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The other side of the coin: bad luck?

Yesterday, I wrote about those players who saw their Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP, I was brain-lapsedly calling it H/BIP) spike last year. The guys who had a few years under their belts, yet somehow did much better in 2005 when they made contact and didn't send the ball out of the park.

I claimed (and provided some evidence from a similar group of players from 2004) that those players' boosts were mostly due to luck, and most if not all of their gains would recede next year. The obvious next question is this: what about players who underperformed their career BABIP--will they bounce back? Should you pick them in round three of your fantasy draft?

Proceed with caution.
If you do bet your fantasy league entry fee on a few low-BABIP guys rebounding, you may luck out, but you'll need a deep bench. Unlike yesterday's list, which was filled with players who appeared to have breakout or rebound seasons in 2005, the flip side is quite a bit more varied:

Most Likely to Rebound
First Last Team 05 BABIP Car BABIP Diff
Mike Piazza NYN .260 .315 -0.055
Richard Hidalgo TEX .237 .292 -0.055
Sammy Sosa BAL .246 .301 -0.055
Bernie Williams NYA .270 .320 -0.05
Doug Mientkiewicz NYN .242 .292 -0.05
Steve Finley LAA .239 .287 -0.048
Andruw Jones ATL .240 .285 -0.045
Corey Patterson CHN .262 .306 -0.044
Mike Lamb HOU .257 .300 -0.043
Carl Everett CHA .265 .308 -0.043
Manny Ramirez BOS .295 .337 -0.042
Cristian Guzman WAS .254 .295 -0.041
Craig Biggio HOU .273 .314 -0.041
Jacque Jones MIN .279 .319 -0.04
A.J. Pierzynski CHA .267 .305 -0.038
Tino Martinez NYA .237 .274 -0.037
Ichiro Suzuki SEA .316 .353 -0.037
Bret Boone XXX .255 .292 -0.037
Eric Byrnes XXX .250 .286 -0.036
David Dellucci TEX .279 .312 -0.033
Cliff Floyd NYN .276 .309 -0.033
Mike Lowell FLO .248 .280 -0.032
Todd Hollandsworth XXX .292 .324 -0.032
Carlos Lee MIL .259 .291 -0.032
Jason Kendall OAK .287 .318 -0.031
Jose Vidro WAS .283 .314 -0.031
Ryan Klesko SDN .266 .297 -0.031
Michael Tucker SFN .274 .305 -0.031
Juan Uribe CHA .264 .295 -0.031

Is this Brian Sabean's Dream Team?
There's a common thread running through much of this list: old, slow, or fading. For a few reasons, this makes intuitive sense. While much of BABIP is due to luck, and it seems unlikely that a player could substantially improve his BABIP, it's unquestionable that players eventually decline. As they do, we notice that their big swings result in 340-foot outs instead of doubles against the wall...pop-ups instead of home runs...fewer infield singles...you can probably think of a half-dozen more symptoms. All of these things show up in BABIP.

So, it seems likely that some of the players on the list (at least five of the top six, for starters) will not rebound. They've gotten a bit less powerful, quite a bit slower, and probably will never see the bright side of a .290 BABIP again. However, there are some names on that list that seem equally plausible as rebound candidates: Corey Patterson, whose horrible '05 may have been somewhat due to bad BABIP luck; Manny Ramirez and Ichiro, both tremendous players who had down-BABIP years; maybe even 2005 disappointments Cristian Guzman and Mike Lowell.

For some insight, let's look at what the same list would've told us last offseason, and how those players ended up performing in '05:

2004 BIP Underperformers
First Last Team 04 BABIP Car H/BIP Diff 04 AVG 05 AVG
Jason Giambi NYA .223 .313 -0.09 .208 .271
Richard Hidalgo NYN .231 .297 -0.066 .228 .221
Chipper Jones ATL .246 .310 -0.064 .248 .296
Brad Fullmer TEX .224 .286 -0.062 .233 .000
Corey Koskie MIN .271 .328 -0.057 .251 .249
Juan Encarnacion LAN .243 .293 -0.05 .235 .287
Carlos Beltran XXX .261 .308 -0.047 .267 .266
A.J. Pierzynski SFN .268 .314 -0.046 .272 .257
Geoff Blum TBA .236 .281 -0.045 .215 .241
David Dellucci TEX .275 .320 -0.045 .242 .251
Jacque Jones MIN .282 .326 -0.044 .254 .249
Marlon Anderson SLN .245 .289 -0.044 .237 .264
Bernie Williams NYA .281 .324 -0.043 .262 .249
Derek Jeter NYA .315 .358 -0.043 .292 .309
Scott Spiezio SEA .228 .269 -0.041 .215 .064
John Olerud SEA .269 .310 -0.041 .245 .289
Mike Cameron NYN .260 .300 -0.04 .231 .273
Ruben Sierra NYA .241 .279 -0.038 .244 .229
Mike Piazza NYN .281 .319 -0.038 .266 .251
Juan Encarnacion XXX .255 .293 -0.038 .236 .287
Desi Relaford KCA .242 .279 -0.037 .221 .224
Dmitri Young DET .289 .325 -0.036 .272 .271
Jose Valentin CHA .237 .272 -0.035 .216 .170
Rey Sanchez TBA .264 .299 -0.035 .246 .279
Neifi Perez SFN .252 .287 -0.035 .232 .274
Doug Mientkiewicz XXX .263 .298 -0.035 .238 .240
Brad Wilkerson MON .292 .326 -0.034 .255 .248
Ken Griffey CIN .260 .294 -0.034 .253 .301
Daryle Ward PIT .246 .279 -0.033 .249 .260

It's an interesting group, headlined by an enigmatic guy to predict, Jason Giambi. Setting aside Giambi, whose horrible 04 season was some combination of decline, drugs, and bad luck, you have the same mix of aging players in their decline phase and possible rebound candidates.

