We're deep in the midst of BABIP funny season, when there are star hitters batting below .150, and scrubs batting .400 — and it feels like they've been playing long enough for those numbers to mean something (hint: they don't).
But extreme BABIPs are not just an April phenomenon. Pitchers, and, to a lesser extent, catchers, tend to post BABIPs below league average. And certain beasts, like Mike Trout and David Wright, have the ability to produce monster BABIPs year after year. This rare skill is one of the most valuable a hitter can possess. Where does it come from, and is it possible to identify it in a prospect's statistical profile?
I was inspired to investigate this question by the exploits of young Brandon Nimmo, who posted a .402 BABIP last season, and has a .382 mark overall for his career. The range of BABIPs is much wider in the minors, but that's still a pretty high level. Can we expect Nimmo to be a "true" high-BABIP hitter in the majors?
Unfortunately, I don't know of a site that makes it easy to look up career BABIPs for minor leaguers. To get a sample of BABIP mashers, I pulled up every minor leaguer who played a full season on an age-appropriate track (21 or under in low-A, 22 in A+, 23 or less in AA and AAA) with a .375+ BABIP between 2006 and 2010. I eliminated catchers to simplify things, because of their tendency towards lower BABIP as a group.
I was left with a small but interesting sample of 24 players who posted at least one such mega-BABIP season in the minors, then went on to get at least a few hundred PA in the majors. Does this group have a talent for getting hits to fall in?
The short answer is: Yes.
The slightly longer answer is: 18 of the 24 (75%) have a career BABIP above .300 in the majors. The group as a whole has a mean BABIP (just a straight average, not weighted for playing time) of .317, and a median of .315.
To get the really long answer, I broke the sample down into three tiers, based on each player's total career minor league BABIP.
Tier 1: Career MiLB BABIP above .375
This group had an average career minor league BABIP of .389. They had an average career MLB BABIP of .335.
Tier 2: Career MiLB BABIP between .350 and .375
This group had an average career minor league BABIP of .364. They had an average career MLB BABIP of .317.
Tier 3: Career MiLB BABIP below .350
This group had an average career minor league BABIP of .335. They had an average career MLB BABIP of .300.
Even in this group of not very exciting players, four of the six had a career major league BABIP of .307 or higher. But the group as a whole is dragged down by Aaron Cunningham's miserable .271 mark.
What does it all mean?
This is not a large sample of players, but I think it demonstrates a pretty strong link between minor league and major league BABIP ability.
The link was not consistent from player to player. Even the top tier had one guy whose BABIP ability deserted him in the majors: Josh Fields, whose .377 minor league BABIP translated only into a very normal .298 mark in the show. But the other five members of that tier all have significantly better than league-average BABIPs, ranging from nice (Cameron Maybin, .387 minors, .314 majors) to spectacular (Mike Trout, .407 minors, .368 majors).
Having a very high BABIP in the minors does not guarantee any special ability in that area in the majors. But the data suggests that the higher the minor league BABIP, the greater the chance that a prospect is demonstrating a sustainable major league skill, and not just beating up on lesser talent.
So you're saying Brandon Nimmo is the next Mike Trout?
But as he stands right now, Brandon Nimmo would fit in as the exact median member of the top tier of the study, the group that averaged a .335 BABIP in the majors. Of course, caveats apply: Nimmo's minor league career is far from over, and it's far from assured that he can maintain a .382 BABIP through AA and AAA.
More importantly, we must remember that my sample includes only those who have had major league careers. Around half of the original .375+ BABIP monsters I compiled were eliminated because they never even had more than a cup of coffee in the show. These players may or may not have had some extraordinary ability to hit 'em where they ain't, but their careers were dragged down by other factors.
Still, by posting even a single season of .375 BABIP in the full-season minors, as he did last year, Nimmo put himself in select company. When and if he gets his chance in the majors, it'll be fascinating to see how this talent shakes out.