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Is Pitcher BABIP Luck?

There's a school of thought that pitchers primarily control strikeouts, walks and fly balls allowed, but don't much control what happens once the ball is put into play, i.e., whether a batted ball finds a fielder or an empty space. Sure there are exceptions like knuckleballers who typically induce weaker contact, but for the most part - the theory goes - batting average on balls in play allowed is largely random for pitchers. As a result, it's should be a safe bet that pitchers like Felipe Paulino (.341 BABIP in 2011) , Ricky Nolasco (.331) and Edwin Jackson (.330) should all normalize toward the league average (.295) in 2012 - or at least their teams' average, assuming their defense is roughly equal to last year's. (The Marlins, for example had a team BABIP allowed of .297). But is it?

Assuming non-knuckleballers don't have a lot of say in their BABIP, the pitchers with the best and worst career BABIPs should be roughly equal, with the best BABIP's having a slight advantage simply due to their good luck on balls in play. But over an entire career, that luck (a) shouldn't be too extreme because the sample is so large, and (b) fluctuates so much over time.

There are 176 pitchers who have thrown at least 1000 IP since 1995. Let's take a look at the best-50 and worst-50 by BABIP:

Best 50 BABIP IP BABIP Worst 50 BABIP IP BABIP
Mariano Rivera 1211.1 0.262 Glendon Rusch 1477.1 0.326
Matt Cain 1317.1 0.265 Zach Duke 1041 0.323
Barry Zito 2252 0.268 Paul Quantrill 1015.1 0.319
Orlando Hernandez 1314.2 0.268 John Burkett 1651 0.316
Ted Lilly 1911 0.27 Aaron Sele 1898 0.315
Tim Wakefield 3006 0.273 Charles Nagy 1227.2 0.314
Jarrod Washburn 1863.2 0.273 Shane Reynolds 1631.1 0.312
Jeremy Guthrie 1020.1 0.273 Jimmy Haynes 1200.2 0.312
Ryan Franklin 1201 0.273 Edwin Jackson 1079 0.311
Johan Santana 1908.2 0.275 Jeff Fassero 1604.1 0.31
Scott Elarton 1065.1 0.275 Jeff Francis 1065.2 0.31
Carlos Zambrano 1826.2 0.276 Carlos Silva 1241.2 0.31
Jered Weaver 1131.2 0.276 Paul Maholm 1143.2 0.31
Woody Williams 2120 0.276 Jaime Navarro 1012.1 0.31
Jamie Moyer 3019.1 0.277 Andy Pettitte 3055.1 0.309
Kerry Wood 1371.1 0.278 John Lackey 1876 0.309
Rick Helling 1474.1 0.278 Sidney Ponson 1760.1 0.309
Pedro Martinez 2567.2 0.279 Brian Moehler 1567.1 0.309
Tim Hudson 2503.1 0.279 Jason Jennings 1128.1 0.309
Bruce Chen 1164.2 0.279 Esteban Loaiza 2099 0.308
Cole Hamels 1161.1 0.28 Zack Greinke 1279.2 0.308
Tom Glavine 2891 0.281 Aaron Harang 1622.1 0.308
Al Leiter 2052 0.281 LaTroy Hawkins 1261.2 0.308
Rick Reed 1296.1 0.281 Julian Tavarez 1365.2 0.308
Bronson Arroyo 1874.1 0.282 Mark Hendrickson 1169 0.308
Freddy Garcia 2076.1 0.283 Doug Davis 1715.2 0.307
Denny Neagle 1565.2 0.283 Aaron Cook 1312.1 0.307
Eric Milton 1582.1 0.283 Livan Hernandez 3121.2 0.306
Greg Maddux 3097.1 0.284 Chuck Finley 1564 0.306
Hideo Nomo 1976.1 0.284 Pedro Astacio 1779.1 0.306
Jon Garland 2083.1 0.284 Jeremy Bonderman 1176 0.306
Pat Hentgen 1626.2 0.284 Scott Karl 1002 0.306
Ismael Valdez 1799 0.284 Scott Erickson 1469 0.305
Wilson Alvarez 1221.2 0.284 Joey Hamilton 1232 0.305
Dustin Hermanson 1283 0.284 Nate Robertson 1152.1 0.304
Kirk Rueter 1740 0.284 Ryan Dempster 2042.2 0.303
Brian Anderson 1434 0.284 Darren Oliver 1756.2 0.303
Justin Verlander 1315.1 0.285 Shawn Estes 1678.1 0.303
Randy Wolf 2110.1 0.285 Mark Redman 1238.2 0.303
Kevin Brown 1977.1 0.286 Dontrelle Willis 1221.2 0.303
Brandon Webb 1319.2 0.286 Kelvim Escobar 1507 0.302
Jake Peavy 1581.1 0.286 Carl Pavano 1725.2 0.302
Steve Trachsel 2335.1 0.286 John Thomson 1270.1 0.302
Paul Byrd 1697 0.286 Kyle Lohse 1762 0.302
Brett Tomko 1816 0.286 Chad Billingsley 1013.2 0.302
Russ Ortiz 1661.1 0.286 Scott Kazmir 1022 0.302
Ron Villone 1168 0.286 Pat Rapp 1150 0.302
Chan Ho Park 1989 0.287 Jon Lieber 2089.1 0.301
Andy Ashby 1444.1 0.287 Brad Penny 1871 0.301
Andy Benes 1389 0.287 Jeff Weaver 1838 0.301

As you can see, there's arguably only one (marginal) Hall of Famer (Andy Pettitte) among the bottom 50, and one current star (Zack Greinke). Among the top 50 are the following: Mariano Rivera, Matt Cain, Johan Santana, Jered Weaver, Tim Hudson, Pedro Martinez, Cole Hamels, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Justin Verlander, Kevin Brown, Brandon Webb and Jake Peavy.

Maybe I'm underestimating how much BABIP "luck" spares pitcher arms, giving them better health and more confidence, but even so, that would be reason enough to take it seriously, even if it were pure luck initially. More likely, though, while BABIP - like batting average- fluctuates greatly week to week and even year to year, for the most part it's a greatly associated with more skillful pitchers.

That's not the same as saying Nolasco, Paulino or Jackson can't bounce back - or can't as Pettitte and Greinke (so far) have overcome bad luck/inability to induce weak contact - or that *some* of BABIP can be explained by luck. Just that a poor BABIP very likely has a repeatable skills component to it and that you should be wary targeting outliers for bounce-backs without some other compelling reason.

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