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Explaining Ryan Raburn and BABIP


I had this thought today that I could write companion pieces to analysis that runs in the Detroit News. Maybe explain the stat I used a bit more for people unfamiliar with it. Maybe dive deeper into a few numbers to make up for the need for brevity in writing newspaper copy. So I'm going to step back and add a bit of depth to why I believe in Ryan Raburn.

Baseball is a game of stats. You look at them on the back of bubblegum cards. You see them flashed across your television screens. You hear them recited during radio broadcasts. Maybe you memorize them for trivia purposes. Yet for some reason, if you don't look at the generally approved ones there must be something wrong with you.

For some, if you recite average, runs batted in or home runs, you watch a baseball game the right way. If you understand batting average on balls in play (BABIP), line-drive rates, or strikeouts-to-walks ratios, clearly you do not respect the game of baseball for all of its mysteries and beauty.

How does this make any sense at all? It doesn't. I cannot even begin to imagine what must go on inside the heads of people who think it makes sense. Frankly, I don't want to be in their heads. I reject the notion completely. There is no right or wrong way to watch the game. Enjoy it as you see fit, with batting average or with xFIP or with no stats at all. You don't need them. Just sit back and enjoy.

But there are right and wrong ways to analyze what might happen in the future. Understanding which stats matter and how to use them is the stock of my trade -- and why I'm right much more often than I'm wrong.

Does that sound a little cocky? Maybe. Truly (and despite what Big Al tells you) I am not always right. I'll be the first to admit that. Baseball games involve a lot of variation. The better team doesn't always win. The correct analysis of a situation doesn't always get the expected results. The manager makes the right decision and has it blow up in his face. That's part of the fun of the game.

But I'll put my record up against people's gut feelings and crazed rants any day, and leave it up to everyone else to look back and decide who to trust.

Which brings us to a certain Ryan Raburn ...

Raburn had looked like he was turning the corner several times during the month of May. All you had to do was watch the game -- not just look at the box score the next day. If you watched the game, you'd see a home run falling just short in a way-too-big outfield. You'd see an extra-base line drive shot dropping an inch or two to the wrong side of the chalk. You'd see a great play made by the shortstop. Observing that, I asked myself if maybe things weren't turning around for Raburn.

As I wrote in the column, a quick way to check whether a player was lucky or unlucky -- and luck is used here because "random variation within the likely outcomes" sounds too nerdy even for me -- is to compare his current BABIP to his career figures.

I'll pause here to explain further for those who do not follow sabermetrics closely. (You can skip these paragaphs if you know what I'm talking about.) BABIP basically tells you how often a batter gets a hit when he puts the ball onto the playing field. Essentially you're leaving strikeouts and home runs out. The major league average is around 30 percent of the time -- or .300. But not every ballplayer is the same, and obviously not every ballplayer is average.

There are certain things which will lead to a batter being better. Being fast helps. Who doesn't expect the faster runner to leg out a ground ball more often than the slower one? The other key is being able to make solid contact and hit for line drives. Basically, the easiest out to make is a fly ball. Fielders have time to react. Most fly balls are caught if they stay in the stadium. Then you've got the ground ball. There's less time to react. Not all fielders have the best range. And you have to add in a strong, accurate throw to complete the out. Batters who consistently hit line drives have the best results to show for it -- and, generally, the highest BABIP.

So you can't just say you expect Miguel Cabrera to have a .300 BABIP. He hits line drives often and has a career .346 BABIP to show for it. (In years past, a speedy player like Ichiro hit few fly balls was frequently near the top of BABIP; he's a career .350). Likewise, you get a guy like Carlos Pena, who in past years hit a lot of fly balls, and you're not surprised to find a career BABIP of .279.

But back to Raburn: He was bad in April. He hit line drives just 6.8 percent of the time. He hit fly balls more than 47 percent of the time. There were issues. Maybe he wasn't seeing the ball well. Maybe his mechanics were off. Maybe his head wasn't on right. Who knows. But the .182 BABIP didn't seem outrageous given his batted ball types.

But that changed in May. You could see he was making solid contact without getting results. I checked the batted ball stats. I don't remember what they were exactly, but as I noted in the column for the News, his line drive rate for the month of May was 19 percent heading into Sunday. His BABIP was actually even worse than .182 during the same period. This is a player who has shown the consistent ability to get on base at a .323 to .330 clip when the ball is in play.

As for the home run: Raburn's career norm is that 11.5 percent of fly balls leave the park for a home run. He's been at or above that number since 2009. Yet out of 30-something fly balls in 2012, none had left the park before Tuesday. Joe Morgan might say he was due.

If you're a buy low/sell high type, it was a good time to call a turnaround in Raburn's results Especially given his success playing in Chicago. If Raburn continues seeing the ball and making contact like he has done during the first half of this month, he'll have results a lot closer to the past three days than the first 13. That is, he'll hit like the Raburn we've seen in the past.

Statistical mining didn't tip me off; watching the game did. However statistics, when you use the right ones, reflect reality and can help answer properly phrased questions. Statistical analysis can be found in many, many fields. It works just as well in sports.

Hey, Raburn could go 0-for tonight. But in the long term, I still believe in his ability to hit the ball. With his track record, I'd have to be insane to go against him.