There are a handful of truly distinct areas in which a batter can excel: power, speed, strike zone discipline and batting average on balls in play. Excel in all or most of these, you are a hall of famer. Excel in only one, and you can paper over your faults to make a major league career. If we take a look at the career leaderboards, we see exactly what we expect for power – the career leader in ‘isolated power’ is Babe Ruth, followed by Barry Bonds. The career leader in walk rate (which I’ll use as a proxy for strike zone discipline) is Ted Williams with his famously superhuman eye followed (again) by Barry Bonds. So should we expect the same to be true of ‘batting average on balls in play’? Of all the skills a player can have, that is the one subject to the most year-on-year variance – making it hardest to determine if a player truly possesses that skill and causing debates over whether the skill even exists among batters or pitchers. As a matter of fact, the career leaderboard in BABIP is no more surpising than that for home runs, steals or overall batting average. Follow through the jump to take a look:
For a potentially necessary reference point: Austin Jackson‘s BABIP of .396 last year propelled him to league average overall offensive production. Thus far this year, AJax’ BABIP sits at .339 – still ‘good’ and a vast improvement over his April numbers. Combined, that leaves Jackson with a career BABIP (though clearly still early in his career…) of .380.
That is our top-20 in career BABIP, including currently active players but excluding anyone without at least 3000 career plate appearances to their name. Some of these guys need no introduction, most are either Hall-of-Famers or current stars. Those current stars (including our own Miguel Cabrera) stand a good chance of future HOF status, in large part due to their BABIP skills. Who’s the worst hitter on our list? Former Tiger Ron LeFlore. Most of the players here possessed other skills in addition to their high BABIPs: they either didn’t strike out or hit for power or both. Ron LeFlore did not. He struck out a tick more than league average, didn’t hit the ball out of the park and didn’t even play defense in center field all that well. BUT he maintained a high BABIP even in a low BABIP era in the 70s and 80s (making his career number seem more of an achievement than Jeter’s) and leveraged that one skill into a decent if unexceptional major league career.
Now, none of these career numbers seem tremendously high – if we’re thinking about Jackson’s .396 BABIP in 2010 as a reference point. A career BABIP that high simply does not seem possible. There are many guys on the list with career numbers in the .340-.350 range, more still sitting above .330. But towards the top the air gets thin and it runs out before .380. But, BABIP is a real skill (or rather the result of a bunch of other less statistically observable skills) for a batter and not a matter of simple luck. When a high-BABIP player has a career year, their BABIP numbers can easily match or exceed Jackson’s .396 – and they often approach that number again, it isn’t so much a ‘fluke’ as it is a ‘perfect storm’. Ty Cobb had a .416 BABIP in 1922, but he followed it with a .341 in 1923. Ichiro had a career high .399 BABIP in 2004, followed by a .316 in 2005 but then a .389 in 2007 and a .384 in 2009. High BABIP is a skill that these guys possess or possessed, but it is still subject to the high variance and influence of luck that lesser men’s averages are. Even the lesser men on the list have had extraordinary years: LeFlore had a .391 BABIP for Detroit in 1976.