What to make of all these numbers?
One of the toughest things to predict about a player is when they're legitimately declining, and when they just had an off-year. It's possible, however, that we can identify low-BABIP guys like these who are primed for a rebound. It's pretty simple, actually--we want to sort out the guys who are probably declining, and most players start to decline in their early thirties. Let's limit the list to only those players whose playing age in a given season is 32 or under. Here's the 04 list, with 2005 batting average as well:

2004 BIP Underperformers under age 32
First Last Team 04 BABIP Car BABIP diff 04 AVG 05 AVG
Chipper Jones ATL .246 .310 -0.064 .248 .296
Brad Fullmer TEX .224 .286 -0.062 .233 .000
Carlos Beltran HOU .245 .306 -0.061 .258 .266
Richard Hidalgo NYN .231 .292 -0.061 .228 .221
Corey Koskie MIN .271 .325 -0.054 .251 .249
Scott Podsednik MIL .275 .320 -0.045 .244 .290
Luis Matos BAL .256 .301 -0.045 .224 .280
Carlos Beltran XXX .261 .306 -0.045 .267 .266
Marlon Anderson SLN .245 .289 -0.044 .237 .264
Derek Jeter NYA .315 .358 -0.043 .292 .309
Juan Encarnacion XXX .255 .298 -0.043 .236 .287
Mike Cameron NYN .260 .302 -0.042 .231 .273
Geoff Blum TBA .236 .276 -0.04 .215 .241
Josh Phelps XXX .290 .330 -0.04 .251 .266
Scott Spiezio SEA .228 .267 -0.039 .215 .064
Jacque Jones MIN .282 .319 -0.037 .254 .249
David Dellucci TEX .275 .312 -0.037 .242 .251
A.J. Pierzynski SFN .268 .305 -0.037 .272 .257
Desi Relaford KCA .242 .278 -0.036 .221 .224
Neifi Perez SFN .252 .287 -0.035 .232 .274
Tony Clark NYA .272 .306 -0.034 .221 .304
Dmitri Young DET .289 .322 -0.033 .272 .271
Daryle Ward PIT .246 .278 -0.032 .249 .260
Rob Mackowiak PIT .283 .315 -0.032 .246 .272
Brad Wilkerson MON .292 .323 -0.031 .255 .248
Tony Batista MON .225 .256 -0.031 .241 .000
Todd Walker CHN .282 .311 -0.029 .274 .305
Doug Mientkiewicz XXX .263 .292 -0.029 .238 .240

It's not a slam-dunk case, but it does suggest that younger players who had a BABIP off-year are quite likely to come back stronger the following year. There's reason to be skeptical of low-average sluggers like Hidalgo and Fullmer, but glancing through the rest of the list, you see far more players on the brink of comeback seasons than those who continued to decline at a relatively early age.

Tell me who to pick in my fantasy draft, already, darnit!
Unfortunately, much of this material is scratching the surface. I haven't yet incorporated park factors, I haven't broken down the list of players by type (slow slugger, single-hitting speedster, etc.), and there's a whole nuther world of aging trends I could be examining. But with all those caveats, it would appear that young (defined here as 32 or younger) players who had a BABIP off-year are much more likely than not to bounce back the following year. With that in mind, here's the list of such players from last year:

2005 BIP Underperformers under age 32
First Last Team 05 BABIP Car BABIP diff
Dustan Mohr COL .255 .314 -0.059
Richard Hidalgo TEX .237 .292 -0.055
Doug Mientkiewicz NYN .242 .292 -0.05
Andruw Jones ATL .240 .285 -0.045
Corey Patterson CHN .262 .306 -0.044
Mike Lamb HOU .257 .300 -0.043
Cristian Guzman WAS .254 .295 -0.041
Jacque Jones MIN .279 .319 -0.04
A.J. Pierzynski CHA .267 .305 -0.038
Ichiro Suzuki SEA .316 .353 -0.037
Eric Byrnes XXX .250 .286 -0.036
Omar Infante DET .248 .283 -0.035
Austin Kearns CIN .281 .315 -0.034
David Dellucci TEX .279 .312 -0.033
Cliff Floyd NYN .276 .309 -0.033
Lyle Overbay MIL .304 .336 -0.032
Mike Lowell FLO .248 .280 -0.032
Todd Hollandsworth XXX .292 .324 -0.032
Carlos Lee MIL .259 .291 -0.032
Jason Kendall OAK .287 .318 -0.031
Jose Vidro WAS .283 .314 -0.031
Larry Bigbie XXX .297 .328 -0.031
Tike Redman PIT .266 .297 -0.031
Juan Uribe CHA .264 .295 -0.031
Jay Payton XXX .263 .293 -0.03
Sean Burroughs SDN .288 .317 -0.029
Juan Pierre FLO .293 .322 -0.029
Geoff Blum XXX .247 .276 -0.029

Time will tell, I suppose. Many of these guys don't inspire too much confidence going into 2006--after all, even if they rebound to their career averages, their 30 point boost may only translate to 20 points in batting average, and the typical decline with age may wash away some of that. Stats like these may be at their best as an aid to common sense, as we could be pretty sure even without looking at BABIP that Mike Lowell and Juan Pierre are in for something of a rebound. But common sense goes both ways: I'd want my team--fantasy or real--to stay away from Richard Hidalgo.