And furthermore on BABIP after Gwinnett Braves finally beat Durham Bulls in Durham
Photo by Frank Hunter.
I promise I will soon stop bothering you about BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play; see this for a succinct explanation), probably right after today’s story concludes, just as I promised (and did) about Hamlet back in June. And why not? Hamlet was a high-contact hitter, but he was done in by terrible baserunning instincts.
When you see the same team over and over again, as we have done with the Gwinnett Braves over the last few weeks (but thankfully no more this year!), you get trapped inside certain thought bubbles, and the only way to burst them is to get a new team in town. The Rochester Red Wings will fly in shortly, but for now, more BABIP.
Last night’s game, which Gwinnett won easily, 4-1, helped show what happens when a low-power, high-contact team doesn’t make contact. Yohan Flande, the Gwinnett Braves’ left-handed starter, was on his game early. He retired the first nine Bulls he faced, striking out five of them. I called Flande’s changeup a splitter in yesterday’s story, but only because that’s what Flande’s former manager Dave Brundage called it a couple of years ago; it looks like a changeup, moves like a changeup; maybe it’s thrown with a splitter grip, but whatever it is, it was working beautifully yesterday. Everything Flande threw was working beautifully. He went eight innings, allowed three hits and no walks, struck out eight men overall, induced eleven groundouts against four outs in the air. Flande permitted only one hard-hit ball: Vince Belnome’s line-drive single up the middle in the fourth inning.
Weak contact or none at all is BABIP’s neutralizer, and you’re going to have some games where even the few bleeders and bloops you usually get lucky on don’t get lucky. The only sure way to break through when a pitcher is doing that to you is to take advantage of a mistake and hit over the wall somewhere. It’s certainly possible that Flande didn’t make any mistakes last night, but exceedingly unlikely. Pitchers, especially minor-league pitchers, make numerous mistakes in every game. The problem for the Bulls is that they don’t have many mistake hitters like the Braves’ Ernesto Mejia, who is second in the league in strikeouts — and (to drive home a point three days in the chiseling) second in the league in home runs. These things tend to run in pairs.
Mejia has hit twenty-seven homers this season, which for perspective is forty percent of the Bulls’ entire team total for the year (including Wil Myers’ fourteen). Last night’s Bulls lineup of nine men has hit a combined forty-two homers in 2013. Myers, who hasn’t played for the Bulls since mid-June, still leads the team in home runs. High-contact, selective hitters are great to have, and this year’s team is as good as it is because of its ample supply. But as any evolutionary biologist can tell you, a lack of variety in habitat and diet will doom a species. Your lineup full of Vince Belnomes and Cole Figueroas, who are chopsticks hitters, and really good ones, needs a peppering of big dudes who want to attack a steak with a serving fork and a machete. The healthier eaters live longer, but the carnivores live larger. And on a night like Sunday, when a pitcher like Flande has taken away the side dishes, that devouring caveman becomes necessary.
Shelley Duncan is probably supposed to be that guy. He was, after all, the league MVP in 2009, when as a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankee he hit thirty home runs. This season, Duncan has hit ten homers (in far fewer plate appearances than in 2009, but his rate is lower overall). This is not to pin blame on Duncan for the Bulls’ lack of home runs as a team. He’s just one guy, and he’s having an off-year — one in which his mother happens to have died, so let’s not judge. These swings do not happen in a vacuum. Nor is it to suggest that the Bulls would have won last night if they’d had Mejia playing first base rather than Duncan, who went 0-3 with two strikeouts. Mejia also went 0-3 with two strikeouts, plus a sacrifice fly, but the sacrifice fly is revealing: when Mejia hit it, there was, of course, a guy on third base with one out. Only once last night did a Durham Bull come to bat last night with a runner on third and one out, and that was the only time the Bulls scored: Jason Bourgeois hit an RBI groundout in the fourth inning.
And when Bourgeois came to bat with a runner on second and two outs in the sixth inning, the Bulls trailing 3-1, the thought overtook me that if Bourgeois didn’t somehow find a way to hit a two-run home run, with the way Flande was going, the Bulls were going to lose. Yet Bourgeois has hit two home runs all season. In his career, which spans almost exactly six thousand plate appearances (all but five hundred of them in the minors), he has hit sixty-three home runs. Simple math says that’s one homer about every hundred trips to the plate. Those were not good odds for last night’s sixth-inning at-bat.
Bourgeois was batting third last night, the spot that has mostly belonged to Belnome, Myers, and Brandon Guyer this season. Those three players have hit twenty-nine homers this season. They might get one’s hopes up in this situation. It’s not Bourgeois’s fault that he’s hitting third, where we usually find home-run hitters. Guyer is hurt, Myers is long gone to Tampa Bay, and Belnome (who is not really a home run hitter) was pressed into duty as the cleanup man. Bourgeois got ahead in the count, 3-1, trying to work out either a walk or a good pitch to punch somewhere and extend the inning for Belnome. But there are some games where you have basically just one chance to give yourself an opportunity to win. The 3-1 pitch was up a little, but not totally great to hit, maybe a little too far away, and Bourgeois grounded out to shortstop. Easy play, inning over. Game, too, really.
Some crazy news out of the independent Atlantic League. Last night, Jake Fox, whom Bulls fans may remember as an opposing slugger for the Norfolk Tides and Indianapolis Indians, hit a walk-off home run for the Somerset Patriots. The crazy part is that it was the third straight night that Fox had a walk-off hit for the Patriots. Must be a record, it seems.
After last night’s game-ending, eleventh-inning dinger, Fox told the excellent veteran minor-league writer Mike Ashmore: “I’m not going to lie to you. I had one thing on my mind in that at-bat.” Which is to say, a home run; and then Fox, who leads the Atlantic League with twenty-three homers, went and hit one. He is that kind of hitter. He, like Ernesto Mejia, can think about hitting a home run and then stand a good chance of stepping to the plate and actually hitting one. With all apologies to Jason Bourgeois, who is batting over .400 with two outs and runners in scoring position this season, even if he was trying to hit what would have been a game-tying, two-run home run in the sixth inning last night, he just isn’t the kind of guy who can do it on command. That’s not his game.
It’s not the Bulls’ game, either. BABIP. A home run is not a BIP, of course. It’s a BOP, and the Bulls are bippers, not boppers. Given that they are still thirty games over .500 and leading the league in runs scored, let’s not worry that this particular species of Bull is endangered. This is all just to say that even the mightiest, snortingest Bull will have its vulnerable spot, and this is Durham’s, and we saw it on Sunday.
This whole BABIP thing I’ve been chasing since Friday is mostly speculation. I’ve been looking hard at what I think is an important part of the overall subject (the Bulls), and making multiple studies of it over the last few days. But BABIP is fickle, and in the overall arc of the Bulls’ season it might turn out to be irrelevant anyway. What if you’re making documentary work only to discover that you’ve been looking at the wrong thing? Or that the thing is not really there? Is it possible that, truth-capturing impulse notwithstanding, the documentary gaze can sometimes be wrong?
Thank goodness the Rochester Red Wings are on their way.