High highs and low lows. Feast or famine. Some other cliche. That's truly been the story for the 2016 Oakland A's. Road sweeps of the rival Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees plus home series victories over the Kansas City Royals and Houston Astros tell one story about the team. Scraping the bottom of the bowl for runs and 8-2 losses with their ace on the mound tell another story.
Early in the season I wrote about how the A's weren't hitting right-handed pitchers yet. They still aren't, as evidenced by their 19th best wRC+ versus righties. For whatever reason this team, despite having some quality hitters, hasn't hit well.
I think I found one reason for this prolonged slump: bad luck. The A's rank 28thin Major League Baseball in Batting Average on Balls in Play with an average of .273, which is, give or take, 20 points below the league average. It's a pretty self explanatory statistic, but there is more depth to it than just how often a batted ball falls for a hit.
BABIP is important because the frequency with which a player gets a hit on a ball in play or allows a hit on a ball in play is very telling. Three main factors influence BABIP and all three of those factors tell us something important about that player's overall stat line. Those factors are defense, luck, and talent level.
BABIP isn't a catch-all statistic that indicates whether a player is underperforming or not. However, when compared to a given player's career norm and his ability to hit the ball with authority, BABIP can at least account for some of that player's poor performance.
The team's low BABIP wouldn't necessarily be problematic if several A's hitters were a tick or two below their career norm. But several A's hitters are well below their career norm, leading me to believe better days are ahead.
Danny Valencia's injury might've forced Coghlan into the lineup more often that the A's intended this early. Still, his lack of production, especially against righties is troubling. Coghlan's BABIP sits at a team-worst .153 (among qualified hitters). Coghlan has posted a BABIP higher than .280 in 5 of the previous 7 seasons and his career mark is .310. So he's generally been luckier than he's been in 2016. His batted ball data doesn't show anything out of the ordinary as his 27% hard-hit is almost identical to his career average and isn't far off of his previous two seasons (29.8 in ‘14, 33% in ‘15). The one cause for concern in his profile is his contact rate. He's making significantly less contact this season than in years past, roughly 8% less. He's swinging less but he's chasing more pitches out of the zone. Perhaps he's pressing, or just thrown off by the amount of playing time and being moved around the diamond. He's someone the A's shouldn't really be worried about, yet. Check back in June.
Semien has quickly become less of a point of stress for many A's fans, and the team I'm sure, because he's proven he's capable of playing shortstop everyday. However, he's been fascinating to watch in the batter's box. He is quietly posting career-highs in walk rate, isolated slugging, slugging percentage, wOBA, and wRC+, despite batting just .210. His BABIP is an unsightly .197. In 2014 his BABIP was .310 and in 2015 it was .312. So why is he batting more than 100 points lower on balls in play? His hard-hit rate looks normal and he‘s exchanged a few points of soft-hit % for medium-hit %. Like Coghlan, Semien is swinging less but he's also chasing pitches less. Also like Coghlan, he's not making contact as often as he did last season, unfortunately.
What's worrisome to me is his line-drive rate, which is just 8.1%. His home run/fly ball rate is 22.2%, however. Interestingly last season these rates were reversed. His LD% was in the 20s and his HR/FB% was just about 9%. Home runs don't affect BABIP since they aren't viewed as balls in play, so once he starts hitting a few more line drives and gets more balls to fall for hits we should see an increase in his BABIP, and subsequently his overall average.
Alsonso's BABIP sits at .234 (thanks to a recent hot streak), easily the lowest of his career and lower than his career rate by almost 70 points. He's posted a .306 BABIP or better in 5 of his previous 6 seasons so better luck is ahead. His hard-hit rate is the best of his career and beats his career average by 8%. He's walking a little less than usual and striking out slightly more, but nothing about strikeout and walk numbers concern me. There seems to be a common theme here because he's making less contact than usual. The good news is that when he hits the ball he hits it harder than he used to. Since the calendar turned to May Alonso has turned things around. His BABIP is .316 and his OPS an wRC+ are .804 and 142, respectively. My hope is that he keeps this up.
Generally speedy players live on having a high BABIP. That hasn't been the case with Crisp. His .238 BABIP is the second-lowest mark of his career. His walk and strikeout rates are all normal, as are his hard-hit rates. Like the other A's on this list he's made less contact. When he has made contact he's targeting the middle of the field and isn't pulling the ball quite as much. This is something to watch for as it is usually a good thing to try to go up the middle. For Crisp this might not be true.
As Tim pointed out there is plenty of season left to play and there will be many opportunities for these four contributors to get back on track. We shouldn't be too worried about lower-than-usual contact rates, yet. Once we hit June it'll be important to monitor these numbers to see if we can expect a rebound, if we haven't seen one yet.