Much discussion of Ruben Tejada and his future has mentioned his very high line drive career line-drive rate of 27%, which is second in the majors among qualified hitters in the batted-ball-stats era (2002-2012):
- Cory Sulliven: 28.2%
- Ruben Tejada: 27.0%
- Brent Mayne: 26.0%
- Mark Loretta: 26.0%
- Todd Helton: 25.2%
- Mark McLemore: 24.9%
- Joey Votto: 24.8%
- Freddie Freeman: 24.4%
- Michael Young: 24.2%
- Bill Mueller: 24.1%
- Dan Wilson: 24.1%
- Eric Karros: 24.1%
- Chris Johnson: 23.9%
- Julio Franco: 23.9%
- Joe Randa: 23.9%
The question is, what does this fact say about Ruben, and what we might be able to expect from him going forward? Will he continue to post above-average BABIPs, perhaps even higher than the ones he's put up thus far? We don't have an extremely rich data set to comp Tejada with here, but let's break down these 15 line-drive specialists and see what we can find.
- Brent Mayne (BABIP: .273)
- Mark McLemore (BABIP: .295)
- Dan Wilson (BABIP: .309)
- Eric Karros (BABIP: .286)
We can probably set these guys aside. They were all in steep decline when the batted-ball-stats era began, and they are captured here in small career sample sizes on the verge of retirement.
THE HIGH-STRIKEOUT HIGH-BABIP BAD-DEFENSE GUYS
- Cory Sullivan (BABIP: .336) Career WAR: 0.2
- Chris Johnson (BABIP: .347) Career WAR: 2.0
- Freddie Freeman (BABIP: .315) Career WAR: 2.7
These guys might have relevance to a general study of high line-drive rates, but they don't have much use as career comps for Tejada, being high-strikeout, low-glove guys whose one saving grace is making authoritative contact when they do connect.
Cory Sullivan's worth a note since he's the one guy who actually beat Tejada on the big list. He posted a sky-high LD% (and BABIP) in each of his first two seasons, then never got 200 PA again because he sucked at every other aspect of baseball. His LD% cooled off some in future seasons, but it was over a series of tiny samples.
Also, did you know that Sullivan's brief stop on the Mets is the only thing keeping his career WAR above zero?
THE PURE HITTERS
- Mark Loretta (BABIP: .314) Career WAR: 22.5
- Todd Helton (BABIP: .334) Career WAR: 61.3
- Joey Votto (BABIP: .359) Career WAR: 28.7
- Michael Young (BABIP: .336) Career WAR: 29.0
- Bill Mueller (BABIP: .312) Career WAR: 25.5
- Julio Franco (BABIP: .349) Career WAR: 48.6
- Joe Randa (BABIP: .302) Career WAR: 22.0
- Ruben Tejada (BABIP: .318) Career WAR: 3.6
Now here's the meat of the survey. Eight men left standing. For some reason, they're all infielders. More importantly, they're all known for their ability to hit for average, and they all posted above-average BABIPs during the batted-ball era. Which is what you'd probably except from a group of extreme line-drive hitters, but it's good to see it borne out.
Also, how impressive is it that Julio Franco continued to post an elite LD% in his mid-40s?
Tejada still sticks out like a sore thumb: he has played his entire MLB career thus far at age 22 or younger; the other 7 players in the group all began their careers at age 23 or older. Perhaps not coincidentally, Tejada has easily the worst ISO of the group, while being the best defensive player.
But if, in 5 years, Tejada has developed some old man strength but lost a step in the field, he could ultimately fit the rest of the group very closely. Other than Votto and Helton, these guys all peaked around their age 26-32 seasons as .280-.320 hitters with 5-20 HR and mediocre defense at SS/2B/3B.
Mueller and Loretta might be the best comps for Ruben. Both had Tejada-like builds and never hit for power in the minors. Both gradually developed a little pop in their mid-20s, eventually posting a couple 10-19 HR all-star-type seasons in their early 30s.
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Additional bonus note: I looked for players who had a very high career LD% through age 24, to see if that might capture anyone who had a Tejada-like line-drive-machine beginning to their career, but then fall off later (and thus wouldn't appear on the full-career list). The closest example I found was Mark Teixeira, but he just had one fluke season of 28.2% in his rookie year (age 23) and since then has been close to league average in every subsequent season.
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Hitter BABIP is a weird landscape. If you look at the players who sustain high BABIPs over time, you'll see a mix of extreme ground-ball hitters (Derek Jeter, Howie Kendrick, Ichiro, Jon Jay, Julio Franco), extreme line-drive hitters (Joey Votto, Michael Young, Chris Johnson, Julio Franco again), and guys with very ordinary batted-ball profiles (Miguel Cabrera, David Wright, Matt Kemp, Matt Holliday).
The good news is that Tejada's most similar players by this analysis all had long, productive careers as everyday players. The bad news is that there are so few similar players that we probably shouldn't draw any firm conclusions, especially since Tejada is an outlier even within his group.
We can't know how much upside might be lurking inside Tejada's still-weirdly-young-looking body. The fun part will be finding out.