Can John Buck run fast enough to escape BABIP hell? (Photo by Sarah Glenn/Getty Images)
With yesterday's 0-for-3 performance (with three strikeouts no less), John Buck's season line dropped to .172/.285/.305 (.265 wOBA). It is one of the worst offensive seasons a Marlin has ever put up in team history; in fact, since the team's inception, among qualified hitters in Marlins history, Buck's wRC+ of 60 would have ended up as the worst season at the plate in Marlins history, ever so slightly behind only Emilio Bonifacio's memorably horrible 2009. That's right, Buck has been so bad this season that he is actually been one percent worse at the plate than Bonerface was in 2009.
Still, we know that a big part of Buck's utter lack of playability in 2012 has been due to an abnormally low batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Buck is hitting just .214 on balls in play. No Marlin has ever hit that poorly on balls in play, which explains partly why no Marlin has hit as poorly as Buck did and still qualified for the batting title (to be fair, Buck has yet to qualify, so he still has time to improve). But I have beat the drum on this site about how there is a good likelihood that Buck can bounce back just based on the idea that no one could hit .214 on balls in play two seasons in a row. But as the season wears on, it is becoming more an more difficult to trust in the powers of regression to bring Buck back to even 2011 form.
So instead of simply saying that Buck should return to a weaker but still playable form, perhaps history can better display what hitters of his ilk have done in the past. There have been players who have struggled on balls in play almost as badly as Buck in a single season, so how have those players bounced back after their poor years?
I looked at all players from 1992 to 2010 who had posted seasons with a BABIP less than .230 in a single season with at least 400 PA (chosen because Buck is likely to reach that number in 2012). Twenty-five such player seasons were found, but I excluded one year because it was a Barry Bonds early 2000's season, and clearly those seasons do not tell anything about anyone other than Bonds. Twenty-four seasons remained; the worst BABIP among them was Aaron Hill's .196 mark in 2010, while three different players had a .229 mark.
I then examined these players' three previous seasons to get a baseline of their talent level before the collapse year. Finally, I looked to see how they did in the subsequent season after the collapse year. What can we learn from these 24 players about Buck's 2013 future?Historical Results
The following are the players and their "BABIP hell" seasons, in order of greatest to least OPS+.
|Ken Griffey, Jr||454||.214||.324||.411||.220||97|
As a collective unit, this group of players was bad, as OPS+ evaluated their performance as 21 percent worse than the league average. Of course, only two of these performance were worse than Buck's 2012 thus far, as Buck has an OPS+ of 61 as of before yesterday's game. But still, his peers in BABIP hell suffered almost as poorly as he did, as they hit .222 on balls in play as a whole. To get a comparison point, I looked at all players with a BABIP under .220 and those players hit a combined .210 on balls in play with an OPS+ of 82. Either way, Buck is somewhere in between those groups of players in terms of his BABIP hell.
But how did these players fare before that nightmare season? Here are the same stats over a previous three-year period. Players are listed in the same order.
|Ken Griffey, Jr||1670||.260||.350||.469||.269||108|
Clearly, this group of players were significantly better hitters before their slump season came. As a collective unit, their three-year samples (and only a few players had less than three years' worth of PA in the sample) yielded players who were six percent better than the league average by OPS+. Compare that to their down year, when they were 21 percent worse. That means that these player suffered a fall of 27 percent in their offensive production.
How does that compare to John Buck? Well, in Buck's previous three years (2009 to 2011), he was a .252/.312/.434 hitter, good for a 100 OPS+. That means that over Buck's three seasons, which included his All-Star season in Toronto and his first year with the Marlins, he was about league average at the plate. To fall from a 100 OPS+ to a 61 OPS+ is a drop of 39 percent in offensive production. Of the players listed above, Richie Sexson, Todd Hundley, Scott Spiezio, Brady Anderson, Jason Phillips, Darrin Fletcher, and George Bell suffered similar drops in productivity during their down seasons. Keep those names in mind.
How did these players perform in their following season?
|Ken Griffey, Jr||108||.184||.250||.204||.220||30|
As you can see, the players who received an extra season definitely bounced back as a whole. As a group, those players hit .251/.328/.420 and were rated as just around two percent worse than the league average. That represents a jump of 19 percent in offensive production for these players after their horrific down years.
What kind of jump in production would that translate to for Buck? Assuming he stays at this level for the remainder of the season. a 19 percent jump would bring him up to a 80 OPS+, which is 20 percent worse than league average. To get an idea of what that would look like, based on this, we would expect Buck to hit like players like Zack Cozart (.248/.295/.397, 81 OPS+), John Baker (.252/.331/.296, 80 OPS+), Emilio Bonifacio (.261/.335/.321, 78 OPS+), or Devin Mesoraco (.221/.299/.379, 78 OPS+). That would not be great, but you could do a lot worse with a catcher; among catchers with at least 200 PA in 2012, eight have an OPS+ less than 80, including Buck.
Attrition and Survivor Bias
The problem with this analysis,a s you may have been able to tell, is that a number of players were left off the second list because they fell off the map and out of the majors. Of the players listed as comparables in the initial list, Lee Stevens, George Bell, and Pedro Felix never returned to the majors following their collapse year. Tony Batista did not play in the majors in the following year but received bench PA in two seasons after that before retiring. These four players presumably did not receive further PA and were not in the sample presumably because they were not good enough to be major leaguers, but their potential numbers were not included in the sample, which surely would have been brought down.
In addition, a number of players who suffered large collapses did not receive many PA in that year. Spiezio, Anderson, Fletcher, and Ken Griffey Jr each received really small samples the following year because they were awful, but their numbers would then count less than those who played decently and received full seasons.
Finally, a number of players who did receive close to full years still suffered from attrition the following season. Of the players listed in the year after list, Sexson, Fletcher, Anderson, Griffey, and Pete O'Brien never played in the majors in the majors after the year following their collapse season. A number others only received sporadic appearances before leaving within two or so years.
Note that a number of those names of players matched the names of guys who suffered collapses similar to Buck's. In other words, while as a group the comparable players rebounded, those who suffered tremendous drops in ability did show a higher attrition rate in the years going forward. Buck is certain tor receive playing time next year if he is on the Marlins, but history shows that there is at least a decent chance that he will be poor enough that the Marlins may have to pull the plug on him early to save face. This is especially true given his age; Darrin Fletcher was a 34-year old catcher, two years older than Buck, during his collapse year, and he saw less than 200 PA after that season.
The odds are on Buck's side that he can recover, as most of the listed players did. But because he suffered among the biggest falls compared to similar players, his attrition rate is naturally higher. There is perhaps a 20 percent chance he may no longer be major league worthy despite being an All-Star just two seasons ago, If so, it will cement the Marlins' three-year, $18 million deal as not only an epic mistake in terms of opportunity cost but also in the final results. Still, history is on his side that he may become at least a passable major league catcher in a part-time or backup role.