As a fan, or someone trying to understand baseball, what do you use batting average for? For years, we used it as a proxy for offensive success; a .300 batting average meant that a player was a useful offensive cog, and the Mendoza Line was one hitters dared not cross. Today? Meh. The sabermetric community has mostly dismissed batting average as an artifact of an older area – it’s a statistic that no longer carries the weight that it once did.
Why don’t we consider batting average in the same way we used to? Well, the statistic itself is a bit poorly designed. It actively ignores walks, to the point where it disregards the event entirely, which in and of itself makes the metric a poor proxy for overall offensive value. In addition, plenty of work has been done on the subject of "empty" batting average, or examples of how a player can rack up a high batting average yet still produce below-average overall offense. For instance, did you know that Juan Pierre hit .327 in 2001 … and still posted a wRC+ of just 92? It’s possible to hit .327 and still be eight percent worse than league average as a hitter!
Anyway, batting average can’t be effectively used to demonstrate overall offensive ability. But can we use it for some other purpose? Sort of. Batting average can kind of be used to help us find a player’s ability to make useful contact. Think about it: Hits are useful contact, and the ability to make useful contact is something that we’d like to record. Perhaps batting average could be the starting point for a metric that helps us more accurately measure useful contact … at least from a results standpoint.
Of course, batting average by itself is too flawed to do that, as it doesn’t account for defense and it has an issue with walks and other non-contact events. While we can’t entirely account for defense, we can do skirt the non-contact events issue. To do so, we can use BACON.
BACON is short for "batting average on contact" and was coined by Colin Wyers several years ago. BACON is a mild alteration to the common statistic BABIP. BABIP is more useful for pitchers, as it helps illustrate a pitcher’s reliance on defense/luck; it is a picture of batting average, but limited to events that are balls in play. BACON, on the other hand, is more useful from the hitter’s perspective, as it includes home runs, which BABIP ignores. The home run is useful contact – the most useful contact, in fact – and hitters need to have that taken into account. BACON is a results-oriented way to look at this ability, whereas things like exit velocity and hard-hit percentage can examine this same skill from a process-based viewpoint. It’s not perfect, especially over a small sample, since the opposing run prevention actors such as pitchers or defense can still have a major part in changing this, but it is something.
All that having been said … here’s the 2015 BACON leaderboard:
Minimum 502 PA.
So, the image here shows the top-15 BACON guys with 502 or more plate appearances. If you’re surprised that the best hitter in baseball from last year – Bryce Harper – was No. 1 with a bullet, you shouldn’t be. BACON should correlate at least a little with overall offensive success. Past Harper, you see many of the usual "whoa, this dude can hit" suspects: the eternally underrated Paul Goldschmidt, Kris Bryant, Nelson Cruz, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Mike Trout, and Chris Davis. Snore. All those guys are amazing hitters with high-end power.
So that makes guy No. 9 a little more interested. That’s Odubel Herrera. If you have a high BABIP, you’re going to have a high BACON. Herrera – along with Dee Gordon at No. 13 and Christian Yelich at No. 14 – is a hitter of ground balls, which tends to raise batting average and balls in play, but limits power. Yelich in particular has a history of really high BABIP, and Gordon has a bit of a recent history as well, but Herrera threw out his high BACON during a rookie season. It’ll be interesting to see if he can maintain a high batting average on contact going forward, as that will likely be the primary driver of his offensive ability due to his approach and limited power.
Xander Bogaerts is number 15 on the list, with a 2015 BACON of .381. Surprisingly, Bogaerts’ BACON was also driven by a shift to hitting grounders and that driving up his BABIP. Where the best hitters raise their BACON due to a combo of hard-hit balls and power, Bogaerts had even fewer dingers than Odubel Herrera (seven to Odubel’s eight). Bogaerts, like Yelich, may have a nice BACON this past season, but could benefit from adding power and lowering BABIP, which might keep the BACON stable while increasing overall offensive production.
Looking at the bottom of the BACON leaderboard also gives us a picture of who’s making the least-useful contact: guys like Albert Pujols provide great power (40 HR), but their BABIPs are very, very bad (.219), and that pulls their BACONs down – in his case, to the third-worst among qualified hitters. Logan Morrison was a surprising name at the bottom of the list (.272 BACON) as well, given his power potential. But the worst BACON among all players with 502 PA was Jimmy Rollins, he who is most likely to be the White Sox’s starting shortstop this season. Rollins’ .269 BACON doesn’t exactly make for an exciting offensive prospect for 2016, and Steamer, ZiPS, and PECOTA all project sub-average offensive performance from Rollins this year. Tim Anderson can’t arrive fast enough!
At any rate, peruse the leaderboard, and see if you can find some interesting things. My current favorites are: Giancarlo Stanton’s delta between BABIP and BACON, Miguel Sano, and Jonathan Schoop. Just remember, BACON can only be part of the discussion with regards to finding out which players have the best ability to make useful contact. We’d need to examine a number of other factors, including hard-hit balls, exit velocity, etc. … but BACON is a tasty start to figuring out who made the most useful contact in baseball last year.
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Bryan Grosnick is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score, and co-host of The Four-Man Rotation podcast. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of Baseball Prospectus - Mets, launching later this Spring.