Much was made about Austin Jackson's rather obscenely high Major League-leading .396 Batting Average on Balls in Play throughout the 2010 season, and rightly so, as he posted a .395-plus BABIP in three of the season's six months (including a jaw-dropping .530 in April, his debut month, and .432 mark in July). This was the highest single-season total among qualified hitters since Ichiro Suzuki had a .399 BABIP in 2004, the year he broke George Sisler's 84-year-old single-season hit record. In the interim, David Wright put up an eye-popping .394 BABIP in 2009, B.J. Upton a .393 in 2007 and Derek Jeter a .391 in 2006.
I'm interested in BABIP primarily because it's not thought to be a repeatable skill -- except perhaps by some of the faster players in the league -- and more subject to the vagaries of randomness and luck than many of the other stats we often cite. However, Austin Jackson is one of the fastest players in all of baseball (in fact, third-fastest in MLB, behind Carl Crawford and Brett Gardner, per Fangraphs' Speed Score), and I wanted to see what kind of correlation there was to speed and BABIP, and also whether looking at a given player's three previous seasons of BABIP (including a raw average of the three) have any predictive value going forward. I looked at 2010's top 10 BABIP leaders in the AL and NL (there are 12 names in the NL, but that's because four players tied for 10th).
Note in the chart that for Jackson, the 2009 and 2008 numbers are from the Minor Leagues, since he debuted in 2010. Same thing goes for Colby Rasmus's 2008, Starlin Castro's 2009 and 2008 and Jason Heyward's 2009 and 2008. Pretty impressive that these three youngsters were all able to crack the top 21 highest BABIPs in baseball in their first year in The Show, albeit each ending up with considerably different end results (Heyward a monster .376 wOBA, Jackson .333 and Castro .325; the latter two were actually the two lowest wOBAs of the 22 players in the above chart).
Unsurprisingly, for nearly every hitter their BABIPs fluctuate pretty wildly from year to year, which would appear to make BABIP projections something of a crapshoot. For the sake of this exercise, let's arbitrarily define anyone who has averaged a .350-plus wOBA over the last three seasons at the Major League level as being "highly skilled" at BABIP. That leaves us with Ichiro Suzuki, Joe Mauer, Shin-Soo Choo, Joey Votto and David Wright. Bet you didn't know that Shin-Shoo Choo has the highest average BABIP in MLB over the last three seasons. Also interesting that the two free agent position players who inked $100-plus contracts this offseason made these lists. Ichiro's presence isn't surprising, nor is the once and future batting king Mauer, although it's interesting to see a prodigiously powerful player like Votto up there.
That's not to say big-time power hitters can't have high BABIPs -- of the 22 players listed above, six had SLGs over .500 -- but given speedier players' higher likelihood of legging out infield hits, it's interesting to see mashers like Votto, Josh Hamilton, Jayson Werth, Miguel Cabrera, Evan Longoria and Carlos Gonzalez up there with Carl Crawford, Brett Gardner and Jackson et. al. Obviously those six were among the best hitters in baseball in 2010, so it's not surprising, but I also wouldn't be surprised to see none of them in the top 20 next season. I'd have expected these six players to also feature among the MLB leaders in LD%, but only one of them -- Hamilton (7th, 22%) -- finished in the top 20. The only other top 20 finishers in LD% on this list were Joe Mauer and (ahem) Austin Jackson, who tied for second in MLB with a 24.2% LD%.
Of the players listed in these charts, A-Jax unsurprisingly has the highest projected BABIP for 2011, although the idea of projecting anyone at .383 -- not matter how fast they may run -- seems pretty bonkers. Heck, the two fastest players in baseball are only projected at .340 and .331, respectively. However, if Jackson is able to maintain a LD% over 20% and a GB% around 50%, he's probably as good a bet as any for another significantly above-average BABIP.