The Weekly Walk, Volume 3: BABIP Bonanza

Encarnacion, Johnson, and Davis each have quirky stories with regards to their balls in play. - Encarnacion: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports; Johnson: Scott Cunningham; Davis: Mitchell Layton

Every day, week, month, and year in baseball, we can see something happen that doesn't happen often (or, in some cases, ever). I'm here to chronicle as many of these oddities as I can.

Welcome to the third edition of The Weekly Walk, in which I look at the kooky goings-on of Major League Baseball. You can find the first and second editions of this series here and here, respectively. Today, we'll scrutinize the BABIP outputs of three hitters, each of whom could achieve something uncommon in that area.

Note: z-scores are not park-adjusted. Park factors are hard. :(

Onward!

Part I: Woeful And Skillful

We begin north of the border, where one first baseman has excelled in spite of horrible luck on balls in play. In 2009, the Toronto Blue Jays acquired Edwin Encarnacion in the Scott Rolen trade, following a few middling seasons in Cincinnati. He still played blandly for a few seasons, and many fans wondered if he'd ever realize his potential. Then came 2012, which brought a 151 wRC+, ranking seventh in baseball. He continued to mash in 2013, with a 145 wRC+ that ranked 14th in the majors, and in 2014, with a 166 wRC+ that just five other hitters can top.

Power drove Encarnacion's meteoric rise, as it so often does; his .282 ISO since 2012 paces MLB. An 11.8% walk rate, 27th-highest among qualified hitters, has also helped. But the interesting element of his breakout is his BABIP, which has remained sub-par: Over that same span, it comes in at .259, a pitiful mark that bests only seven other batters.

For now, we'll focus on 2014, which beautifully epitomizes this three-year run. In the current season, Encarnacion has attained the aforementioned 166 wRC+, even though his BABIP has remained in replacement-level territory — .269, to be exact. To keep things fair, we'll change that number to a z-score, which will make it era-neutral. His BABIP for the 2014 season translates to a z-score of -1.14.

Round numbers are nice, so we'll use those as our thresholds. Since 1920, how many qualified players have surpassed both a 150 wRC+ and a -1 BABIP z-score? A mere 27:

Season Name BABIP z_BABIP wRC+ BB% ISO
2014 Edwin Encarnacion .269 -1.14 166 11.8% .322
2012 Edwin Encarnacion .266 -1.30 151 13.0% .277
2010 Jose Bautista .233 -2.31 165 14.6% .357
2009 Adrian Gonzalez .278 -1.09 156 17.5% .274
2008 Carlos Quentin .278 -1.15 152 11.6% .283
2006 David Ortiz .270 -1.47 157 17.3% .349
2001 Barry Bonds .266 -1.42 235 26.7% .536
2000 Barry Bonds .271 -1.25 174 19.3% .381
1999 Mark McGwire .250 -2.09 168 20.1% .418
1998 Greg Vaughn .261 -1.64 151 12.0% .325
1997 Mark McGwire .273 -1.15 161 15.4% .372
1996 Barry Larkin .276 -1.16 157 15.3% .269
1994 Barry Bonds .271 -1.13 173 15.6% .335
1992 Mark McGwire .252 -1.47 171 15.8% .317
1979 Mike Schmidt .236 -2.07 152 17.8% .311
1978 Andre Thornton .243 -1.90 150 15.1% .254
1972 Johnny Bench .246 -1.21 156 15.3% .271
1970 Harmon Killebrew .249 -1.38 154 19.2% .275
1969 Harmon Killebrew .244 -1.50 173 20.5% .308
1967 Harmon Killebrew .258 -1.01 176 19.0% .289
1961 Roger Maris .209 -2.87 162 13.5% .351
1960 Roger Maris .255 -1.29 156 12.1% .299
1954 Eddie Mathews .257 -1.06 168 18.8% .313
1950 Ralph Kiner .242 -1.68 152 18.2% .318
1948 Johnny Mize .253 -1.25 155 14.3% .275
1947 Johnny Mize .256 -1.10 156 11.1% .312
1946 Hank Greenberg .258 -1.24 165 13.2% .327
1931 Mel Ott .274 -1.42 150 13.8% .254

(I also included walk rate and ISO, the areas from which these men derived most of their hitting prowess.)

The two most recent seasons belong to Encarnacion and his partner in crime, Jose Bautista (whom I'll cover next week). A few of the other names on the list turn some heads as well; presumably, Encarnacion has no problem with sharing something with Bonds and McGwire (unless that something is, well, you know...).

All told, this doesn't say much about Encarnacion. He should maintain this pace, though, as ZiPS's Update projections predict he'll end the year with a 159 wRC+ and a .270 BABIP. Nor, for that matter, should he care about the opprobrious latter figure — so long as he keeps walking the parrot, it'll be smooth sailing.

Part II: Neither Woeful Nor Skillful (i.e., The Opposite Of That First Thing)

Our second adventure takes place in the Peach State, where a third baseman has struggled in spite of great luck on balls in play. In 2013, the Atlanta Braves acquired Chris Johnson in the Justin Upton trade, following a few middling seasons in Phoenix and Houston. He had played blandly for a few seasons, and many fans wondered if he'd ever realize his potential. Then came 2013, which brought a 127 wRC+, ranking 38th in baseball. He...hasn't continued to mash in 2014; his wRC+ has deflated to 87, 37th-worst in baseball.

