Sky’s the Limit
Brewers fans have come to expect substantial drop-offs in performance after good stretches of Brewers baseball. That’s understandable, given the way the team has performed in the clutch in recent seasons (2008 excluded), and may have some questioning the Brewers’ recent offensive success. Over the last 30 days, the regular cast* in the Brewers offense has done remarkably well, as the following batting averages indicate:
- Yuniesky Betancourt: .371
- Ryan Braun: .346
- Nyjer Morgan: .318
- Prince Fielder: .310
- Corey Hart: .295
- Casey McGehee: .291
- Jonathan Lucroy: .284
Unbelievably good, right? Well, there’s every reason to expect it to continue.
Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is one measure often used to identify when a hitter is headed for a correction. Without getting into all the math involved, it is the percentage of plate appearances that result in a hit, except for home runs; that means it does not factor in things like strikeouts and walks. If we assume that, over the course of a season, about 30% of the balls a given batter puts in play will fall in for a hit, we can roughly determine how dumb luck factors into a batter’s success or failure over a given stretch of time. A high BABIP means the batter is likely headed for a correction in the future; a low BABIP means the batter will probably come around. This is not universally true, and BABIP can’t measure all of the subtle things that impact a batter’s performance (better defenses, mechanical adjustments, etc), but its useful as a rough stat if you keep those qualifiers in mind.
Let’s start with Yuniesky Betancourt, who as it turns out might be the one regular hitting over his head. Betancourt is a career .271 hitter. Over his career, about 28 percent of balls he puts in play have fallen for hits. After his recent hot streak, Betancourt is approaching those averages this season (.268 BA/.275 BABIP). But there’s simply no way that Betancourt can continue to have the kind of success he has recently enjoyed at the plate. Over the last 30 days, Betancourt has a shocking .390 BABIP, nearly a full .100 points over his career number. Now, there’s no denying Betancourt has looked much better at the plate lately; his approach, as Bill Schroeder has repeatedly noted on telecasts, has changed dramatically from the first half of the season when he hit only .237. We suspected then that Yuni was not that bad, and with good reason given his 2010 numbers with the Royals. But the point here is that Betancourt is nowhere near as good as he has been over the past month. His plate discipline and balance may have improved (and I’m just going by observation on that), but that isn’t enough to account for the kind of numbers he’s putting up. Regression is in the air, which is why I suggested that it might be worth it for Doug Melvin to overpay for a guy like Jamey Carroll.
Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, of course, are not in the same boat. Over the last 30 days,Braun and Fielder have BABIPs of .371 and .333, respectively, but they’ve always been skilled batters who can find gaps (career BABIPs: .337 and .300). We already know that these are elite hitters, and their recent production is certainly not uncharacteristic of what they’ve done in the past (though Prince’s 2011 slash line of ..304/.420/.571 is a welcome improvement over last year’s near-career low of .261/.401/.471). You could reasonably expect Braun and Fielder to continue on this way the rest of the season.
Nyjer Morgan is an interesting case because he had some success with the Pirates/Nationals in 2008-09 but very little success with the Nationals in 2010. In 2011, he’s showing what a fluky year 2010 was by hitting .324 with a .387 BABIP. Over the last 30 days, Morgan is batting .318, with about 39 percent of balls put in play falling for hits. While those certainly looks better than his 2010 numbers (.253 BA, .304 BABIP), they are not far off from what Morgan did in 2008-09 (2008: .294 BA/.364 BABIP; 2009: .307/.355). The likelihood of regression here is tough to measure; it’s not likely that Morgan will fall back on tough times the remainder of the season, but there is some room for him to cool off.
Corey Hart is sporting a warm .295 BA and .319 BABIP over the last 30 days, and those numbers are pretty legit. Hart has career averages of .276 and .311, but has replicated his recent success in several past years (2006: .283 BA/.337 BABIP; 2007: .295/.321; 2010: .283/.324). Hart may well be able to sustain his recent performance.
Casey McGehee’s career numbers (.273 BA/.300 BABIP) suggest he might continue to hit around his 30-day averages of .291/.333. And after a ridiculous slump in the first half in which McGehee hit only .223, the guy is definitely due for some upward adjustment. Although he’s not going to come near his 2010 batting average of .285, there’s every reason to believe McGehee will not finish the season at his current average of .237.
Jonathan Lucroy is the final regular I want to profile, but assessing the role of luck in his recent success is difficult given his lack of a track record. Lucroy hit a disappointing .253 in 2010, but it was his first big league experience and he had to cope with the mental challenge of becoming the starting catcher mid-season. Lucroy has taken the reigns this season and over the last 30 days has hit right in line with his 2011 averages (.284 BA/.345 BABIP vs. .283/.341).
With the exception of Yuni B, there is a good chance that the Brewers’ recent offensive success is not a fluke. Very rarely have Brewers fans had the pleasure of seeing all players in the lineup contributing at the same time. If this is the way it will go for the rest of the season, Brewers fans are in for a real treat.
*Yes, I know that technically Nyjer Morgan remains in a platoon. Also, there’s really no regular right now at second base with Rickie Weeks out; if I had to pick one, it would be Felipe Lopez, who is only batting .233 in the past 30 days