Let's talk about Brandon Moss, Mark Bellhorn, and the two things they have in common...an uncanny knack for missing the ball and an even better knack for missing fielders if they do hit the ball. Up until last winter I thought that an out was an out was an out. I figured a strikeout is the same as a fly out so, really, what does it matter that a guy strikes out so much? It's just another out. Then I was introduced to the stat known as Batting Average for Balls In Play or BABIP for short. Basically, if a player doesn't strike out or hit a home run, he puts the ball in play. It's either going to be a hit or an out. That's not completely true, of course. There are errors, sacrifices, and all kinds of possibilities in any baseball situation. But for the most part, a ball put in play is going to be a hit or an out. On average, 30% of the balls that are put into play fall in for hits. So the league average for BABIP is .300, give or take a couple of percentage points. BABIP is a more consistent number than AVG and a player's BABIP will fluctuate less than his AVG.
I should've seen it coming. Before I spent so much time defending Bellhorn and shouting from the rooftops that he was going to improve and be even better in 2005 I should've checked out his BABIP. Last year Bellhorn's BABIP was .368. It should've been obvious that this year he wasn't going to be able to keep it up. It's not unusual for a Red Sox player to have a higher than average BABIP. One thing the stat doesn't do is take park effects into consideration. Fenway, with its lack of foul ground and the Green Monster looming so close to home plate, is a place where more than your average amount of balls are going to fall in. This year the split isn't too indicative of that. The Sox BABIP at home is .325 while on the road it's still an unusually high .322, but when you look at last year's numbers you can see what I mean. Last year their BABIP on the road was .295 compared to an extremely high .350. Anyways, Bellhorn's .368 BABIP was a sure indicator that his AVG was going to fall this year. The scary part is that his BABIP this year is still very high at .340. With his AVG falling, so did his OBP and SLG. Bellhorn, believe it or not, is even managing to strike out more often this year than last year. This year he's struck out in 35.7% of his AB's compared to last year's total of 33.8%. Both are incredibly high for a major leaguer. Just how important are his strike outs? Well, according to the simplest RC formula of OBP*TB, Mark Bellhorn has created 33 runs this year and his RC/27 is about 4.7 meaning that a line up of Mark Bellhorns would score 4.7 runs per game. Let's pretend that Bellhorn only struck out in 25% of his at bats, a percentage that is still pretty high for a major leaguer. That brings his total down to 62 instead of 89 meaning he would've put 27 extra balls in play. Assuming that 30% of those balls fell in he would've had 8 extra hits. With about 35% of his hits being doubles, he would've had 2 or 3 more doubles. We'll call it 2 more. So if Bellhorn would've struck out 27 less times he'd have 10 more total bases. What would that do to his RC? That would bring his RC up to 39 and his RC/27 would be 5.5 per game. That's a pretty big jump, so yeah, the strike outs are hurting Mark Bellhorn's numbers and hurting the Red Sox run production. Now, does all this mean that Mark Bellhorn deserves all the hate that is directed his way...absolutely not. ESPN, no doubt using a more complicated RC formula than me, has Bellhorn tabbed for an RC of 35.4, good enough for 16th out of all the second basemen in the game. That means Bellhorn has very average production. For what the Red Sox are paying the guy to do, which is bat at the bottom of the order and play second, Bellhorn has been doing a fantastic job. Yeah, I'd love to see a return to 2004's Bellhorn when he finished the season with an RC of 90.7, good enough to be the fifth best second baseman in baseball, but even if he's not one of the top guys, he's still a valuable guy. What I want to know is how a guy like Bellhorn's predecessor, Todd Walker, who plays some pretty bad defense and isn't really a very good hitter can become a fan favorite while someone like Mark Bellhorn earns the scorn of all of Red Sox Nation. What is the moral of the story? Strikeouts do hurt him. But he is still valuable.
While we're talking about BABIP and strikeout rates, let's take a look at another guy in the Red Sox system who benefits from a very high BABIP, but whose value takes a hit from a very high strikeout rate. Brandon Moss, who has finally started to heat up and was named to the Eastern League All-Star team, made a name for himself in 2004 with a very impressive .339/.402/.515 line, knocking in 101 runs in 109 games while in Augusta. The problem with that line is that it's boosted a lot by a gaudy .388 BABIP. That was enough for some, like myself, to question if his season was for real and who still don't see him as being a top prospect. Even though he's struggling a little bit this year with a .284/.365/.489 line Moss still has an incredibly high BABIP at .356. The biggest difference this year is the fact that Moss is putting a lot fewer balls in play because of a much higher strikeout rate. This year Moss has struck out in 27% of his at bats compared to 17% while in Augusta last year. The 10% rise in strikeouts and the .022 drop in BABIP have resulted in a RC/27 drop from 8.5 last year to 6.7 last year. The drop in BABIP I don't mind because that's just regressing back to the norm. I imagine it will fall even more before the year is done. It's the sharp rise in strikeouts that worry me a little bit. My best guess is that he is either struggling adapting to AA or he is trying too hard after being recognized as one of the organization's best. By the end of the year we'll have a better idea if this guy is a future major league star or if everyone jumped on the Brandon Moss bandwagon a little bit too early.