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Chris Colabello, BABIP and the playoffs

Chris Colabello is not one of the many established stars on the Blue Jays' roster. He's not a highly touted prospect, either, at almost 32 years of age. And yet, the playoffs give every player a chance to be the hero, including Colabello.

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Chris Colabello hitting against his former team
Chris Colabello hitting against his former team
Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Colabello comes with a great story. If you have not read that story, I suggest you do so in the near future. While you're at it, here's another good read. Going undrafted, playing in an independent league for seven years before finally getting an opportunity with the Minnesota Twins, rejecting a big contract from a Korean team to try and keep the Major League dream alive; now there's a background story that's tough to beat. It's easy to root for a person like Chris Colabello. But I have a feeling that Chris is not done writing storylines yet.

With so many irreplaceable stars on the roster, manager John Gibbons has not had a whole lot of important decisions to make regarding his lineup. When Troy Tulowitzki is healthy, you pencil him into the lineup. Same goes for Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Russell Martin. Kevin Pillar is not going to get replaced by Dalton Pompey, and Cliff Pennington is not going to seriously challenge Ryan Goins at second base. Ben Revere will be in every lineup as well. So the big talking point this season, at least on this website, has been the choice of going with Justin Smoak or Chris Colabello at first base. Our very own Mike Hannah wrote a nice piece on Colabello earlier in the season.

Because Chris Colabello has such a short track record, it is very hard to determine whether Justin Smoak or Chris Colabello should be the starting first baseman in the playoffs, and in the end John Gibbons is likely to go with both, Colabello playing against left-handed pitchers and switch-hitter Smoak facing the righties. There's no proof that Colabello can't handle right-handed pitching, but Justin Smoak has hit righties a little bit better than he's hit lefties over his career, so it seems like a decent enough idea.

This bit of news hit Twitter yesterday:

This news means we are very likely to see a lot of Chris Colabello in the ALDS, as Cole Hamels is widely expected to pitch both game two and game five of the series. A lot of opportunities for Chris Colabello to continue his amazing story, as he hasn't really claimed center stage yet, which probably has something to do with the star-studded lineup that "Cola" is a part of.

But while Josh Donaldson may win an American League Most Valuable Player award, starting this Thursday all of the production from the regular season no longer counts. It doesn't matter how many RBIs and home runs you have collected, or how much WAR you have accrued, the playoffs are all about the here and now. Instead of a 162 game long season, there's a few games where every single at-bat seems to matter, the media and fans watching intensely as every single pitch is delivered, tracking every single ball that is hit. The spur of the moment, the chance to become a hero, no matter how unlikely.

Chris Colabello himself knows he is an underdog. He knows he is not a five-tool player, nor a gold glove defender in the field:

"I’ve always told people, I’m not the kind of guy you can watch on any given day — he’s not going to run faster, he’s not going to throw it harder, he probably won’t hit it farther. He might not look good fielding. But I used to say to people, watch me play for a month, and then tell me what you think."

(h/t to usatoday's article)

What Chris Colabello is, is a pretty good hitter. He hits the ball hard, and he doesn't hit it in the air very often (flyballs go for hits less often). The proponents of Chris Colabello, then, will argue that this makes him likely to hit for a higher average than most hitters, getting a lot of hits on balls in play to compensate for strikeouts. But there's a pretty good reason that people believe hitters have limited control over the result of their batted balls.  Some control, sure, but still limited. The reason I mentioned? Well, it's called defense, and it's been there for as long as the game has existed (although improved with the use of advanced defensive alignments). Here's a tweet with a nice explanatory graph:

You're a hitter. Now, you might be trying to hit the ball hard, and perhaps you're even good enough to determine if you're going hit it up the middle, pull it, or hit it the other way. But even when you hit it hard, the defense can take your hit away. If you hit it high and hard (90 mph is pretty hard), you'll likely have an outfielder catch it. Chris Colabello-specific example:

Now Chris Colabello hit this ball a bit harder than 90 mph, and it took a good catch to rob him of a hit. Still, this ball is not hit right at the outfielder. It's in a decent enough spot, somewhat in the gap, but because of how hard it was hit the ball hangs up for the outfielder to catch. If the ball was hit more softly, it drops in for a base hit, as you'll often see with Ben Revere.

The angle of 22 degrees is an angle for line drive home runs at best. Hitting the ball any lower and you will rule out the possibility of being rewarded for hard contact with a home run, and you will have less chance to hit it over an infielder's head, as well as hitting the ball into the ground more often. A ball hit 95 mph into the ground will lose speed, but often not so much that it becomes a tough to field 'squibbler'. Hitting the ball hard but with a higher angle will increase home runs and popups, it definitely won't help with batting average on balls in play.

To have batted balls fall in for hits as often as Colabello has, he either has to be a wizard at matching his exit velocity with the perfect launch angle (low for hard hit, but high for softly hit, and also high if it can be a home run), or hit balls harder on average than even Giancarlo Stanton can do. For the record, Chris Colabello hasn't hit balls harder than Stanton, nor has Stanton ever had a batting average on balls in play anywhere near Colabello's mark (he had a .411 BABIP in regular season play).

Unsustainable as Colabello's amount of hits may be, he has shown a very promising ability to hit the ball hard. Here's a quite typical Colabello-type hit, one of the walk-off variety:

While the Rogers Centre turf takes some of the speed off that ball, you can see that it's hit quite hard off the bat, a nice nice swing on a tough slider from Luke Gregerson. Chris Colabello likes to hit his singles up the middle, but he can hit them to all fields, and that seems to be a part of his success thus far.

If you want to see another Colabello groundball single, here's an interesting one where Buck Martinez comments that Xander Bogaerts was unsure where to position against Chris Colabello. The Red Sox got it wrong, Colabello beat their defensive alignment. It's possible that teams have now scouted Colabello's hitting tendencies and have come up with a plan to beat him. But I'm not so sure that Colabello is predictable enough that you can beat him with a perfect defensive setup.

Cola's last series of the season, and warmup to the postseason was impressive enough, hitting one home run even though he should have gotten two:

For me, this is the kind of moment that makes baseball great. If this "triple" is hit in any other ballpark, it's just another home run for the stat sheet. Instead, it's a memory. Remember that time Chris Colabello hit the Tropicana catwalk? Well, perhaps you won't. In that case, hopefully it's because Chris Colabello replaced the memory with a new, awesome, memory of the playoff-heroics variety.