I had a chance to catch up with current George Washington University and former big league coach Gregg Ritchie prior to the GW women’s basketball game in D.C. on Wednesday night, and we talked about how important balls in play are to overall success for major league teams.
Ritchie played in the Rangers organization in 1995 and was the Pirates’ hitting coach from 2011-2012. He contended that most of the teams that recently played in the World Series did a very good job of putting the ball in play.
I went back and did some research on the last 10 years of World Series participants and found some interesting trends related to batting average on balls in play (BABIP).
BABIP measures a player’s batting average exclusively on balls hit into the field of play, removing outcomes not affected by the opposing defense, such as home runs and strikeouts.
When the Nationals won the World Series, they were ranked eighth in Major League Baseball for BABIP, while the Astros were 16th. So you have to go back to 2017 and 2018 to see top five teams in BABIP make it all the way to the Fall Classic.
In 2018, the Red Sox were third overall, and in 2017 Houston was fifth in BABIP. Boston was the best in BABIP in the majors when they won the World Series in 2013, the Giants were third in 2013 and the Cardinals ranked sixth overall in BABIP when they won the title in 2011.
In the last 10 seasons, World Series participants had both teams in the top 10 for BABIP three times. There was at least one team that played in the World Series with a top 10 BABIP eight times, and the winner of the World Series ranked in the top 10 in BABIP seven of the last 10 seasons: (Note: I used the BABIP regular season totals for each team prior the start of the postseason.)
2020 Rays 11th, Dodgers 23rd
2019 Nationals 8th, Astros 16th
2018 Red Sox 3rd, Dodgers 20th
2017 Astros 5th, Dodgers 24th
2016 Indians 10th, Cubs 13th
2015 Royals 12th, Mets 27th
2014 Giants 10th, Royals 12th
2013 Red Sox 1st, Cardinals 4th
2012 Giants 3rd, Tigers 7th
2011 Cardinals 6th, Rangers 7th
Here are the Nationals’ BABIP numbers from the past 10 seasons with (*) designation for seasons when the Nats made it to the postseason. I also added their BABIP numbers from 2008 and 2009 (the Nats’ only 100-loss seasons).
Of course, having good BABIP numbers all those years had a lot to do with having a hitter like Anthony Rendon in the lineup, Ritchie pointed out. Rendon did not strike out very much at all and was not a prolific home run hitter, but one thing he could do always was put the ball in play. Rendon had a career-high BABIP of .323 in 2018 and 2019 while with the Nats. His career average for BABIP is .314.
And just out of curiosity, I ran the World Series numbers for home runs per game for each team. The Dodgers’ BABIP in 2020 was 23rd overall, but they hit the most homers of any team in 2020. The Nationals were ranked 14th in MLB in 2019 for homers per game.
For the last 10 seasons of World Series participants, both teams were in the top in BABIP only three times. At least one of the teams was in the top 10 seven times and the winner of the World Series was in the top 10 for homers four times since 2011.
In the ERA category for World Series teams since 2011, both teams were in the top 10 in league ERA six out of the 10 seasons. At least one team was a top 10 ERA finisher nine out of the 10 years and the winner of the World Series was in the top 10 in club ERA seven times.
In 2019, the Astros had the third best ERA in MLB, while the world champion Nats had a team total ERA that ranked ninth.
Thank you to MLB advanced statistics via teamrankings.com for these numbers.
* Infielder Jake Noll had the opportunity to move up to the big club for the final few weeks of the season and demonstrated why the Nats respect his ability to hit. Noll appeared in seven games from Sept. 15 until the last game of the season, hitting .353 (6-for-17) with a double and only four strikeouts. In his career he has played six games at first base and two at third base for the Nats. Noll’s rookie status is still intact through the 2021 season.
Nationals pitching coordinator Brad Holman was impressed with the way Noll made his pitchers work at the alternate site.
“Jake had a real good camp there,” Holman said. “He can hit. It’s hard to beat him inside. He gets to the head of the ball when it’s really, really tight to his body and is able to keep it fair. He’s a little bit more selective in the strike zone. He’s hitting the ball all over the field. He’s really, really tough to beat in.”
The 26-year-old can hit and hold his own in the field. He provides insurance in case Ryan Zimmerman does not return in 2021 or the club does not find as many answers at first base as they hope during the current free agency period. Noll continues to project well as a quality utility infielder for the Nats next season and a valuable option.