Perhaps you didn’t expect the Marlins to be sitting at 57-51, tied with St. Louis for the last wildcard spot, in August. Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself that the Marlins have gotten super lucky. Sure they’ve got some playoff-caliber talent in Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Jose Fernandez, but no way they finish the season ahead of the Mets. Regression, baby, regression.
According to Pythagenpat, which tells us what a team’s record should be based on their run differential, the Marlins should be at 55-52. That’s a little lucky, but Miami’s +16 run differential does edge the Mets’ +14 and Pythagenpat sees the Mets as a luck neutral team. If you want to complain about luck, direct your attentions to the Rangers, who are 62-45 with a +5 run differential.
But luck comes in many different forms in baseball. On one end of the spectrum there’s the totally undeserved luck; the kind of breaks that the Royals and Blue Jays got during last years playoffs. Closer towards the middle is the “clutch” hitting that might be completely random or might be voodoo magic or is probably the spirit of David Ortiz. And then, towards the other end of the spectrum is BABIP – batting average on balls in play.
Factors like the quality of the opposing defence, the weather, and the park are completely out of the hitters control. But factors like speed, bat control, batted ball profiles and hitting to all fields make BABIP more of a skill than a crapshoot. According to research by The Hardball Times stat-whiz Steve Staude, the stat has a .370 year-to-year correlation, which isn’t predictive but does indicate some meaning. I would roughly estimate a player’s BABIP is 70% earned vs. 30% luck.
So let’s take a look at how the Marlins hitters have fared on balls in play this season.
That’s a lot of BABIP, and it’s why the Marlins lead all of baseball with a team BABIP of .324. Christian Yelich’s .381 BABIP leads the league also, as does his .370 mark over the past three calendar years. 32-year-old Martin Prado‘s mini-resurgence can be partly attributed to his obscene .481 BABIP vs. lefties, which would rank fifth all-time if the season ended today. Imagine what a full season of Dee Gordon would have done to these numbers.
What I wanted to know was if this Marlins team was built for this, if this collection of hitters all subscribe to a program that yields high batting averages on balls in play. Looking back over the last few seasons, the trend appears to begin during Yelich’s first full season. Here’s how the team has ranked in BABIP since then: 2013 – 28th, 2014 – 4th, 2015 – 6th, 2016 – 1st.
I’m not saying Yelich has single-handedly dragged the Marlins into BABIP heaven, but it’s interesting to use him as a microcosm of the Marlins’ hitting philosophy.
So here’s The Marlins Official Guide to BABIPing, Presented By Christian Yelich.
1. Don’t Let Them Shift You, Ever
Nobody sprays the ball like the Fish do. As a team they hit it to center field 37.2% of the time (1st in ML) and to the opposite field 27.9% of the time (3rd in ML). No manager is going to look at that data and think it’s a good idea to use a traditional pull-side shift.
Yelich, of course, leads this all fields charge, going up the middle or the other way around 70% of the time over his last three seasons. And guess how many times he got the traditional shift over that period? Just six times. Teams have started occasionally shifting him to the second base hole, but he’s responded this season by pulling the ball a little more to round out one of the most balanced all fields approaches in the game besides, well, Ichiro Suzuki.
According to data from Baseball Info Solutions, only the Brewers have been shifted less often than the Marlins since the start of 2015.
2. Hit A Ton of Ground Balls
Yup, you already guessed it. Over the past three calendar years, nobody has hit a higher proportion of their balls in play on the ground than Yelich. In fact, nobody in baseball other than Yelich has a GB% over 60 over that span. Ground balls are usually an invitation for some serious shifting (see: Howie Kendrick), but when you spray them all over the field and have good speed they become a key ingredient to any great BABIP party.
And you probably guessed this one too: Miami’s 48.7 GB% ranks second in baseball. With most of the team subscribed to the all fields approach, and every regular with the exception of Martin Prado and Derek Dietrich grading out as positive base runners, the Yelich Way is working to perfection.
3. Reach Base Even When Those Ground Balls Don’t Leave The Infield
Of course, infield hits are about more than just speed, but if you look it up you’ll find the Marlins leading the NL with 153 infield hits. If you guessed Yelich is the team leader, you guessed wrong. It’s rising catcher J.T. Realmuto with 14. Shades of Evan Gattis‘ miraculous 11 triple season last year.
4. Never Pop Up
Yelich means this one literally. Please understand this. At the tender age of 24, he has already posted two seasons where he never popped up once. His 1.5 IFFB% over the past three calendar years trails only Joey Votto and Kendrick. That rate has risen to 4.1% this season, but the team’s average of 8.4% is still good for 5th-best in the league.
Pop ups are essentially equal to strike outs. They don’t correlate too strongly with BABIP because as long as you’re making enough contact you can overcome a high IFFB rate. Realmuto, for example, has a 17.9 IFFB% with a 367 BABIP because his contact rate is 83%. Todd Frazier, on the other hand, has a 21.6 IFFB% with a .206 BABIP because his contact rate is 73%. But cutting out as many automatic outs as you can is essential to sustaining a high BABIP.
5. Make Contact Always, But Especially In The Zone
The antithesis to automatic outs is good contact. There’s no one stat that captures what “good” contact is, because it depends on launch angle, exit velocity, location of contact, and so many other factors. But if we assume that the hitter is on board with the first four steps of this guide, then Z-Contact% becomes a pretty solid proxy for good contact.
Yelich excels at hitting strikes, and the Marlins as a team rank 7th in the league in Z-Contact%, but it’s Prado who’s second in all of baseball with a 97.1 Z-Contact%.
And that’s about it. Just follow those 5 easy steps and you’ll be BABIPing like Christian Yelich in no time.
The Marlins may have the most powerful man in all of baseball in Stanton, but the bomb show sputters out after him. Miami knows how to hit, but not how to hit it far. Last year they finished 29th (just ahead of the Braves, so it doesn’t really count) in percentage of hits from home runs (8.5%). This year they sit at 8.8%. If Stanton is the Lenin of this team – the guy who they’ll build bronze statues of outside the stadium – then Yelich is the Stalin, the guy who’s lead everyone is actually following. Stanton is King Tommen, Yelich is Cersei. It’s great to have Stanton and his shiny muscles to put on the media guide, but Yelich is the software that this team operates on.