Relying on batting average on balls in play is a hard way for a hitter to make a living.
There are such wild swings between balls within or out of reach of the defense that BABiP is a roller-coaster ride. Those with numbers fueled by high BABiPs tend to decline the next season, and those with unusually low BABiPs tend to rebound.
White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson has been an exception, with BABiPs far above major-league norms for three seasons in a row.
Anderson’s breakthrough in 2019 was fueled in part by a .399 BABiP, second in MLB behind teammate Yoan Moncada’s .406. The league average was .298.
The extra hits from a higher-than-usual BABiP boosts every category with hits as a component. For Anderson, that included his MLB-leading .335 batting average after a previous best of .283 as a rookie in 2016. His .865 OPS and 129 weighted runs created plus also topped his bests of .738 and 98, also in ’16.
In 2020, Anderson’s .383 BABiP (MLB average was .292) stayed high, helping him to a .322 BA, .886 OPS and 142 wRC+.
Again this year, Anderson’s BABiP is high at .363 (MLB average is .291), and he has been productive at .303, .790 and 117.
Nearly all hitters show bigger BABiP swings relative to league average, and there’s no guarantee Anderson will stay so far above the norms. Moncada dipped to .315 in ’20 and is up to .345 in ’21. Among other Sox, Leury Garcia’s three-year BABiPs have been .353/.277/.312, and Jose Abreu’s have been .320/.350/.287.
Of the top 20 in BABiP in 2019, only Anderson and Trea Turner (.348, .353, .359) have been in the top 20 in ’20 and ’21. One with a big swing was ex-Cub Javy Baez, who went from .345 in ’19 to .262 in ’20 and .319 so far in ’21 with the Cubs and Mets.
The Royals’ Whit Merrifield followed .350 with .295 and .304. Teammate Hunter Dozier went from .339 to .288 and .269. Ex-Sox Avi Garcia followed .340 with .315 and .304.
Anderson has a few things going that help keep him above MLB average. He hits to all fields. In his first three seasons, he pulled 42.3%, 42.8% and 44.4% of batted balls. In the three seasons since his breakthrough, his pull rates have dropped to 32.7%, 33.3% and 36.6% in Fangraphs data.
Quality of contact also has improved. Anderson had soft contact on 17%, 21.3% and 18.4% of batted balls in 2016-18, then 17.9%, 15.1% and 14.1% since. Hard contact percentages were at 32.3, 28.3 and 30.3, then 32.2, 32.1 and 32.9.
And Anderson has the speed to beat out a grounder, with a career-high 24 infield hits this season.
Anderson’s strikeout rate has dipped from 27.1%, 26.7% and 24.6% starting in 2016 to 21.0%. 22.6% and 21.5%. That’s all to the good. If hits on balls in play are coming at a rate far above normal, better to have the ball in play.