-A Southern League (Jackson) - .295
High-A California League (High Desert) - .314
Low-A Midwest League (Clinton) - .307
If you follow minor league baseball in general and the Mariners' affiliates specifically, those numbers probably fall about where you would expect based on the way the leagues have historically played. So based on the above, who are the hitting prospects that are due for some regression -- good or bad -- based on their early season BABIP numbers? Let's take a look:
Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) -- HITTERS
Coming Down?Julio Morban .333/.367/.579
.444 BABIP - 2nd highest in Mariners org, highest in Southern League
While Morban certainly fits the talent profile of someone who has the ability to hit very well in the Southern League, the 21-year-old left-handed hitting outfielder is still seeing more than his fair share of success on balls in play. Spurred on by his 28.2% line drive rate -- which matches his 28.2% outfield fly ball rate -- Morban is earning his hits, but over the life of the season that is going to fall off. Particularly if he doesn't clean up his plate discipline. As the 30.0% strikeout rate shows, selectivity isn't a strong suit for Morban quite yet. And swinging at bad pitches is a good way to put balls in play weakly. Chris Taylor .321/.423/.482
.418 BABIP - 4th highest in Mariners org, 4th highest in California League
Taylor's main tools are on the defensive side of the ball, but the right-handed hitter out of Virginia showed some surprising offense right out of the gate in Everett last year. He has an OPS north of .900 again so far in 2013 in High Desert, but he appears to be getting a little bit lucky, too. Taylor doesn't possess elite bat speed, but he has strong hands, a good eye and quickness with his feet. But that only translated to a .354 BABIP in 2012 combined between Everett and Clinton. The .418 number from this year is getting a boost from Taylor's 20.8% line drive rate, but an incredible number of his high percentage of ground balls (51.5%) are finding holes right now, and stats say that won't last. Guillermo Pimentel .269/.361/.442
.381 BABIP - 6th highest in Mariners org, 13th highest in Midwest League
Pimentel has the power in his bat to post a high BABIP, especially considering that he is repeating the level in 2013. But like Morban, his high strikeout rate (31.1%) is a sign that weak contact will be happening. He is also already posting a lower LD% (16.4%) than he did last year (18.5%) for Clinton while his overall FB% has gone up, which generally means there are more lazy fly balls and pop ups coming off of his bat. Pimentel has yet to show a sustained stretch of being able to tap into his plus power, and until he does, he is a prime candidate for some regression in his BABIP.
Heading Up?Jack Marder .188/.281/.306
.227 BABIP - 8th lowest in Mariners org, 11th lowest in Southern League
Marder isn't a guy that has lived off of screaming line drives really as he posted a LD% of only 15.8% last year in High Desert when he hit .360/.425/.583. But the diminutive infielder is having a really rough go of it early in Jackson as he's hitting a lot fewer fly balls overall and a lot higher percentage of infield fly balls, too. The right-handed hitting Marder doesn't have home run power, but he does have good bat speed and is a great hustler on the field while hitting and on defense. Finding the gaps for extra bases is part of his attack, and that is something that should start to show up more as the year unfolds for Jack. Leon Landry .184/.241/.282
.207 BABIP - 5th lowest in Mariners org, 2nd lowest in Southern League
Landry has a tool set that you figure would lead to a high BABIP; he hits left-handed, has speed and has always put the ball on the ground frequently enough to maximize that speed while also hitting a strong number of line drives. But while he's posting his best LD% of his career (16.7%) in the early going for Jackson, his BABIP is currently .200 lower than it was with High Desert last year. High Desert and Jackson are totally different animals in a number of ways, but Landry's results in Jackson seem much lower than should be expected. For a speedster who led the minor leagues in triples a season ago, often finding gaps and corners with his hard hit balls, Landry is a prime candidate to buck this early season trend and break out with a number north of league average soon. Taylor Ard .184/.241/.282
.200 BABIP - 3rd lowest in Mariners org, 4th lowest in Midwest League
While Ard isn't a huge power hitter that boasts a plus-plus grade with the tool, he is a strong right-handed bat that can use the entire field and reach deep into the gaps in both direction with his natural stroke. He hasn't done so at all early on in Clinton, but the measurables point to it being a lot of bad luck. He's hitting more ground balls than he did a season ago and he also has a 24.2% line drive rate, the 5th highest in the Mariners minors. Ard doesn't run well, but he should be able to string together some solid success in racking up hits if he sticks with his current approach and continues to hit the ball hard to all fields.
There are other hitters in the organization for sure that fit into these categories but this gives you an idea of what to look for behind that first layer of numbers to get the complete story on a prospect's performance. I will break down three Mariners pitching prospects on each side of the spectrum in a second installment of these series next.
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