Here we are in June with most players having something approaching a couple of hundred at bats, which seems like a large enough sample. But while no one is going to accuse the Anthony Rizzo owner of panicking when it comes to him hitting in the .230s, the uncomfortable reality is that it takes 910 at bats for batting average to stabilize, according to Fangraphs. And stabilization only means that it’s at least half skill.
But we can’t wait all year and still resolve that batting average is mostly luck. So let’s use the statistic that stabilizes much more quickly, strikeout rate (just 60 plate appearances), and from there figure out if the hitter is more legitimately slumping.
If a hitter who is struggling in batting average actually has a lower strikeout rate than last year, then we can reasonably bet that he’s been befuddled mostly by bad luck. So that average he’s forcing our teams to carry like an albatross is unlikely to continue.
I looked at all the hitters who are hitting under .250 (the league average is only .251) and examined their current strikeout rates compared with what they registered previously. Also for context, note that this year’s K% of 21.5% (of plate appearances) is an all-time high — the 10th consecutive year that batters have struck out at an all-time high rate.
Let’s start with Rizzo, who was a first-round pick in many leagues given the likelihood he could produce a winning average with solid 30-plus-homer power. The power is on track (he has 12 bombs) but he’s hitting just .232. However Rizzo entering play on Tuesday has struck out just 28 times in 251 plate appearances, a rate of 11.2% compared with 16% last year. So his average makes no sense. Expect Rizzo to hit at least .280 for the balance of the year and it’s reasonable to hope for much better given the collapse of his K% (a good thing).
Maikel Franco’s batting average indicates there is more swing-and-miss to his game but his strikeout rate is actually down, from 16.8% to 14.7%. So if you only knew that, you would figure he’s besting his batting average from last year by about 10% (or 25 points). Instead, he’s moved that much in the wrong direction. Franco is likely a much better hitter for average than his baseball card says at the moment.
Todd Frazier and Evan Longoria are also nonsensical in their average collapses given better strikeout prevention. Longoria is down to 18% from 21%. You’d think Frazier given his average woes would be very high K, but he’s down to about league average (21.2% from 24.5%).
Of course, hit trajectory is a factor here and guys who hit weak fly balls are going to struggle in average because those are mostly easy outs. Control for that by adjusting the hitter to his average baseline, meaning the Frazier should be the .250 hitter we expected still and not .200. Frazier’s GB% is actually a higher than in in 2015 when he hit .255.
Some hitters struggling in average aren’t much improved in K rate but are not much worse (or even slightly better). That list includes Carlos Gonzalez (19.6% vs. 20.4% last year), Brian Dozier (20.2% to 20%) and Shin-Soo Choo (21% vs. 21.5% when he’s been a .278 hitter). I would not let their current average shortfalls vs. projections dissuade me in the least from acquiring them.
Kyle Schwarber is interesting because, given that anemic average (.160s), you’d think his K% spiked to some crazy level in the high- or at least mid-30s. But it’s actually not much worse than previously at 30.3% (it was 29.2%). No big league hitter, especially one with Schwarber’s pedigree, can earn a .160-something average at this point of the season. But there’s proof if you need it.
The interesting counter example, meaning the player who is hitting poorly who DESERVES to be hitting much more poorly: Edwin Encarnacion.
His K% is 16.5% for his career and was 19.7% last year. This year, it’s spiked tremendously to 26.4% (way worse than MLB average). So his batting average should be collapsing too — and it is, down to .231. He’s also not trading in those Ks for a power spike, as his isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average, meaning really, “minus singles”) is just .174 at press time, down from .257 last year. Do not buy EE.