After a few tough games at the plate and the return of Detroit's rightful centerfielder, it looked as though the Legend of Berry had reached its conclusion. However, confidence in the team's corner outfielders has been lukewarm at best (especially given Dirks' injury), and Berry found himself back in the lineup on Sunday. His terrific 5-5 day provided fresh fuel for the "is Berry an everyday player?" debate, leading to the usual arguments about sustainability, riding streaks, and wanting players to fail to validate your blog posts (or so I'm told).
Going through this debate again, I started to think about how the argument was being presented and perceived. We can all agree on some very basic aspects of Quintin Berry's story: he was a minor league journeyman, and thus he'll likely never be an all-star; his BABIP is far too high to last; he's a fabulous base-runner on a team that needs them desperately; and lastly, that his production seems like a welcome relief to what Boesch, Young, and Raburn have done all year. That pretty much tells the whole story and would place Berry neatly into a role as a bench outfielder. And yet the debate ensues. It occurred to me that perhaps Berry is still a poorly-understood player. More importantly, the concept of BABIP regression is being poorly understood. A deeper look at the nuts and bolts of Berry's MLB performance should shed some light into why exactly he's not an everyday player--and what he could do to become one.
It's easy to say that someone has a BABIP that is astronomical (.473, I believe) and that it will decline, but it's tough to reconcile that with watching Berry slap base hits. He's gotten a couple obviously lucky hits, but most of his hits are just smacked in the short outfield or between infielders, all of which looks perfectly legitimate. The biggest sticking point psychologically is, well, why? Why would he stop getting the hits that he wasn't lucky to get in the first place? And so I think that, to explain where the regression will come in, we need to look deeper into his tendencies and see where exactly his deficiencies are.
Simply put, what prevents Berry from being a full-time player is that he just strikes out too damn much. Making a leaderboard of Tigers hitters with at least 40 PAs (it covers everyone of note), Berry's K rate is 27.4%, which is second on the team. He's ahead of can't-hit-anything Raburn, Jackson, and every other hitter except Danny Worth. Remember Jackson's struggles with Ks before this season: in his rough 2011 season, Jackson was at 27.1%. Sure, Jackson was still an everyday player in 2011, but there's two problems with that. 1: Berry can't be the everyday CF for obvious reasons. 2: Jackson got by with exceptional glove work that Berry can't provide.
Berry's K-rate is no fluke, either, as his swing vitals support it as well. Going back to our leaderboard, Berry swings at 48.9% of all pitches, 4th on the team behind the hacktastic Boesch and Young, and also Miggy. This is not to say that Berry's plate discipline is poor; this swing rate is a necessity for Quintin. 54.1% of all pitches he sees are in the zone, which is highest on the team by far, and a direct result of Berry's absence of power. Taking more pitches does Berry no good, as they're just going to be called strikes. He's 11th on the team in swinging at outside pitches (27.5%), so his command of the strike zone isn't much of an issue. Rather, Berry's issue is that he's just coming up empty. His contact rate is 80.1%, which is 9th on the team. 9th isn't exactly terrible, but it's not good enough for an all-speed/no-power hitter. To give you an idea of what it takes, Juan Pierre had a fairly long and successful career with Berry's skill set. Juan Pierre made contact 93% of the time. Brett Gardner is likewise working with these tools, but he makes contact 90% of the time. Now, Quintin Berry doesn't have to be as good as those two to deserve a starting job, but he needs to be close.
So what, this worked for Berry so far, what's the problem? Just imagine for a moment that Berry's BABIP drops to a still-really-high-but-not-as-insane .400. His OPS goes down to a still solid .744. Now, with a .364 BABIP, the OPS is down to a below-average .696. Even with the speed, a .696 OPS isn't very attractive for a corner outfielder. The strikeouts create a large divide between BABIP and AVG, and he doesn't get any of that back on home runs. Now the reduced BABIP could be from anything: weaker contact once in a while, liners hit directly at fielders, etc. But keep in mind that the difference between a .473 BABIP and a .364 BABIP, as of right now, is 6 hits in 89 plate appearances.
The other side of the argument that Berry isn't an everyday player is to ask, at what point do you stop dismissing the performance? I for one won't dismiss the possibility, but something in this article has to change. Now, if Berry becomes the first true-talent .473 BABIP hitter, I will be the first disciple of the Church of Q. Also, we can all agree that he's never going to add real power. The best chance he has is to find a way to get that contact rate close to 90%. As the strikeouts go down, he'll get more mileage out of whatever BABIP he does settle into, and it just might be enough to make him a league average hitter. If Berry can be a league-average hitter, he's good enough to play every day. If he can't, well, teams always need 4th outfielders.
P.S. If you enjoyed this article, I regularly tweet analysis during games @ChampaignCaviar. -- Nick