ST PETERSBURG, FL: Pitcher Jeremy Hellickson #58 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches against the Seattle Mariners during the game at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
So, by now I probably don't have to explain Batting Average on Balls in Play to you. But just in case, essentially it's what it sounds like; usually, it refers simply to the batting average on batted balls in fair territory that don't result in home runs. In this era major-league average is usually in the .290-.300 range. When a pitcher's BABiP allowed strays much from that range, either below or above, we generally attribute it to luck.
Last season, Jeremy Hellickson posted the lowest BABiP allowed in the majors. Not coincidentally, he also was the American League's Rookie of the Year.
Of course, you wouldn't expect him to credit luck for his success. And he doesn't. Alan Dell (via Bradenton.com):
Hellickson had what some say was an unbelievable BABIP last season; they argue it took a lot of luck and the Rays shouldn’t expect the same.
Hellickson isn’t worried and has enough confidence in himself that things will work out.
“The goal is to go out there and let them put it in play and we have a great defense,” he said. “I was able to do that last year and hopefully I can do the same thing. I want them to put it in play, but you’ve got to miss barrels and get weak contact. If I do what I do, things will work out."
Rays manager Joe Maddon says he can help Hellickson keep his BABIP low, but he also is not worried.
“A lot of that is baseball luck, and you’ve just got to go out there and play,” Maddon said. “More than likely, Hellickson’s BABIP will be higher this season. If might mean a couple of more knocks, but then if we move our defense and put it more properly in place, he might have the same BABIP this year. Things change on an annual basis. James Shields’ couldn’t have been higher than it was two years ago.”
The Rays do have a great defense. According to the latest and greatest Fielding Bible, the Rays' defense was 85 runs better than average last season, which dwarfed the second-best Diamondbacks (+54). Of course, you can't assume the Rays will be nearly as good in 2012; that +85 is tied for second best in the last 10 years. So while Hellickson's defense, and especially his infield defense, undoubtedly helped his BABiP last season, it's highly unlikely to help him as much this season.
And there's actually a way to measure how much a pitcher's defense helped him. According to The Fielding Bible, Hellickson did get the batters to hit balls weakly, or (perhaps) directly at the fielders, to the extent that his expected BABiP was just .269, the second lowest figure in the majors. But of course that's still far higher than his actual BABiP (.231 as measured by Baseball Info Solutions; the usual version, which doesn't strip out bunts, is even lower).
Joe Maddon probably knows the truth, or most of it. Hellickson's probably going to give up a lot more hits this season than last, and there's not much that Maddon can do about it. Yes, he can position his fielders "properly" and that's going to help. The Rays already use more infield shifts than anybody else in the majors, so there's only so much more that Maddon can do. The Rays' starters did have low BABiPs last season; all of them. At .281 and .280, David Price and Wade Davis were the highest among the four main guys.
And that's partly the shifts, partly the great infield defense, and partly luck.
Those first two things will be back in 2012. The third might not be, though. And I still say that if 2011's Rookie of the Year doesn't improve his strikeout-to-walk ratio, he's in for a relatively rough 2012.