May 28, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; San Diego Padres second baseman Jedd Gyorko (9) hits a single during the fifth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
The idea of regression is often thrown around the baseball world. “Player X did well this year, so he’s due for regression” or “Player Y is underperforming, he will regress back to career levels.” The problem with talking about regression, is it’s not as simple as thinking a number with gravitate towards a certain average. There’s all types of inner workings with even the simplest of regression stats, like BABIP and HR/FB, and even though we can get some information from them, there’s still large amounts of uncertainty. The Padres are currently working with inarguably the worst offense in baseball (even with the recent hot stretch), ranking last in traditional and advanced metrics such as AVG, OBP, wOBA and wRC+. And it’s not like they’re much better in any other category, ranking bottom five in SLG, BB% and fWAR. The hope for the Padres, lies with positive regression, since they have the lowest BABIP and line-drive percentage in the league, with lots of room for improvement. But the real question is, are they good enough to improve?
BABIP and line-drive rates are tricky stats to work with. BABIP, or, batting average on balls in play, will tend to hover around .300 for any given player or team. At least, that’s the theory. Many things can affect a player’s BABIP, such as speed, hard contact and direction of hits. A fast player, like Austin Jackson, has put up a career .355 BABIP. His legs let him get more infield hits than most, meaning his baseline is higher. Miguel Cabrera is an otherworldly hitter, and hit ability to drive the ball to all fields lets him put up a career .346 BABIP. BABIP can also be influenced by ground ball rate, as ground balls tend to find the outfield more often than fly balls find the turf.
Line drive rate is much easier to work with, since there’s basically no year to year correlation. Every player tends to regress back or up to 20%, with virtually no room up or down. It’s different than BABIP because it holds less predictive value, and regression is at a set number.
The Padres may have the worst offense in baseball, but there’s also no way they’re actually this bad. Even if the strikeouts aren’t good, they can’t take any walks and the power is non-existent, there’s reason to believe in improvement. The Padres may rank last in most offensive categories, but they also rank last in these last two stats: BABIP and line drive percentage (find the whole spreadsheet here).
Some teams do end up with a season BABIP close to the Padres’ .271 BABIP, but the peripherals behind it don’t add up. Most of those teams have high fly ball rates, slow players and young, inexperienced players who can’t spray the ball. The Padres have the highest ground ball rate, tenth highest speed score (created by uber-saberist Bill James) and plenty of vets in the lineup. Their line drive rate of 17.3% is nearly 3 full percentage points below league average. Not only are those expected to come up, but that will increase most offensive statistics too, since the expected batting average is about .670.
The Friars are already showing signs of jolting out of their funk, as noted earlier by our own Mark Whelan. As goes the old saying, regression waits for no team, or something like that. But on the flip side, it’s important to not fall into the gambler’s fallacy, which in this case would be expecting a team BABIP of .350 and line drive rates of 25%. The numbers will both be around league average, .300 and 20% respectively, for the remainder of the season. And if the team can tread water while playing with a Double-A offense, imagine the results when the hitters finally keep up the bats. The Padres aren’t out of the playoff hunt yet.