Tune in to an MLB game any night and chances are the conversation will turn to the topic that dominates the sport so far this season.
The latest exploits shōhei ohtani? No. Red-hot starts for both New York teams in 2022? Try again. The overloaded Los Angeles Dodgers? Not this spring.
Instead, the topic on everyone’s mind is baseball itself, meaning what MLB has done with the ball being used this season and how it’s affecting the product on the field.
We delve into what’s really going on with the ball, how it’s shaping the game and what it means for the future of MLB.
Offense is down in every major league
MLB teams averaged 4.0 runs per game in April, which is the lowest one-month average since 1981, and 0.26 runs per team per game less than a season ago.
In fact, the league-wide batting average of .231 was the lowest through April in MLB history, and the .675 OPS was the lowest since 1968, also known as The Year of the Pitcher.
The offenses are scoring the fewest runs per game in four decades, posting the worst OPS in more than 50 years and hitting for the lowest batting average in history a month into the season, but the numbers are even more revealing. when you factor in the fact that the universal DH was added this season.
Pitchers hit just .110 a season ago, the worst full-season mark in MLB history, and league-wide batting average, OPS and isolated power are still down from last April to this April:
2022: .231 avg, .675 OPS .137 ISO
2021: .232 avg, 699 OPS, .157 ISO
Blame it on the loss of the long ball
The decline in batting average is nothing new in baseball; in fact, the last four full seasons account for each of the four lowest individual April marks in the entire league in the last 40 full seasons, but it’s baseball’s falling home run rate that has killed the offense so far. so far this year.
Only 36% of runs this April came by way of home runs, the lowest total through April since 2015. Remember 2019, the year of the home run, when MLB hitters hit the most home runs in MLB history? this sport? That April, 43.5% of runs came via home runs, so there has been a massive drop in just three years.
“Something is different because we look at the metrics. We see how hard it is hit and then we see the ball is caught,” the Los Angeles infielder said. Chicago Cubs Patrick Wisdom to ESPN. “He starts raising a few eyebrows, raising a few questions.”
For the first time since 2015, there was less than one home run per team per game during the first month of the season:
The ball travels differently
We focused on balls that were hit with an exit velocity between 102 and 105 mph and a launch angle between 27 and 29 degrees. These batted balls are in line with the average exit velocity of 103.6 and distance traveled of 399.7 feet for all home runs since Statcast was introduced in 2015. To limit the impact of weather on the outcome, we limited our research to two locations under roof: Milwaukee’s Miller Park (now called American Family Field) and Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field.
Six of the seven batted balls from previous seasons that fit our criteria resulted in home runs, compared to only three of the hit balls in 2022. Every batted ball that falls within our parameters this season traveled significantly fewer total feet than its counterpart from a previous season, despite having a similar muzzle velocity at a similar launch angle under the same conditions.
“The ball is not the same as it used to be. I used to be 165 pounds soaking wet out here throwing balls,” Brewers outfielder Andrew McCutchen said. “I’ve hit a few that don’t continue to travel. Then we’re having conversations like, ‘How did this guy have an exit velocity of 96 with a launch angle of 31, and his ball came out and I had an exit velocity of 100 and 28? of launch angle and mine didn’t come off? … Baseball players aren’t getting weaker.”
The ball is really different
Yes, the ball itself is fundamentally different in 2022, and that’s intentional.
In a memo sent to all teams this offseason, MLB outlined a plan to change the ball in response to high home run rates in recent seasons. A record 6,776 home runs were hit during the 2019 regular season, and the rate had dropped only slightly: from 6.6% of plate appearances resulting in home runs in 2019 to 6.5% last year.
In an effort to better center the ball, tension was released on the first of three layers of wool inside the ball. Rawlings’ research before the season estimated that the adjustment would reduce the coefficient of restitution (a measure of rebound) and also reduce the ball’s weight by 2.8 grams without changing its size.
Those changes were designed to lose one to two feet of distance on balls hit over 375 feet, but if you look at the batted balls most likely to go out of bounds (hit with an exit velocity of 100 mph and 20 to 35 degree launch angle) compared to recent years shows that the impact goes further.
“There have definitely been times this season where I’ve been like, ‘I can’t believe that ball didn’t come out,'” the Dodgers pitcher said. daniel hudson. “I don’t really know what the answer is, if they have to re-tighten them or whatever they’re doing. I guess that was the problem with the guys, there’s no openness about it.”
