It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was a … wait, this isn’t remedial English Lit, this is the tale of two hitters. Two outstanding left-handed hitters for the Washington Nationals that are having similarly opposite seasons. This is a case study in how the Baseball Gods, especially the BABIP Gods — a particularly finicky lot — can make or break your season.
First, a quick primer on BABIP for the uninitiated. BABIP breaks out to Batting Average on Balls In Play. The formula for BABIP removes strikeouts, sacrifice flies and home runs while measuring what happens to the ball when it is put in play. As we all know, what happens to a ball after it leaves the bat is something a hitter cannot control. He can control how hard he hits it and, to a certain extent, where, but not the outcome. A great defense and bad luck can make a good hitter look bad; all the while the BABIP Gods laugh at us.
Bryce Harper has been struggling a bit this year. He entered Thursday hitting .245/.430/.532, as his hot start in April has been tempered by a .194/.454/.306 slash line in May. After the Cubs and Joe Madden wrote the book on how to face Harper by not facing Harper, the league is following suit. Harper has seen 50% of his pitches go for balls in May compared with 42% in April. With less pitches to hit, Harper is making softer contact and, while his OBP is still high, his average and slugging have suffered.
Harper can only control what he can control and while he is making weaker contact, his luck or the defensive alignments against him pushed his BABIP to new lows. His BABIP this year is .232. That is quite a bit lower than his career mark of .325 and his MVP-season mark of .369. The more curious part is that number was low even during his hot start in April at .228. Think about this for a second: If his BABIP matched his career average, he would be batting around .315 right now. I think Nats fans would take that in a heartbeat.
Daniel Murphy is on the other side of the coin — the BABIP Gods’ chosen one this season. His slash line of .394/.426/.617 makes him look like the free-agent steal of the off season. While Murphy made some structural changes to his approach that may make some of these numbers stick, if it looks too good to be true, then it probably is. Murphy is no exception to that rule and to the whims of good luck and bad defense.
This year, Murphy’s BABIP is an absurd .416. His hits really do seem to have eyes during the first quarter of the season. If we calculate out his numbers using his career BABIP of .319, Murphy would only be hitting .320 instead of a ridiculous .394 pace he is on right now. I don’t say it like .320 is a bad thing, only to point out that his numbers are a bit inflated dude to the ever-present BABIP Gods.
The great thing about baseball is it all evens out in the end. 162 games has a way of separating the wheat from the chaff and both players’ numbers will stabilize. The good news for Nats fans: while Murphy’s numbers will go down a bit, Harper’s can only go up, and a team could do worse than two .300 hitters in the middle of the lineup.