Thursday, September 03, 2009

Is Kung Fu Panda's high BABIP Sustainable?

I posted most of this in response to a question on whether Pablo Sandoval's high BABIP is sustainable or not, and thought I should add it here:

Generally, no, such a BABIP is not sustainable, particularly since he is prone to swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, sometimes way out of the strike zone. It would not surprise me if he's one of those hitters who one day will swing at one of the four wide ones in an IBB and get a hit off it.

But Kung Fu Panda is like a bumblebee. He's big and round and yet he is very athletic, has been described as that for a while now. I was totally amazed by two exceptional slides that he made late last season to score a run, in both cases, he was very close to being tagged out but he slid perfectly to avoid the tag, as if he was a ballet dancer. Once I could call a fluke but twice within a week, I couldn't dismiss. He swings at almost everything under the sun, but he's able to get the good part of the bat on the ball most of the time and get hits, almost ridiculously so, as he does not strike out at a very high rate, he has been able to keep his contact rate at 85% or higher at every level in the minors and been able to continue doing that in the majors.

That to me is the key stat that suggests that perhaps his BABIP is sustainable at a high rate. It is not like he is being cheated on his ABs, he has hit very well for the past two seasons and have not struck out very often. Only the better hitters can keep his contact rate above 85% by not striking out that often.

Of course, it would be better if he took more walks. The best hitters can get as many walks as strikeouts. Obviously, that is easier when you don't strike out that often. That is one negative. But he has improved on that greatly in the past few months. From June to August, he had 28 walks and 45 strikeouts, for a ratio of 0.6, which is much better, and getting closer to the 1.0 the best hitters achieve.

His career BABIP is probably pretty close to what he is capable of. I'm using's numbers because they provide splits, and his career BABIP is .351 and 2009's is .349, for perspective. His monthly BABIP has bounced around, and when he is on, it's in the .400's but when he cold, he's in the low .300's. That averages out to .350 roughly (more like .360). His median is .355. If you took his high and low and averaged, then next and averaged, each would roughly be around .350, there is no skewing of the data at all towards high or low, thus far.

Of course, small sample sizing, so this is mostly tea leave reading. But that's all you can really do with a major leaguer so early in his career. The positives are his great contact rate all through the minors and majors, his high resultant BABIP through his career, his good to great monthly performances, his worst months as a major leaguer were last Sept when he hit .315/.333/.499/.783 and this April, .307/.350/.440/.790. The only month he has hit under .300 is July, when he hit .298/.327/.529/.856 with 5 HR in 104 AB.

As noted, his one big negative is his lack of walks, but he has gotten in the last 3 months 13, 5, and 10 walks, which is very good for him, showing that he does take to instruction.

That's another thing I've been impressed with, his willingness to work to get better, for if we assume that the BABIP is not sustainable, then at least he is willing to work to get better and maybe learn to make it sustainable. His willingness to not swing as often has been paying off the last three months, and it is not all due to IBB, he had 7 out of 28, reducing his rate to roughly 7 per month, still good, particularly compared to how he was before, a Bengie Molina-like hitter. In addition, once the Giants said he's our 3B at the end of the 2008 season, he worked all off-season, taking hundreds of grounders at 3B from coaches and continued that into spring training. He works hard, he cares about being better, being good.

I'll end by noting that a number of veteran hitters, such as Carney Lansford, has said that the hitter Kung Fu Panda looks most like is Vladimir Guerrero, for the way they are bad ball hitters. And nothing against Vlad, since I don't know how eager he was to learn, but Sandoval looks poised to become one of the greats of the game because he has a good base for where he is right now, but he's willing to do grunt work like taking grounders every day, ride the exercise bike for half an hour after every game because the coaches told him he needs to keep in better shape, and taking more pitches when his natural inclination is to swing the bat. That is what separates those who are good enough for the majors and those who become the greats, the desire to better yourself, do menial work that many players would at least lock horns with their coaches over doing them, particularly if they are hitting like he is hitting. Best of all, he has a cheery attitude, even when he got hit in the mouth with a grounder, and his braces embedded into his lips, he was upbeat.

Of course, there will be those who say that I'm being a homer, but I think I'm pretty good at separating the fanboy from the inner realist. I think the reasoning above is sound for why Sandoval can do it where others would falter. I think I've covered the angles.

In addition, I think I know more about this particular player and situation because I read up on a lot of Giants news and get to know the players more. Like that he grew up in a middle class environment, which is very different from a lot of Latin American players, and his mother wanted him to go to school and get a degree, but instead he wanted to play baseball, but has been treating it like it was a college degree that he is working towards, willing to learn and absorb what the coaches has to offer. I think this adds to the evaluation of this particular situation, and I'm not saying he will, but I think that there are a lot of excellent signs, but quantitative and qualitative, that suggests that Sandoval can continue to do what he has done so far.

