Who are the best hitters in baseball this year?
Seems like a relatively straightforward question. Most fans could probably name a few candidates off the tops of their heads. If you were seeking a more complete list, you might look at a leader board for average, OPS, wOBA—whatever your metric of choice is.
Of course, players aren't always who they seem to be. Any statistic—especially this early in the season—can be tainted by fluctuations of cold, heartless luck.
In this slideshow are the 10 MLB hitters for whom the winds of fortune have been blowing most strongly at their backs, as well as my calculations for how far they'll fall when their luck runs out.
Batting average on balls in play (also known as "BABIP" or "hit rate") is exactly what it sounds like—the proportion of batted balls hit within the confines of the baseball diamond that fall for hits. The league average is always right around .300.
BABIP takes years to stabilize and become reliable because it is particularly prone to being affected by random chance. Some players—powerful line-drive hitters and speedy ground-ball hitters, for example—have the ability to maintain hit rates significantly higher than the mean, but most big, year-to-year fluctuations are just luck.
Thanks to The Hardball Times' Simple xBABIP Calculator, we can get an idea of what a player's hit rate would be in a luck-neutral environment based on factors like power, speed and batted-ball profile.
In order to calculate the context-neutral stats for the players on this list, I substituted their xBABIPs for their BABIPs to find their adjusted batting averages. I then used their walk rates to find their expected on-base percentages and applied their Power Factors to calculate expect slugging percentages.
Finally, I calculated each player's expected OPS+ to compare with his actual OPS+. It's an imperfect method for comparing offensive production, but it at least gets you in the right ballpark.
If you don't believe that this system has any predictive power, ask Austin Jackson.
Actual numbers: .315 average/.435 on-base percentage/.378 slugging percentage, 123 OPS+ (.382 BABIP)
Adjusted numbers: .266/.386/.320, 94 OPS+ (.322 xBABIP)
Fukudome is known for starting hot and cooling down as the season progresses, and 2011 should be no exception. Even if he continues to play as well as he has over the first two months, his numbers will fall in the coming months.
Actual numbers: .305/.350/.458, 124 OPS+ (.367 BABIP)
Adjusted numbers: .259/.304/.389, 92 OPS+ (.307 xBABIP)
On the surface, it looks like Kubel is stepping up to replace Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau in the Twins' lineup. In reality, he's just been getting some lucky bounces.
Actual numbers: .346/.409/.509, 159 OPS+ (.395 BABIP)
Adjusted numbers: .299/.362/.440, 126 OPS+ (.334 xBABIP)
On the surface, Jay looks like a fourth outfielder worthy of an All-Star selection. He's been quite good, to be sure, but once his luck normalizes, he won't look like an MVP candidate.
Actual numbers: .326/.405/.468, 147 OPS+ (.395 BABIP)
Adjusted numbers: .278/.357/.399, 114 OPS+ (.334 xBABIP)
At first glance, Ethier seems to be in the midst of a breakout year. A closer look, however, shows that he's hitting about as well as he usually does, except with less power.
Actual numbers: .304/.350/.470, 130 OPS+ (.368 BABIP)
Adjusted numbers: .254/.300/.392, 95 OPS+ (.301 xBABIP)
Pence's strikeouts are up and his power is down—a fact people will start to realize when his hit rate comes down.
Actual numbers: .311/.378/.437, 131 OPS+ (.391 BABIP)
Adjusted numbers: .249/.316/.350, 89 OPS+ (.310 xBABIP)
Betemit has shown signs of good offensive potential for years, but never before has he caught people's attention like he has in 2011. Unfortunately for him, his success won't last.
Actual numbers: .347/.440/.554, 180 OPS+ (.397 BABIP)
Adjusted numbers: .286/.379/.456, 136 OPS+ (.318 xBABIP)
One of the big stories out of St. Louis this year has been Holliday's insanely hot start. Make no mistake, he's a very good hitter, but he's not going to keep producing like he did in 2007.
Actual numbers: .345/.409/.548, 170 OPS+ (.415 BABIP)
Adjusted numbers: .279/.343/.443, 122 OPS+ (.323 xBABIP)
When Pronk comes back from the DL and his numbers start to fall, most analysts will say it was his health that sapped his momentum and hindered his consistency. These people will be wrong.
Actual numbers: .359/.394/.487, 140 OPS+ (.426 BABIP)
Adjusted numbers: .281/.316/.382, 91 OPS+ (.329 xBABIP)
This journeyman third baseman seems to have finally found his groove in Miami. Just one little problem: His BABIP is nearly 100 points too high.
Actual numbers: .365/.425/.623, 198 OPS+ (.413 BABIP)
Adjusted numbers: .295/.355/.503, 145 OPS+ (.321 xBABIP)
Finally given a starting job with consistent playing time, Joyce's offensive surge has been a big reason why the Rays still look like contenders. He's a no-questions-asked All-Star, and he might be a leading candidate for AL MVP if not for Jose Bautista.
There's no question that Joyce is an exciting young player, but he's just not this good. He's cut down on the strikeouts, but there's no way he keeps finding his way on base this often—especially since his walk rate and Power Factor are actually below his career averages.