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 pitching prospect having a BABIP well south of the magical .300 isn't unheard of.
At the start of play on Thursday, the BABIP numbers for the leagues with Mariners affiliates looked like this:
Double-A Southern League (Jackson) - .293
High-A California League (High Desert) - .312
Low-A Midwest League (Clinton) - .305
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. We looked at the hitters off to extreme BABIP starts already. But based on the above, who are the pitching 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) -- PITCHERS
Going Up?Seon Gi Kim
.179 BABIP - lowest in Mariners org, 3rd lowest in CAL (min 15 IP)
Kim is coming out of the bullpen for the Mavericks and is pitching very well with good enough stuff to back up most of the results. But Kim has shown to be a different pitcher home and away for High Desert (as many pitchers do), in terms of results and in every other way. His walk rate is 10% higher at home (14.3% to 4.3%) and he's a much better ground ball pitcher on the road, too. He has good command and a good fastball but he needs to work down in the zone to succeed in Adelanto. Regardless, his .179 BABIP isn't going to continue, so he needs to find a way to get his 25.9% line drive rate at home down or else suffer a huge falloff in performance. Matt Vedo
.204 BABIP - 2nd lowest in Mariners org, 10th lowest in MID (min 15 IP)
Vedo is a strikeout pitcher with plus velocity and a solid slider, but his command is still a definite work in progress. He's walked 11 in 19 1/3 innings this season and 26 in 40 innings as a pro since the Mariners signed him. Left-handers and right-handers are each hitting just .167 off of Vedo this season, but left-handers have just a .200 BABIP against him and his strikeout rate is more than 10% lower versus them than it is versus righties as the slider is the pitch with the biggest split in baseball. Translation is that left-handers are going to start hitting him harder without another pitch (they hit .303/.378/.364 against him in '12) and that will bring his BABIP up. Taijuan Walker
.221 BABIP - 4th lowest in Mariners org, 2nd lowest in SOU (SP, min 30 IP)
As stated above, talented pitching (and hitting) prospects are the exception to the general rule of the magical .300 number. Walker is extremely talented, and the development of his cut fastball has made him a serious weapon against lefties, something that nitpickers could have called a weakness leading into this season. While his BABIP is the 2nd lowest figure among starters in the Southern League right now, Walker I think is the most likely candidate of the 12 on these two lists (hitters and pitcher) to maintain his current rate of BABIP success.
Coming Down?Bobby LaFromboise
.425 BABIP - 3rd highest in Mariners org, 8th highest in PCL (min 15 IP)
LaFromboise has faced 60% right-handed hitters so far and they're always going to have more success than left-handed hitters against him, but the lefties have a .462 BABIP off of Bobby so far this year, leading to a .770 OPS. He held same-handed hitters to a .530 OPS in Tacoma last year with his sidewinder delivery (when he faced only 53% opposite-handed hitters) and as the plate appearance figures come more in line with his career norms this season it figures that his BABIP will also drop down to a normal level. It is also worth noting that the majority of the damage that has been done to the Raspberry this year came in one game when he gave up six runs (the only six earned runs he's allowed this season) on four hits and two walks in an inning and one-third back on May 8th. Cameron Hobson
.373 BABIP - 10th highest in Mariners org, 4th highest in CAL (SP, min 30 IP)
Repeating in the Cal League is a big test for Hobson, who has posted good strikeout numbers at other levels but managed only 5.1 SO/9 in 19 starts last year. A control arm with good stuff but without overpowering stuff, he's upped that number to 7.1 so far in his seven starts this year, but the damage he's allowing when hitters do put the ball in play (three HR, 12 XBH) is negating the improvement. Hobson is still getting a good number of ground balls (1.72 GO/AO ratio), but the hard, fast infields of the desert are leading to more hits on those grounders. He needs to work on getting softer contact by continuing to pound low in the zone. James Paxton
.375 BABIP - 9th highest in Mariners org, 6th highest in PCL (SP, min 30 IP)
Much like LaFromboise, a lot of the difference in Paxton 2012 vs. Paxton 2013 is that left-handed hitters are handling him. They are out-OPS-ing right-handed hitters by .020 so far on the season against the big Canadian, fueled by a huge .450 BABIP. Paxton allowed a .320 BABIP to left-handed hitters in Jackson last year (higher than league average but not by a ton). He's still as dominant with the strikeout (33.3% in '13, 32.4% in '12) against hitters from the left side, but the PCL is a much more hitter-friendly environment in general. Still, it stands to reason that Paxton -- who's repertoire lacks only a consistent, quality changeup to keep right-handers honest -- will find the groove versus lefties soon and that the numbers will fall in line accordingly.
There are other pitchers in the organization operating on the extremes of BABIP, 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. Look for more statistical examinations of Mariners prospect performance as the season goes along.
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