State of the Bulls Address: The BABIP Edition

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Photo by Leah Sobsey.

The Bulls have thirty games left to play in the regular season. They return to Durham with an astonishing 72-42 record, a fourteen-game lead (at the time of writing this) over second-place Norfolk in the International League, and a very good chance to break the all-time franchise record for wins in a season. They return to Durham Bulls Athletic Park from a very successful road trip through Ohio, splitting four games with the Columbus Clippers and then taking three of four from Toledo, pushing the Mud Hens down below Gwinnett and into the International League basement.

(Funny how a 5-3 record doesn’t sound all that great but in fact computes to a .625 winning percentage, which is elite-level performance. The record-threatening Bulls are playing .632 baseball right now. Baseball rewards consistency, not mercurial play.)

There is really no secret to the Bulls’ dominance, which has been of a consistent kind for much of the season. The starting pitching is great, as exemplified by J. D. Martin, who pitched around nine hits and out of constant trouble in Toledo on Thursday night to earn his fourteenth win of the season. That tied him with Richard De Los Santos (2010) for the most wins since the Bulls became a Triple-A franchise in 1998. Martin will probably make five or six more starts before the season ends, so he is extremely likely to break De Los Santos’s record.

The bullpen is just about as good. The late-inning duo of Josh Lueke and Kirby Yates, a kind of two-headed-monster closer — call them the Sandmen — have a combined ERA of 0.99. They have converted twenty-nine of thirty-one save chances, and have struck out 148 batters in 90 2/3 innings. They have allowed only sixty-six hits, and just three home runs. The Bulls are 58-1 when leading after eight innings, but perhaps more importantly are 55-5 when leading after five. That means that when the game is half over, the Bulls are usually winning, and if they are, they’ll finish the job more than nine times out of ten.

Lueke and Yates have been so good that it is easy to overlook the rest of the relief staff. Only one of them, Frank De Los Santos, is having a poor year. All the rest have ERAs under 4.00, they strike out tons of batters, and they just got a little boost: Rays (and former Bulls) reliever Brandon Gomes, who has missed roughly the last two months with a lat strain, joined the team on a rehab assignment in Toledo and struck out the side in his first appearance, on Thursday night. Gomes essentially replaces Ramon Ramirez, who had a July 31 opt-out clause in his contract and exercised it. Ramirez was granted his release yesterday.

The hitting remains something of a puzzle, the only part of the Bulls’ success that isn’t easy to explain. Durham remains last in the league in home runs, but they lead the league in hits and are tied for the lead in doubles (and are unsurprisingly leading the league in runs scored). They draw a good amount of walks, too, although not to the degree that would alone make the difference between good and great. It really has to be the sheer quantity of hits the Bulls have racked up.  Five Bulls are in the league’s top fourteen in batting average. (One of those, Brandon Guyer, is out with a broken finger and is unlikely to play for Durham again this year.)

So many hits. Why? How? The stat know as BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) is a good place to look when you see an unusually high (or low) number of hits. Research done in the last decade indicates that BABIP fluctuates virtually at random: a ball hit in play is just about as likely to result in an out as a hit, and neither the pitcher nor the hitter really has much control over it — screaming liners are caught; bloops fall in; some grounders find holes, others find gloves.

The average BABIP is about .300. The Bulls have six regulars with BABIPs above .300, including Vince Belnome’s outlandish .392, which is third in the league. Leslie Anderson’s is .343, and he and Belnome are second and third in the league in overall batting average. Belnome has always had a high BABIP throughout his career, and I would wager that it has to do with his selectiveness at the plate: he doesn’t swing at many bad pitches out of the strike zone. Anderson’s BABIP has been rising for three straight full seasons with the Bulls. His walk rate has increased, as well, a sign that he, too, is swinging at fewer non-strikes, which results in more chances to make good contact, and thus more hits.

Other high-BABIP Bulls include Tim Beckham (.354, the highest of his career), Guyer (tied with Anderson at .343), and Mike Fontenot (.323). How much, and exactly what, to read into this high-BABIP trend is uncertain. It isn’t entirely the result of pure luck, though. Hitter BABIP relies less on that than pitcher BABIP. The Bulls are good hitters, and what makes them good is that they work hard to get good pitches to hit. This is a credit, to some degree, to Durham hitting coach Dave Myers.

Get a good ball” was Myers’ counsel to former Bull Elliott Johnson back in April 2010, when Johnson was struggling through his first twenty-five at-bats. (Johnson wound up having a breakout year.) “Get a good ball” sounds a little vague, or bland, but in fact it’s the essence of hitting. There are renegades who can do damage with pitches way out of the strike zone, but not many. If you swing at bad pitches, you’ll generally get bad results. Swinging at good ones is the heart of plate discipline.

Watch the Bulls hit, and you’ll notice how few bad pitches they swing at. Of all the Bulls, only two, Shelley Duncan and Jesus Flores, regularly swing at balls well out of the strike zone. It’s no surprise that those two are hitting .218 and .200, respectively. Duncan’s power offsets his lack of plate discipline to some degree; his walk rate is down, his strikeout rate is up, and he pops up a lot, but his home run rate is highest on the active roster by a lot. Still, he’s not getting a good ball often enough. His BABIP is .254. Flores’s numbers are a good deal worse than Duncan’s across the board.

