Can Marlins' John Buck Climb Out of BABIP Hell?

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?

Methodology

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+.

Player PA AVG OBP SLG BABIP OPS+
Kent Hrbek 471 .242 .357 .567 .223 120
Carlos Pena 582 .196 .325 .407 .222 103
Matt Nokes 430 .224 .293 .424 .209 100
Matt Lawton 484 .236 .342 .399 .226 99
Ken Griffey, Jr 454 .214 .324 .411 .220 97
Todd Hundley 428 .207 .295 .436 .223 87
Richie Sexson 491 .205 .295 .399 .217 84
Pete O'Brien 444 .222 .289 .371 .204 84
Paul Konerko 495 .234 .305 .399 .226 83
Ruben Rivera 475 .195 .295 .406 .229 82
Tony Batista 650 .241 .272 .455 .225 81
Lee Stevens 417 .204 .305 .377 .224 79
Aaron Hill 580 .205 .271 .394 .196 78
Casey Kotchman 457 .217 .280 .336 .229 76
Rod Barajas 460 .226 .258 .403 .229 71
Shane Andrews 404 .195 .295 .368 .228 69
Scott Spiezio 415 .215 .288 .346 .228 67
Brady Anderson 501 .202 .311 .300 .228 66
Orlando Cabrera 454 .237 .279 .393 .227 66
Jason Phillips 412 .218 .298 .326 .226 63
Darrin Fletcher 453 .226 .274 .353 .226 63
George Bell 436 .217 .243 .363 .213 63
Yadier Molina 461 .216 .274 .321 .226 53
Pedro Feliz 429 .218 .240 .293 .228 45
Total --- .218 .292 .383 .222 79

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.

Player PA AVG OBP SLG BABIP OPS+
Kent Hrbek 1582 .273 .370 .450 .269 124
Carlos Pena 1789 .252 .382 .553 .283 145
Matt Nokes 1165 .257 .305 .418 .256 101
Matt Lawton 1797 .282 .383 .415 .301 104
Ken Griffey, Jr 1670 .260 .350 .469 .269 108
Todd Hundley 1274 .253 .360 .517 .287 132
Richie Sexson 1423 .262 .352 .526 .294 130
Pete O'Brien 1680 .247 .323 .369 .250 90
Paul Konerko 1866 .294 .357 .496 .299 118
Ruben Rivera 332 .236 .342 .393 .309 95
Tony Batista 1974 .239 .287 .428 .246 88
Lee Stevens 1705 .264 .340 .472 .309 103
Aaron Hill 1620 .285 .331 .464 .304 107
Casey Kotchman 1512 .279 .346 .421 .286 101
Rod Barajas 895 .249 .305 .407 .269 85
Shane Andrews 1042 .231 .301 .444 .270 94
Scott Spiezio 1655 .274 .342 .442 .286 106
Brady Anderson 1884 .260 .380 .441 .280 114
Orlando Cabrera 712 .263 .305 .402 .280 82
Jason Phillips 482 .298 .371 .443 .316 114
Darrin Fletcher 1339 .298 .341 .470 .299 105
George Bell 1881 .268 .306 .435 .271 104
Yadier Molina 572 .256 .304 .358 .265 72
Pedro Feliz 1678 .257 .300 .402 .266 81
Total --- .265 .339 .448 .280 106

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?

Player PA AVG OBP SLG BABIP OPS+
Kent Hrbek 317 .270 .353 .420 .266 99
Carlos Pena 606 .225 .357 .462 .267 123
Matt Nokes 238 .249 .303 .424 .246 96
Matt Lawton 429 .249 .343 .420 .249 104
Ken Griffey, Jr 108 .184 .250 .204 .220 30
Todd Hundley 353 .284 .375 .579 .288 143
Richie Sexson 327 .221 .321 .382 .269 89
Pete O'Brien 239 .257 .335 .390 .254 94
Paul Konerko 643 .277 .359 .535 .274 127
Ruben Rivera 479 .208 .296 .400 .262 80
Aaron Hill 571 .246 .299 .356 .268 76
Casey Kotchman 563 .306 .378 .422 .335 127
Rod Barajas 339 .240 .284 .447 .236 97
Shane Andrews 222 .229 .329 .474 .250 102
Scott Spiezio 51 .137 .149 .286 .071 -22
Brady Anderson 101 .163 .327 .250 .211 59
Orlando Cabrera 684 .276 .324 .428 .281 92
Jason Phillips 434 .238 .287 .363 .248 71
Darrin Fletcher 135 .220 .239 .339 .219 49
Yadier Molina 396 .275 .340 .368 .295 85
Total --- .251 .328 .420 .268 98

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.

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