Do you know who entered Wednesday's slate of games with the highest batting average in the American League? It wasn't Ichiro or Joe Mauer, but New York's Robinson Cano. The second baseman has been talked about as a potential batting champion in the past, and he's meeting those expectations so far in 2010, hitting .376 through his first 26 games and already popping nine home runs.
When a player is hitting for such a high average, it's not a bad idea to check out his batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which, when compared to his batting average, can show whether a hitter's success is a result of luck or hitting skill. Sometimes -- especially early in the season with so few at-bats -- a player may just have been fortunate to get a few bloop hits and seeing-eye grounders. BABIP removes strikeouts and home runs from the equation, only measuring hits per at-bat when the ball is put into the field of play. The league average is around .300. If a player has a higher BABIP than his BA, it means his hitting success is likely the result of fluky circumstances in the field and is less likely to last. But if a player's BA is higher than his BABIP, it means he's showing true hitting prowess.
Cano's BABIP sits at a relatively high .358, but it's still less than his batting average thus far -- not an easy trick to pull off. It’s one that requires skill at avoiding strikeouts and hitting the ball over the fence. In order for BA to be greater than BABIP, a player needs to have HR / (HR + K) > BA. In other words, a player with a .300 batting average in 600 at-bats can come in with a below .300 BABIP by hitting 31 home runs and striking out only 71 times. If he goes deep 45 times, he can strike out up to 104 times. The higher the batting average, the fewer strikeouts a batter can afford for each home run he hits. A .260 batter who strikes out those 71 times can beat his BABIP with just 26 long balls.
Since the 2000 season, there have been 110 player-seasons with a batting average above BABIP, though the number has dwindled in recent years as home run totals have gone down. Several guys did it multiple times, with Albert Pujols (eight times), Gary Sheffield (seven), Barry Bonds (five), Carlos Lee (five), Rafael Palmeiro (five) and Vlad Guerrero (five) as the top repeaters during that span. Bonds had each of the top three years when batting average most exceeded BABIP, with his 73-home-run 2001 season (.328 average, .266 BABIP) easily at the head of that class. The lowest average for someone who managed to beat his BABIP was Tony Batista in 2004. He hit just .241, with an even lower .225 BABIP, on the strength of 32 home runs and only 78 strikeouts. The highest average was Todd Helton’s batting-title-worthy .372 in 2000, when he hit 42 home runs and struck out just 61 times with a .357 BABIP.
Cano himself almost managed this feat last year (.320 BA, .324 BABIP), and although he's striking out more in 2010 than he did in 2009, he's also hitting home runs far more frequently. His .358 BABIP is likely to come down, and with it, his batting average. If it falls to his career mark of .322, Robbie can strike out at his career rate (about 70 times for the season) and would need to crack at least 34 home runs to pull it off. If Cano repeats last year’s 25 home runs with his career .322 BABIP, he’s not going to be able to strike out more than 51 times. And if he strikes somewhere around the 63 times he did in 2009 -- with 25 home runs again -- the only thing that can help him is a drop in batting average, all the way down to .275. I think the first scenario is the most likely, if Cano is to do it in 2010, and it's something to keep an eye on this season.