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BABIP in College Baseball - Why college pitching is better than you think

There is an interesting posting on The Pastime blog about Establishing NCAA BABIP.

BABIP means Batting Average of Balls in Play.  The concept behind this baseball statistic is key to much of the SABR inspired baseball analysis writing of the last few years.

The theory: A pitcher only controls those at bats which terminate in one of the "four true results."  Strikeout, Walk, Hit by Pitch and Homerun.  All other at-bats result in a pitched ball being put into play.  Once a pitched ball is put into play, the pitcher's role in the ultimate result of the play is severely diminished, perhaps even eliminated.  Once a ball is in play, the pitch no longer matters, what matters is the defense behind the pitcher.

The implications: If this theory is true, than pitchers should only be evaluated on their performance in bringing about the four true results.

The debate: The unsettled part of this form of statistical analysis of pitching is the open question, do some pitchers produce balls in play which are more likely to be turned into outs?  Some writers believe they do, others argue that they do not.  Is a ground ball off a Roger Clemons fastball easier to turn into an out than a grounder off a Jimmy Gobble curve?  Honestly, statisticians have no clear answer to this question yet.

Unsettled questions aside, some clear and useful conclusions have emerged from this new way of looking at pitching performance.  One is that the least productive way a batter can put a ball in play is a ground ball.  Fly balls which stay inside the park produce roughly twice as many runs per ball in play as do ground balls.  The best way to put a ball in play from a batters perspective is a line-drive.  If you visit the treasure of a website The Hardball Times you'll find pitchers performance broken down not in terms of statistics like "Hits per inning" and "ERA" but by what percentage of batters they face terminate their plate appearances in ground balls, line-drives, fly balls, etc.

One other clear conclusion of this way of evaluating pitching is the concept of BABIP.  On average a ball put in play in the major leagues which does not leave the park will result in a hit about 29% of the time.  Thus, the average MLB player has a BABIP of .290.  This is fairly consistent for all players.  If a player has a BABIP of .250, he is probably hitting into bad luck and thus his offensive numbers make him appear that he is not hitting the ball as well as he really is.  If a pitcher has a BABIP against him of .350, than most likely his defense is letting him down and his numbers will be inflated.  When a team evaluates a player based on BABIP information, they are better able to predict his future performance after his defensive good or bad luck evens out.  I think BABIP analysis of players and pitchers has proven to be more accurate in predicting their future performance than has analysis of their traditional baseball statistics.

Now to tie this long winded posting to college baseball.

In the major leagues, the average BABIP is about .290.  Seventy-one percent of all balls put in play are turned into outs by major league caliber defenses.

In Big-12 college baseball, according to the sketchy data being collected at The Pastime blog, the BABIP is about .340.  This should come as no surprise to anyone.  College defenses are not as skilled as major league defenses, and thus it is only logical that a higher percentage of balls put in play in college baseball will turn into hits.

Why is this worth knowing?  Knowing it helps us better analysis college pitching.  Why are college pitchers normally such a sorry lot?  Well, there are a lot of reasons, not far down the list being that a large percentage of these pitchers truly are short on talent, but another answer is that, "in truth, they really are not as bad as we think they are."  Seventeen percent of the hits a college baseball pitcher allows would be outs if he had a MLB level defense behind him.  A 5.00 ERA in college baseball equates to something closer to 4.25 if you are using MLB statistical standards by which to measure him.  Any college pitcher who is able to keep his ERA in the low 4's is a treasure.

Of course, we could also take this whole topic of elevated BABIP percentages in college baseball a different direction and attribute it to the use of aluminum bats rather than porous defenses, but I think that would not bring us closer to the true culprit for this phenomenon.  

College pitchers are not as bad as we think they are, they are just doing their best to succeed despite the twin handicaps of suspect defensive support and metal bats.  Let's give them a tip of the cap and mumble an apology for those many times we've cursed them for letting their ERA climb back over five again.