The humidifier also plays an important role
For the first time, all 30 teams are using humidifiers to store their baseballs, up from 10 last season. Humidifiers make the ball uniform by standardizing the amount of water in the air around the ball. There is a big difference in the 2022 added changes in offensive rates at the 10 stadiums that already had humidifiers and the 20 that have added one for this season.
That’s pretty tough. Pop-up home runs are down 0.7% in existing humidifiers, while they’re down 2.4% in new humidifier parks, meaning the number of at-bats per home run has barely changed in existing ones. used, but in the new ones it has taken an average of 13.1 more at-bats to hit a home run.
“There was one in Minnesota where I hit it like 106 mph off at 29 degrees, and the ball got caught in the warning strip. That should be a home run for sure. The other one was 104 for 27, which should have been a home run and I got caught,” said Dodgers infielder Gavin Lux. “Talking to some guys in Atlanta where she got hit the [segunda] ball, it’s like, boom, fresh off the bat, then it picks up and just dies in the air.”
The offense at ballparks that already had humidifiers in April 2021 looks similar this season, but the decline in places where the humidifier debuts is driving lost production across the sport.
Why there is still hope for the offense
The good news for fans of the offense is that it usually gets better as the season goes on and the weather warms up. Here’s a look at the month-over-month offense from 2015 to 2021:
March/April: .244/.317/.403, .720 OPS, HR per 30.1 at-bats, 4.39 runs per game (RPG)
May: .250/.319/.413, .732 OPS, HR per 28.9 at-bats, 4.45 RPG
June: .255/.321/.423, .744 OPS, HR per 27.6 at-bats, 4.61 RPG
June: .253/.321/.421, .742 OPS, HR per 28.3 at-bats, 4.57 RPG
August: .254/.322/.426, .749 OPS, HR per 26.7 at-bats, 4.63 RPG
September/October: .249/.320/.416, .736 OPS, HR per 28.2 at-bats, 4.56 RPG
“We’ve had so many balls hit into the warning strip, for and against us … They’re dying on the wall, but we’ve only played in cold weather,” says White Sox infielder Jake Burger. “We have to wait until May or June.”
We asked our MLB insiders what we’ll see the rest of the season and what the league should do about its ongoing saga.
Brad Doolittle: All we need from the ball is as much consistency as possible from batch to batch and from year to year. Other than that, it’s a good thing that home run rates this year are down, and could even drop a bit more. The number of runs is low, but will increase as the weather warms, but the issue remains more about how the runs are scored than how many. There is a real decrease in home run rate leading to a higher non-home run scoring rate. It is a step in a direction in which we must continue to head.
Jess Rogers: Maybe baseball shouldn’t do anything. As Angels manager Joe Maddon pointed out, the long drive to the opposite wing from non-homer hitters has decreased so far this season. That’s the way it should be. The real power hitters are still going to get theirs. If the trend continues, the current launch angle era could take a backseat to the return of a more complete hitter. It will take some time, but maybe that’s MLB’s goal in the first place.
David Schoenfeld: What baseball must ask is what type of game is the most optimal. How many runs per game do we want, how many home runs, how many triples and bases and stolen balls in play? And so. The ball itself is part of that equation, but only part of the equation. This is not new; Just look at the history of the sport. There are plenty of instances of run scoring fluctuating from year to year (although the inconsistencies in recent years are certainly frustrating).
I expect run scoring to pick up the rest of the season, especially once the pitching roster cap goes back to 13…and frankly, if the answer to the above question is “more runs,” the limitations on pitchers should eventually go back to at least 12.
Alden Gonzalez: This is the one thing players have been clamoring for in recent weeks: transparency. They want more information from MLB about the types of baseballs used, how they’re stored, how they’re handled and why one often looks so different from another. New York Mets pitcher Chris Bassett lent his voice recently, and it is far from the only one. Lux told me that he picked up two foul balls in the dugout recently and was surprised to find that one had significantly higher seams than the other. “Some balls seem to be traveling further than ever,” Lux said, “and then some feel like rags.” This is a problem. MLB needs consistency with its most essential product: literally the ball.
Information from ESPN Stats and Information and ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez, Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield was used throughout this story.
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