Yet Duncan had a bit of bad BABIP luck on Thursday night. It was the top of the sixth, and two runs were in for the Bulls, giving them a 2-1 lead. The bases were loaded with two outs, and Duncan hit a drive to deep left field that seemed destined to be a grand slam. But it somehow died at the wall, costing Duncan the home run he thought he had hit. (Toledo, by the way, is a pitcher’s park, rough on hitters.)

After that bad luck, though, skill kicked in — an inning in miniature representative of the Bulls’ season as a whole. Staked to that slim 2-1 lead, J. D. Martin allowed a one-out triple to Danny Worth. With the tying run just ninety feet from home and still one out, Martin clamped down. He threw three straight sliders to Argenis Diaz, perfectly located, and struck him out: Diaz watched two of the three go right past him for strikes one and three. Then, with two outs, Martin speared a comebacker to the mound by Gustavo Nunez, as if gathering up his own mess — he apparently shot a strong look at Nunez just as he made the catch — and threw Nunez out to hold the score at 2-1. That’s exactly where it stayed.

So there are your Bulls: they find ways to win, buckling down when it counts. The other day, Vince Belnome told a reporter that “everyone is laid-back and relaxed.” True enough, no doubt, but all teams that are sailing toward division titles say that about themselves. Everyone is relaxed when there’s no reason to be tense. (See Tolstoy: “Happy families are all alike.”) The challenge is to identify what makes the Bulls particularly, uniquely successful.

It may that the strange phenomenon of BABIP reveals something: it’s part good luck, part skill. Or perhaps it’s better to say that it’s quite a lot of both when a team is thirty games over .500 in early August. Moreover, if luck eventually balances out, which it probably does, then it’s a surplus of skill that makes the difference. The Bulls have no marquee talent left on the roster now that Wil Myers and fellow Tar Heel stud Chris Archer have left for the majors. The apparent surfeit of skill may very well owe not to raw gifts but to an abundance of sheer willpower, which in turn stems from self-discipline and maturity. The Bulls aren’t an especially old team, but they are a wise one, and hard-nosed. They earn their laid-back relaxation with concentrated, intelligent effort on the field when it counts.

Durham opens a nine-game home stand, longest of the season, tonight against the Gwinnett Braves, who are last in the division but whose roster currently boasts a famous rehabbing major-leaguer by the name of B. J. Upton. Longtime Bulls fans will recall Upton well. He was a star in the making as a Bull way back in 2006, and parlayed his early-career promise as a Tampa Bay Ray into a seventy-five-million-dollar, five-year contract with Atlanta in the off-season. His 2013 has been a total disaster, however, the benefit of which is a chance to see him back in Durham, as a hamstrung villain, for the first time in years.

After the junior Braves leave town, the Rochester Red Wings arrive. It has been a bizarre season for Rochester, which was way out of contention in late May but has the International League’s second best record since then (only Durham’s is better) and, improbably, leads the northern division for the first time in years. If the season ended today, these two teams would be on course to meet in the Governors’ Cup Championship Finals.

If sheer wins-and-losses quality isn’t enough for you (in which case, why are you still reading this?), the Red Wings have two interesting former Bulls on their roster. One is pitcher Virgil Vasquez, who is scheduled to start Wednesday. Vasquez was the focus of a bizarre 2010 incident in which he went riding on his scooter near the ballpark (with no helmet), was hit by a car, and broke both his wrists. He came back to the Bulls later that year but suffered a knee injury, probably also the (indirect) result of the scooter crash, and was shut down again. He’s a nice guy and it will be fun to have him back after his years away from Durham, including one or two in the independent Atlantic League. I’m going to ask him if he wants to ride bikes on Wednesday morning.

The other familiar Red Wing is Ray Olmedo, who was a Bulls infielder in 2009 and then again in 2011. In 2010 he was a Nashville Sound, and in 2012 a Charlotte Knight (now that’s Triple-A), even briefly a Chicago White Sox — his first trip to the majors in five or six years. The happy-go-lucky, white-shoes-wearing Olmedo was a bit of a folk hero here, not least for reasons like this one. Probably best if you come see him, and the Bulls, for yourself.

The Bulls are down to their final fifteen home games of the season. Every year around this time, I hear people say that they definitely have plans to get out to the park and catch a game or two, although they haven’t yet, overconfident in baseball’s apparent endlessness. But you know what? Baseball ends, and in Triple-A it ends sooner and more abruptly than you think. School starts up, commitments too, college football stomps in like a parade of escaped elephants. Next thing you know, autumn sets in, leaves fall, winter hard behind, and all during the cold months those who never made it out to the ballpark long for spring without having built up a soul-reserve of the summer game and its nectar. Don’t be an ant. Be a grasshopper. It’s not your preparedness that sustains you during the off-season. It’s your unexpectedly warming memories. Skill is nothing without luck.

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