I'm really excited about him, haven't been this excited over a hitter since Will Clark and Matt Williams made the Giants.


  1. I have a general suggestion/request for your blog. You use lots of in depth stat measurements, and I am very interested in reading this article, however, I have no clue what a BABIP is. In the future could you at least say what the abbreviation stands for, or perhaps have a general permanent link somewhere at the top/side of your site listing the stats you commonly use and what it is they are?

    As of now I take your article to mean, can the panda continue to be a which case of course he can!

  2. Sure, I'll try to be better about explaining these terms, but since I'm just not sure about the ratio of people who know this and those who don't, among those who read my blog, I've been just plowing ahead as if you know, figuring those who don't know but are interested would ask for an explanation.

    I've always been happy to explain anything, part of my goal here is to educate, but I dont' want to bore people with definitions all the time. I'll try to find a happy medium.

    Plus, I'll try to find a good definitions page to link to.

    BABIP is the acronym for Batting Average on Balls in Play. This also effectively measures how well the defense turns balls in play into outs. I think some sources might have different definitions, but the one from, which is the source of all the data used in this post, is you subtract HR from hits to remove those hits that were not in play (obviously, the fielder has no play on HRs) keeping just the hits in play, then divide that figure by At Bats minus strikeouts (not in play) minus HR (again, not in play) plus sacrifice flies (which normally would just be a fly out but because there is a runner on third who scores, you don't get credited with an AB but is still a ball in play).

    From the pitcher's perspective, BABIP is generally around .300, as the DIPS theory postulates that pitchers have very little effect on balls hit into play, that if is solely in the hands of the defense. That has generally held to be true, but there are exceptions as shown by Tom Tippett of Diamond Mind, such as the crafty lefty, which I believe is where Zito belongs.

    For hitters, their BABIP is generally an individual thing related to their abilities as a hitter. Amazingly, when you group all the hitters together, .300 is the rough mean that they collectively hit.

    The question I was trying to answer was how related is a hitter's initial BABIP in their early part of their career to this BABIP for his career.

    Here I examined some sabermetric signs that he might be able to sustain his current BABIP rate going forward.

    I ended up writing up another answer examining what happened with other similar hitting players, then other hitters unsimilar in a number of ways.

    I was going to post it here in the comments but it's pretty long (I know, as usual...) so it might be better as a post.

    Oh, plus, I just realized, comments are now limited in length, so I'll have to post a new post.

  3. I would be curious if BABIP is skewed by a free-swinger (that is, a high-contact free-swinger). After all, I would think that the "standard" BABIP also assumes a logical defense, that fielders will play to a hitter's tendencies. If a hitter has fewer repeatable tendencies, perhaps he would be harder to defend against?

  4. Another excellent article, Martin.

    I read quite a few blogs but some of the acronyms are over my head too. It would be very helpful if, for example, you set up an acronym and stat page with each acronym, a simple definition, and your take on it, that you could simply link to when acronyms/stats appear in your blog entry. You could gradually build the page as you use the acronyms in your blog, so it wouldn't take a large chunk of time all at once. I like to read your opinions on the stats too, so I think the acronym page would be an interesting reference. Just an idea to consider.

    I really enjoy your blog and agree with your opinions about Sabean and the direction of the team. I also enjoy your series preview of the pitching matchups. Your posts are always interesting and informed reads and add to the enjoyment of following the Giants. Thanks!

  5. Marc, it took me 2-3 times reading your comment to get it.

    Excellent point!

    You are right, a hitter who has certain tendencies regarding where he normally hits in the field can be defended against by shifting to those tendencies. Much like the Bonds (or before him, the Ted Williams) shift.

    But if Sandoval (or any other high contact free swinger) can hit any pitch at almost any location with hard contact (I think you meant hard contact, not high contact, but correct me if I'm wrong), then he can literally "hit 'em where they ain't" like that guy long ago, and have a much higher BABIP.

    However, as my next post showed, Vlad, another free swinger, did not have that high a BABIP, which disappointed me, but the facts are the facts.

    Still, perhaps they can't build a book on Sandoval as easily because he's a switch hitter, as well as a free swinger.

    And maybe Sandoval is better than Vlad, you never know.

  6. Thanks steveb, much appreciated.

    I sometimes wonder if I'm railing at windmills, some of the comments I see out on other sites really drive me crazy sometimes.

    Great suggestion. I will try to put one together and link to it in the glossary section that I newly set up on my side panel.

    I also moved all the labels down at the bottom so the pages are not as long.

    You're most very welcome.



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