For a guy hitting well below the Mendoza line, Carlos Santana has remained relatively productive due to his eye at the plate and many fans are giving him a free pass for the bad start due to the “bad luck” theory.
That theory was on display in full force on Sunday afternoon as Santana was robbed of a hit three times.
The “Bad Luck” theory would have been laughed off 20 years ago but it’s become a valid argument for any struggling hitter due to a number of studies showing the shockingly limited degree to which batters can actually control their success aside from avoiding strikeouts and hitting the ball out the park.
For those who aren’t familiar with batting average on balls in play (BABIP), it simply looks at a players batting average once you remove strikeouts and home runs. In theory, everything else comes down to pure luck based on whether or not the ball it hit at, or near, a fielder. And these studies have shown that, on average, 30 percent of all non strikeouts and home runs will result in a hit.
BABIP allows us to easily pick out which of the struggling hitters in the league are due to break out based on the theory that in the long run, their BABIP will even out to around .300. And this is why many fans expect Santana to bounce back.
Entering Monday, Santana has a .167 BABIP, among the worst in the majors. So as the “bad luck” argument goes, if Santana’s BABIP is .167 now and over the course of the season it’s supposed to be close to .300, he’s due for a streak of good luck sooner or later, right?
This argument is partially true, and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect Santana to climb out of his hole based solely on better luck the rest of the way.
But the argument also has it’s flaws.
For starters, BABIP makes no promise of future good luck. It guarantees that a streak of bad luck won’t continue forever, but good luck is never a sure thing. So those who are waiting for Santana’s BABIP to hover around .400 for the next month to make up for the slow start, good luck with that.
Take a look at the 20 players with the worst BABIP through the end of May last season and their BABIP the rest of the year.
Adam Dunn – .161 (through May 31)/.311 (after)
Mike Moustakas – .188/.292
Aaron Hicks – .189/.313
B.J. Upton – .204/.306
Ike Davis – .225/.308
Dan Uggal – .224/.224
Yuniesky Betancourt – .228/.224
J.J. Hardy – .229/.282
David Murphy – .231/.300
Yoenis Cespedes – .235/.292
Ryan Doumit – .236/.304
Miguel Montero – .237/.317
Will Middlebrooks – .237/.287
Ruben Tejada – .238/.287
Jeff Keppinger – .241/.290
Juan Pierre – .243/.295
John Buck – .275/.275
Albert Pujols – .246/.272
Justin Ruggiano – .246/.270
17 of the 20 players saw their BABIP rise significantly from June through September. However, no one posted a BABIP higher than .317 and only six topped the .300 plateau. In other words, even though their April-May BABIP was unfairly low, their June-September BABIP didn’t skyrocket to make up for the bad luck, it simply returned to it’s expected level.
Think of it like flipping a coin. The odds of flipping a coin heads up 10 times in a row is pretty low, but if you’ve already done it nine straight times, the odds of the 10th flip is still 50/50. So even though we expect Santana’s BABIP to be close to .300 over an extended period, just because it’s surprisingly low right now, doesn’t mean an immediate dramatic turnaround is likely.
The other issue with the “Bad Luck” theory is the fact that Santana isn’t a .300 BABIP hitter.
While the league average is historically around .300, there are hitters who perform above and below that mark. Ichiro Suzuki is perhaps the most famous recent exception to the rule due to his exceptional bat control (his .331 BABIP through his first 10 seasons was no fluke). Tony Gwynn and his .341 career BABIP is another great example.
Entering this season, Santana’s career BABIP was .281, and that includes a large enough sample size that it’s reasonable to believe he’ll never be a .300 BABIP hitter, which leads me to the next argument against the “Bad Luck” theory.
Carlos Santana is one of the most shifted-against hitters in baseball, especially against right-handed pitching. And the defensive approach has destroyed his BABIP.
|1. Pedro Alvarez (PIT)||253||.103|
|2. Carlos Santana (CLE)||291||.107|
|3. Casey Kotchman (MIA)||248||.113|
|4. Ryan Howard (PHI)||235||.115|
|5. Prince Fielder (TEX)||268||.119|
Santana has a career .107 BABIP when pulling ground balls as a left-handed batter – the second worst rate in the majors since 2010 (see chart on right).
That may seem like an overly specific split to be concerned with, but when the results are so poor it ends up having a dramatic impact on Santana’s overall performance.
So far this season Santana is 2-29 when he pulls a groundball against a right-handed pitcher (.069 BABIP). And given the rate that he’s shifted against, it’s not realistic to expect a dramatic increase in that performance.
Based on these stats – and the fact that teams are using shifts at a record rate this year – it’s reasonable to expect Santana’s BABIP to fall below his career average this season.
So will Santana turn it around? Yes, of course he will. He isn’t a .150 hitter and he didn’t just morph into Russell Branyan during the offseason. But the “Bad Luck” theory will only take him so far. Santana’s BABIP isn’t going to stay below .200 and, as a result, his overall average will eventually climb about the Mendoza line also. But he isn’t going to turn into Victor Martinez all of a sudden either.