Batted-ball statistics paint a very detailed picture of a hitter and what his success (or failure) is based on in a given season. The main components of this metric are LD% (Line-Drive %), GB% (Ground-Ball %), FB% (Fly-Ball %), and IFFB% (Infield Fly-Ball %).
Obviously, line-drives offer the best chance for success for a hitter, whereas an infield fly ball offers almost zero success for the hitter or the team. FanGraphs gives us a good rule of thumb for how an average hitter puts a ball in play.
With that in mind though, it is important to understand that these numbers will fluctuate depending on the hitter. For example, a power hitter will hit more fly balls but most contact hitters will have a majority of their contact result in ground balls.
When you combine the above information with BABIP (batting average on balls in play), you can get an even clearer picture of a given hitter’s success, or lack thereof. For instance, if a hitter has a high BABIP and a high LD%, that player’s performance would mostly like be sustainable.
Likewise, if a hitter is putting mostly fly balls in play and his BABIP is low, that performance is also likely to last over the long haul. The hitter that keeps the ball out of the air will generally have a higher BABIP and batting average, but probably also have lower power numbers as well.
With all that information in mind, it is time to look at some of the key pieces of the 2014 Cubs and how they put balls in play. I will include Jorge Soler because he is a favorite of mine and, in my opinion, the best bet of the young kids that came up last year. That said, I realize that he has a very small sample size from which to draw conclusions.
Rizzo’s 2014 was outstanding and among the best (if not the best) for all first basemen, but what did he do to make it so much better than 2013? His BB% and K% stayed very consistent between the two seasons, so there has to be something else that changed.
Rizzo’s BABIP in 2013 was .258 as compared to .311 this past year, a 53-point difference. So was he luckier this year compared to 2013 or did something else play into this huge step forward? I think the answer lies in his batted-ball statistics.
Rizzo hit more line drives and more fly balls (which translated into more HRs), while hitting fewer ground balls. It was very clear that Rizzo controlled the zone more in 2014 and, as a benefit of that, he was able to make better contact. This led to a higher batting average and better power numbers.
After Rizzo, Castro’s 2014 was probably the most encouraging development for the Cubs long-term. Castro walked a little more in 2014 (6.2% vs. 4.3% in 2013), but he struck out at about the same rate. Like Rizzo, his success was evident in his BABIP; in 2013 it was .290, but in 2014 it jumped to .337, which is more in line with his career BABIP of .325.
Much like Rizzo, Castro hit more line drives, fewer ground balls and more fly balls. He tied his career high in HRs with 14, but did it in 28 fewer games than in 2012. Castro has always been a hitter that puts the ball in play and by setting a new career high in LD% in 2014, those balls had more juice behind them, which provided a much improved season.
Now that the Cubs have missed out on Russell Martin, it is important that Castillo takes a huge step forward in 2015 after regressing greatly from 2013 to 2014. Of course, the team could still look to add a catcher from outside the organization, but my guess is it would be a complementary piece instead of a replacement.
So what happened to Beef last season? He walked less and struck out more in 2014 as compared to 2013 and his BABIP tumbled from .347 to .288, so what gives? Let’s check out his batted ball numbers:
Clearly, he had fewer line drives and more fly balls last season. In drilling down, we find that 10.6% of Castillo’s contact result in an infield fly ball, which really is as bad a strikeout. So it would appear that the contact that Castillo made in 2014 was of a much lower quality.
More fly balls did result in a career high in HRs (13), but his overall offensive production was lacking big-time and is a legitimate concern going forward. Not that a defensive-oriented catcher is not valuable; you would just hope that the offense could be at least average.
I’m going to lump Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara and Jorge Soler together here. All three had pretty small sample sizes, with Soler’s being the smallest with only 24 games, so please keep that in mind as you look at these numbers.
Line drive rate is the one part of the batted-ball metric that takes the most time to even out. FanGraphs even claims it could take a full season or season and a half before that number “stabilizes.” Therefore, I wouldn’t read too much into the LD% numbers for these three yet; all three were actually well below average.
Soler had the best BABIP, but I will go out on a limb here and say that, while that number isn’t crazy high, 24 games are not enough from which to draw an appropriate conclusion. I would expect Baez to have the highest fly ball rate of these three, just based on his swing and enormous power potential. If he puts in the air, it’s got a chance of going out of the park.
I can’t wait to see what this trio can do next year after some adjustments. Though Baez has the potential to be an absolute monster with the production he can provide from the middle infield, I do think Soler would win a “Most Likely to Succeed” vote from among this group.
Batted-ball statistics tell a story of growth from one year to the next, but can also illustrate a hitter’s strengths or struggles. In this case, more line drives for Rizzo and Castro equaled a better overall season.
Castillo struggled because he hit fewer line drives and more fly balls, which caused his BABIP to fall off greatly. The true story will come from which way things go next year for all of these guys. It’s only a step forward if production is sustained; hopefully Rizzo and Castro will continue their ascent to stardom and Castillo can at least become average offensively.
Add in some progression from Alcantara, Soler and Baez along with Kris Bryant’s debut in 2015 and you have the makings of a very interesting team.