Austin Riley is one of the Atlanta Braves’ best prospects. We haven’t reached his name on our Preseason Top 50 and spoiler alert, our next batch of players that includes #21 to #30 also doesn’t have his name. It’s because he is pretty darn good. But one thing has always been a bit off about Riley for me and maybe, if you’re like me, for you as well.
But before I get there, let me tell you what I’m not and that is the most knowledgeable source for “sabermetrics.” I have a decent understanding of analytics and I like advanced metrics a lot. Do I understand everything I can get into at Statcast? Not on an educated level. Nevertheless, I rather enjoy diving into the numbers and information provided. It opens my eyes to more interesting avenues into the game I never knew existed. It’s why I almost get offended when people talk about how advanced metrics are ruining baseball. If anything, it makes me love this game – which was my first love as an infant – even more.
And throughout my understanding of metrics, I came across a stat that I began to use as a little bit of a crutch: BABIP or Batting Average on Balls in Play. It became a nice predictor of future success or regression based on how a player was performing. If a hitter was performing lights out, but his BABIP was 70 points above his career and recent norms, it was a good bet that he was due for regression. Conversely, if a pitcher’s BABIP was super-high, he could be a good buy-low candidate in fantasy baseball because Lady Luck would eventually be on his side.
It’s a simple metric to compute. You take your hits minus the homers and you divide them by the at-bats that didn’t include homers, strikeouts, or sacrifice flies. It doesn’t care about launch angle, spin rate, or any other metric like that. It’s basic and clean.
But it’s not nearly as simple to apply. Those things like launch angle and exit velocity and Quality-of-Contact stats and groundball rate…they all play a role in potentially explaining an increased BABIP or one that has lowered below career norms.
And then you throw the level of competition into play and the whole number takes on a new meaning. That, my friends, is where Austin Riley comes in. You see, BABIP has another interpretation for Riley right now. It is another number showing that he’s a man among boys in the minor leagues. And that might go to show why 2019 could be Riley’s year to shine in the bigs.
Let’s rewind a bit. Back in the spring and early summer of 2017, Riley was languishing at Florida with a .252/.310/.408 triple slash. It was the first time we saw Riley look like kid who was recently in high school and profiled so well as a pitcher. While nobody was necessarily “down” on Riley, the kid who blasted 20 homers as a teenager in Rome looked as if he might stall out for the moment. And then former general manager John Coppolella and his team did an odd thing. They trusted the scouts and player development team who said Riley was ready for another challenge despite what the numbers might say. And he was promoted to Mississippi.
He took off in Pearl, hitting .315/.389/.511 over 48 games with another eight homers. He kept it going with six jacks in the Arizona Fall League. Some suggested Riley should get the boot up to Gwinnett, but the new team under Alex Anthopoulos was naturally a bit conservative with promotions as the 2018 season began. They needed to learn the players in the new system a bit better. But it didn’t take them long (27 games) to get the message and promote Riley after he slashed .333/.394/.677. Riley would miss some time with an injury, but still slashed .282/.346/.464 with the G-Braves, hitting another dozen homers.
While I grew excited about the prospect of seeing Riley in the majors, one thing continued to concern me throughout. With Mississippi in 2017, his BABIP was over a hundred points higher than it was in Florida (.393 to .289). It seemed to indicate that while he was getting hit hard by luck with the Fire Frogs, he got unusually gifted in Mississippi. In 2018, his BABIP only climbed to .415 before his promotion to Triple-A before riding a .374 BABIP with Gwinnett. These rates couldn’t continue and my analytic mind was sure of it. And when they regressed, what would Riley’s production actually look like?
Worried I would be a negative Nancy when optimism was far-more-warranted, I tried to ignore his BABIP. That is until I looked at some stats from Ronald Acuña Jr.
.411. .396. .404. Those were his BABIP’s at each stop during the 2017 season as he he climbed from Florida to Gwinnett.
Well, then, maybe there is something to this idea. I powered up the old Google machine and searched for “minor league BABIP” and a slew of articles addressing this very thing came up. Most notably, this gem from Anthony Boyer of Crawfish Boxes:
The closer players get to the major leagues, the better the younger players are at getting hits out of the balls they put in play. Is this a coincidence? I don’t think so. More likely, it points to the fact that minor league BABIP can serve as a pretty strong indicator of talent level.
Other pieces from MILB.com from Sam Dkystra and Ashley Marshall showed similar results. Great minor league prospects quite often carry great BABIPs in the minors. This isn’t a general rule, but more of a trend. And there are a few easy reasons for this. Faster guys have always carried a higher BABIP. That’s not surprising since they so often can use that speed to turn outs into hits. High-strikeout players who also make higher-than-average quality contact also typically have an inflated BABIP.
But in the minors, a few other factors can add to a player’s BABIP that you don’t quite see in the majors. First, defenses are just worse in the minors. That makes sense, no? Beyond the simple lack of usable data for many organizations on how to defensively prepare for certain hitters, defenders aren’t quite as polished in the minors as they are in the majors. You’re also more likely to see players at important defensive positions like center field or shortstop or even catcher because organizations hope the player improves at these positions for value purposes. Wins are secondary in that approach, something you rarely see in the majors.
But the other big reason BABIP isn’t viewed in quite the same way on the minor league level is the ole’ “man-among-boys” cliche. Anyone with eyes could have told you that description rang true for Acuña Jr. during the 2017 season. Florida State League pitchers weren’t ready to face him. Southern League pitchers were terrified of him. And even International League pitchers, with quite a few veterans trying to earn one more shot at the Show, weren’t prepared to deal with the phenom. That’s because his talent level was so much greater than their talent level.
Simply put – BABIP became less a predictor and more of a talent evaluation tool. Now, it’s not the best tool, but there is enough value in inflated minor league BABIP to utilize it to help highlight players that might be a step or ten ahead of their peers.
Like I said, this is a general trend, not a rule. Great prospects aren’t cut from the same cloth and all hit the same way. But the article I previously quoted from 2015 by Boyer of Crawfish Boxes studied 55 players who made two All-Star teams from 2010-15, and showed some of this trend. Here is where those All-Stars ranked, by minor league level, in BABIP compared to the level averages:
BABIP can also show when a team might be too aggressive in their moves. Back in 2016, Dansby Swanson was blitzing the Carolina League with a .391 BABIP, but came crashing to Earth with a .309 BABIP in 84 games in the Southern League (Double-A). Yet, the Braves brought him to the majors where he carried some great numbers and a super high BABIP of .383. But in the majors, super-high BABIPs aren’t usually a sign of being simply better than your peers, but a sign that regression was expected. In two years since, his BABIP has been about .291.
I can’t state this enough – minor league BABIP isn’t a foolproof analytical tool. Brian McCann, for one, under-performed the BABIP of his peers during his brief stay in the minors. As did Josh Donaldson. We can’t predict with amazing certainty that players with high BABIPs in the minors will succeed when they get to the majors or vice versa. There’s more that goes into it.
But I can provide an answer if you were like me and paused when you saw Austin Riley’s minor league BABIP and thought, “wait, should we be worried?” No, past Tommy. That’s not a metric that should truly worry you.