It's still April. The nights are still cold – we'll probably see Xander Bogaerts dress like a ninja again before September.[[301321231, R]]
So much baseball remains to be played that Jon Lester's ERA is still 6.23 (before you misinterpret this as "SEE? THEY WERE RIGHT NOT TO EXTEND HIM A YEAR AGO, THE RED SOX CAN DO NO WROOOOOOOONNNNNNG," his FIP* this year is 2.11 and his career ERA from March through May is 4.04).
The fact is that whether we're looking at the good or the bad – at Dustin Pedroia being mathematically on pace for 40 home runs or at David Ortiz, Mike Napoli and Mookie Betts all batting .215 or lower – the season is extremely young and we're far away from these numbers being indicative of – well – anything, really.
But that's not to say that nothing can be learned. Considering how much we analyze each NFL game – worth a little more than 10 baseball games – enough baseball has been played that certain aspects of players' performances can be analyzed.
The league average strikeout percentage so far this year is 20.3 percent – a number consistent with last year's 20.4. Among the nine Red Sox players with 40 or more plate appearances, only David Ortiz (22.1), Mike Napoli (21.2) and Ryan Hannigan (20.8) have struck out at a higher clip than that. That's good. But for Napoli to bat .143 despite a strikeout more than 5 percent lower than his career rate requires some bad luck – indeed, his batting average on balls in play is .190, well below his career average of .309.
Some background on BABIP+ – while every hitter is different, based on propensity for putting the ball on the ground, lining it or putting it high in the air, the league's average, as well as that of most players, tends to hover around .300. Last year's league average was .299, and this year's average so far is .289 (meaning offense as a whole is somewhat likely to bounce up as the season goes on).
BABIP swings both ways for the Red Sox' offense. While we can expect Napoli (career .310 BABIP) to succeed more on contact as the year goes on (albeit while striking out a lot more, probably), and for Ortiz (.205 this year, .301 career), Hanley Ramirez (.224 this year, .332 career), Betts (.226 this year), Shane Victorino (.179 this year, .298 career) and Pedroia (.245 this year, .312 career), there's a certain panda for whom this regression might be negative.
Pablo Sandoval is batting .283/.368/.317 this year, with two doubles and without a homer. On balls in play this year, though, he's hitting .362, with a career average of .314. The silver lining here, though, is that he has struck out a league average 19.1 percent of the time this year – nearly 6 percent higher than his career rate of 13.3 percent. As long as the power Sandoval possesses translates to a moderate number of extra base hits, cutting down on strikeouts can help him stomach a regression to the norm on balls in play. Similarly, Bogaerts' .302 batting average this season has been aided by a .372 BABIP.
Based on these numbers and early power surges, Ramirez and Pedroia are good bets to have great seasons. Ramirez is batting .274/.333/.565 so far, with a BABIP .108 lower than his career mark. His strikeout rate, almost 5 percent lower than his career rate, could inflate a little to temper any positive potential BABIP regression, but the amount he can improve when the ball is hit in the park is likely much more dynamic. Pedroia, batting .250/.316/.471, has a BABIP .067 worse than his career average AND a strikeout rate (15.6 percent) 6.2 percent worse than his career mark. If both of these aspects climb a little closer to the norm, he could be in for a very good season.
Of course, Ramirez, who played fewer than 100 games in two of the last four years, will need to stay on the field to be effective.
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Also, regression is never a guarantee. The Yankees' Brian McCann batted .231 on balls in play through 538 plate appearances last season, while the Pirates' Starling Marte hit .373. A high or low BABIP can be sustained in the short term - in a larger sample size, it becomes less likely. Cubs great Ernie Banks, who passed away earlier this year, made it to the Hall of Fame with a career BABIP of .267, while Rod Carew of the Twins and Angels did it while hitting .359 on balls in play throughout his career.
And this early in the season, remember that a single game can swing a player's stats up or down. But looking beyond simple batting average is important, especially when snow is still falling in parts of New England.
*FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching, is a metric that attempts to remove luck from ERA. A pitcher has little control of whether a batted ball that does not leave the park turns into a hit or an out. FIP uses strikeouts, walks, home runs and hit-by-pitches, along with a constant to put it on the same scale as ERA. FIP can be a better predictor of future performance than ERA, and comparing the two can show whether a natural regression - positive or negative - is likely.
+BABIP, or Batting Average on Balls in Play, is essentially a player's average excluding home runs and strikeouts (although sacrifice plays count against it). While different players' abilities to succeed on balls put in play vary, it can help predict positive or negative regression. Because a pitcher's BABIP against requires more luck than skill, as he has no control over the fielders around him, it is also used to predict future performance.