A few factors have caused this: Declines in free passes (2.4% BB%, down from 5.3% last year) and clout (.081 ISO, as opposed to .139 in 2013), coupled with more whiffs (24.6% K%, up from 21.2% the year prior), have created this miserable hitter. Nevertheless, one thing has remained static for Johnson, both this year and for his career: BABIP. His .371 mark in 2014 mirrors his .363 mark in the show as a whole; the latter number ranks 12th-highest ever.

Others have noticed this, as they tend to do. Although one could take an analytic angle to this observation, I'm more of a "look stuff up" kind of guy. Hence, I ask: How common is this? When, in major league history (since 1920), has a batter had so many hits on balls in play, but nothing else?

Let's look at the z-scores. Johnson's BABIP mark for 2014 is 1.96, a moderately astounding figure by itself. When paired with that 87 wRC+, though, it takes on a whole new life, as only nine other seasons have featured a BABIP z-score above 1.5 and a below-average wRC+. Take a look:

Season Name BABIP z_BABIP wRC+ BB% ISO
2014 Chris Johnson 0.371 1.96 87 2.4% 0.081
2005 Willy Taveras 0.345 1.60 76 3.9% 0.051
2002 Luis Castillo 0.346 1.55 99 8.2% 0.056
1999 Homer Bush 0.374 2.05 97 4.0% 0.101
1985 Gary Pettis 0.354 2.02 91 12.0% 0.065
1987 Vince Coleman 0.358 1.84 99 10.0% 0.069
1982 Jerry Martin 0.332 1.54 97 6.7% 0.133
1962 Andre Rodgers 0.337 1.62 93 8.6% 0.111
1960 Tony Taylor 0.331 1.63 95 6.4% 0.093
1953 Don Mueller 0.334 1.53 99 3.8% 0.071

(Again, I also included walk rate and ISO, the areas from which these men derived most of their lack of hitting prowess.)

That Johnson will only be the tenth player to do this — and if we believe ZiPS, which foresees him finishing the year with a .361 BABIP and a 93 wRC+, he will do it — brings a brief glimmer of happiness to Braves fans who wanted more from the hot corner. That he'll still play rather abysmally overall (ZiPS has him at 0.9 WAR come season's end) blots out this positivity.

Part III: Luckless Liners

Last, we enter Charm City, where another first baseman hasn't accrued many hits, despite peripherals that would suggest otherwise. In 2011, the Baltimore Orioles acquired Chris Davis in the Koji Uehara trade, following a few middling seasons in Arlington. He still played blandly for another season, and many fans wondered if he'd ever realize his potential. Then came 2013, which brought a 167 wRC+, ranking third in baseball. Like Johnson, he hasn't continued to mash in 2014; his wRC+ has depreciated to 98, 111th in the majors.

On Wednesday, my colleague Chris Moran noticed this, and did some research; among other things, he concluded that:

...going forward Davis isn't as mediocre as he's been this year...

To substantiate this claim, Moran cited Davis's ghastly .255 BABIP, considerably lower than his career mark of .327, and his xBABIP of .344. The latter figure would imply the presence of solid contact, which Davis provides in spades: He currently sports a 26.1% line drive rate, narrowly outside the top 10. Line drives go for hits more often than fly balls or ground balls, so it's weird that Davis's BABIP has yet to convalesce.

As Moran noted, it almost certainly will improve (case in point: ZiPS RoS pins it at .309 from here on out). However, for the sake of this exercise, let's say it doesn't. His .255 BABIP lies 1.56 standard deviations below the mean, while his 26.1% line drive rate lies 1.53 standard deviations above the mean. In the batted-ball era, no players — NONE — have beaten 1.5 in both arenas. Lowering our standards to one standard deviation, we find that six other players have achieved (or could achieve) this undesirable goal:

Season Name BABIP z_BABIP LD% z_LD%
2014 Chris Davis .255 -1.56 26.1% 1.53
2014 Brian Roberts .267 -1.20 25.4% 1.33
2013 Alberto Callaspo .266 -1.28 24.6% 1.04
2010 Alcides Escobar .264 -1.32 21.5% 1.38
2008 Carlos Delgado .279 -1.11 24.5% 1.64
2006 Adam Dunn .276 -1.26 23.5% 1.41
2005 David Bell .266 -1.49 23.8% 1.02

Surprisingly, Davis isn't the only 2014 name on the list; Brian Roberts, whom the Baltimore faithful despise for betraying them respect for his years of service, also occupies this heinous leaderboard. With that said, the presence of just five other names illustrates just how rare this is. Hitters that compile a lot of liners will generally compile a lot of hits too, and thus far, that hasn't been the case for Davis. His luck should turn around in the second half, but if it doesn't, he'll have a tidbit of poor fortune to show for it.

That's all I have for this week. On the one hand, I could run out of ideas for this piece pretty quickly; on the other hand...

. . .

All data courtesy of FanGraphs, as of Thursday, July 3rd, 2014.

Ryan Romano is a featured contributor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Birds Watcher and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.

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