The 2018 season has brought a number of big positives for Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr., who entered play Monday tied with the Reds’ Scooter Gennett for the National League lead with a .326 batting average.
But as with White Sox right fielder Avisail Garcia last season, the magnitude of Almora’s leap forward is partly fueled by a major-league-leading batting average on balls in play (BABiP), which has a strong chance factor and suggests that some regression is likely.
Almora has a .377 BABiP. Garcia led the majors last season with a .392 BABiP on his way to a .330 batting average. Almora hit .298 with a .338 BABiP last season.
Previous mentions of BABiP have brought email asking why unusually high BABiPs aren’t sustainable. Couldn’t it just be that the players are good at finding holes and hitting ’em where they ain’t, to paraphrase 19th-century star Wee Willie Keeler?
The major-league average for BABiP is usually around .300, and unusually high BABiPs don’t hold up from season to season. No matter how good the hitter, sometimes he hits ’em where they are, and BABiPs as high as .392 — or even .377 — inevitably decline.
The highest career BABiP in the expansion era (since 1961) for those with at least 3,000 plate appearances is .359 by Rod Carew and Roberto Clemente, whose BABiP is .343 if you include the pre-1961 portion of his career.
Carew also has the highest one-season BABiP since 1961 with .408 in 1977. That fueled a .388 batting average that’s one of only four higher than .380 since Ted Williams’ .406 in 1941. (Williams hit .388 in 1957, George Brett .390 in 1980 and Tony Gwynn .394 in 1994.)
One year later, Carew’s BABiP dropped to a more normal (for him) .364 and his batting average to .333. A season before the big one, his .347 BABiP accompanied a .331 batting average.
That doesn’t mean an unusually high BABiP can’t be accompanied by real progress. That happened with Garcia last season, when his 137 wRC+ indicated he was 137 percent as effective as an average hitter. Garcia’s BABiP has dropped to .307 and his batting average to .282 in an injury-hampered 2018, but a 126 wRC+ still places him among the better hitters in the American League.
Almora, too, has had a breakthrough beyond BABiP. His 19 doubles in 283 plate appearances already have set a career high. And compared with 2017, his .817 OPS is up 35 points and his 2.2 bWAR is double his 1.1 of last season.
He has hit to the opposite field more often this season, with 30.9 percent of batted balls to right field compared with 27.5 percent last season. He has hit 36.8 percent of batted balls to left (down from 39.8 percent in 2017) and 32.3 percent to center (steady from 32.7 percent in 2017).
Along with six defensive runs saved to rank ninth among major-league center fielders, the offensive uptick has Almora performing at star level. Even with a likely decline in BABiP, there’s enough for him to provide real value.