Ketel Marte had a very fine season in 2019. In fact, Ketel Marte had such a fine season that most of us have now priced in that this fineness probably won’t happen again. Much like when I’m walking down the street and people are screaming at me the same thing. (I’m more of a capital “F” Fineness type of guy.) After hitting 329/389/592 with 32 home runs and a staggering .264 ISO, his high BABIP has been targeted as reason for regression. While this stat remains an easy crutch to make fast conclusions, if I could just make one important point: I have a higher Fineness factor than Ketel Marte. Most people, actually. But if I could make two important points; I’d also say that Ketel Marte’s demise has been greatly exaggerated…
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At the risk of missing the forest for the trees, I thought it best to tackle the concept of BABIP first. Generally a stat often looked at to first determine if a batter was more-or-less successful with their contact, there’s a bit more to it than that and like most things in life, rather than this stat being black and white, it’s a bit of Grey. (See what I did there? They call me: Magician.) It isn’t as simple as saying, well, this hitter’s BABIP is way too high, REGRESSION SHALL REIGN DOWN FROM THE EARTH AND DESTROY ALL THAT IS DEAR. Or this hitter’s BABIP is too low, WAY TOO LOW, HE’S COMING FOR US ALL NEXT SEASON. HIDE YOUR BALLS. Something like that. What matters is where a hitter’s BABIP lands in comparison to his career benchmarks, and how the hitter’s other benchmarks correlate. (And it gets even more complicated when you factor in that the less career data we have, the more volatile our expectations become in terms of BABIP, so younger players can be harder to project).
Case in point, think of José Hernández, primarily a Brewers middle infielder in the 90’s and early 00’s that brought power, and average, um, average. In terms of BABIP, Hernández posted a career-high .404 BABIP in 2002 and a career-low BABIP of .269 in 1991. (Trivia factoid! His 2002 BABIP is the second-highest in MLB history to Rod Carew’s 1977 season when he achieved a .408 BABIP.) Not so coincidentally, José Hernández’s .404 BABIP in 2002 fueled his best season when he hit 288/356/478 with 24 homeruns. And would you believe, the very next season saw his BABIP collapse to just .311, (Beautiful Disaster?) dragging his triple-slash down to 225/287/347 and just 13 homeruns. BUT JAY, YOU TOLD ME THIS WOULD BE GOOD FOR KETEL! YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE!
I am the chosen one! (Maybe.) It’s important to note that Hernández’s career-best BABIP correlated directly with his career-worst flyball rate in 2002, as he posted a number under 30% for the first time in his career (28.2). And he did so with the same terrible strikeout rate he’d always had, about one in every three at-bats. Thusly, a player’s flyball rate be directly tied to their BABIP and together can provide context in terms of projections and expectations. (There are other examples we could explore where this concept is true, like Ichiro Suzuki and Derek Jeter, but who wants to talk about those no-names?)
Here’s what all of this Hernández story-telling establishes before you tell me to change the title, and that’s the importance of looking beyond just a player’s BABIP. So how does Ketel Marte stand up with the numbers we just explored?
Now, what can be gleaned here… (BEWARE THE GLEANING.) Well, first the obvious, Marte is hitting more homeruns and walking slightly less over the past three seasons. (They call me Obvious. Captain Obvious.) But look at this, with a bit of a hiccup in 2018, his FB% has remained in line with career numbers, and quite frankly, the only number that jumps out is his aforementioned .342 BABIP last year. However, based on what was established with Hernández, Marte’s BABIP should not lower significantly, at least if his FB% stays within his career norms, which I believe is a fair assumption. So if his underlying numbers don’t tell a story of regression, what do they tell us?
We might actually just be entering peak-Ketel Marte, a player who has officially entered their prime years and can produce these types of numbers this upcoming season and the foreseeable future. But don’t take it from me, I have a guy here you might trust a bit more…
“(Ketel) Marte made adjustments to his swing year over year. His Launch Angle went from an ugly 5.7 to 11.5, and he was top 15 overall for xBA. He absolutely killed fastballs — .349 and 19 homers. He’s always had great plate discipline and bat control. His minuscule 7.8% Swinging Strike rate coupled with a 83.6% Contact percentage are beautiful. The big question mark will be if he can hold his newfound 19% HR/FB. I think he can, and be a top 20 hitter overall next year. For full disclosure, I nearly had Marte in the above tier of guys I didn’t want because any time a guy goes from a 14-homer guy to a 32-homer guy it raises red flags, but the more I dug in on Ketel, the more he seduced me. Perhaps I’m just drunk.” – Grey Albright.
Perhaps we’re all just drunk…
Here’s another interesting data point that supports what both Grey and I are seeing, Marte’s quality of contact:
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Marte is just coming into his own as a hitter. And, like me, also appreciates having a higher hard percentage. So if someone tells you that his BABIP is cause for concern, just smile, nod, and ignore them knowing that he’ll produce something close to last year. Or maybe, he’ll produce something even better…
Jay is a longtime Razzball everything who consumes an egregious amount of Makers Mark as a vehicle to gain wisdom and augment his natural glow. Living in the D.C. area, he also likes spending time visiting the local parks and feeding lettuce to any turtles he encounters, including Mitch McConnell. You can follow him @jaywrong, or read his rarely (like never) updated blog Desultory Thoughts of a Longfellow.