MLB's Offensive Woes Are Casting a Boring Cloud over the New Season

Zachary D. RymerApril 25, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 08: Miguel Sano #22 of the Minnesota Twins reacts to striking out against the Seattle Mariners in the ninth inning on Opening Day at Target Field on April 8, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Mariners defeated the Twins 2-1. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
David Berding/Getty Images

After there were nine throughout the 2021 season, there hasn't been even one no-hitter to this point in the 2022 Major League Baseball season. So the league's batsmen have that going for them, which is nice.

Trouble is, that's about all they have going for them.

It's really not just you if it feels like it's been especially hard to watch hitters do their thing early in the 2022 season. They really are struggling. The 4.02 runs per game that teams are pushing across marks the lowest league-wide figure since 1981. Even worse, the league's .232 batting average is the lowest of all time.

Hitters right now have it even harder than hitters in 1968, who batted just .237 in baseball's final season with a 15-inch mound. They're likewise worse than they were at the outset of the '21 campaign, when hitters were batting just .236 through the season's first two months.

The obvious boogeyman this time last year was the sticky stuff that pitchers were using to get unnatural spin on their pitches. The league acted accordingly when it stepped up enforcement on banned substances in June, and it worked as hitters jacked up their average to .248 in the season's final four months.

As spin rates remain depressed in 2022, the sticky stuff ban still seems to be working. This naturally got us to poking around for other explanations for this season's early offensive outage, as well as for potential ways that the problem might be solved.

It's a Ball Thing

Though baseball's Launch Angle Revolution is ongoing, the balls themselves have apparently decided they no longer want any part of it.

At 43.4 percent, the league-wide rate of ground balls is tied with 2020 for the lowest on record since 2008. What's more, batted balls that check both the sweet spot (i.e., between 8 and 32 degrees off the bat) and hard-hit (i.e., 95 mph and above) boxes now account for 18.4 percent of all balls in play. That's the highest of the eight-year Statcast era.

And yet, the efforts that hitters are putting into hitting for power aren't being rewarded.

Hard-hit balls in the sweet spot are only traveling an average of 311 feet, or six fewer feet than in 2021. The difference between these balls' expected slugging percentage and actual slugging percentage, meanwhile, is like nothing seen before in the Statcast era:

Graph via Google Sheets

Because it's still early in the season, the possible relation between the underperformance of these batted balls and the weather can't be ignored. Balls don't fly as far when it's cold, and April 'tis the season for that kind of weather at the ol' ballgame.

More so than at the weather, though, some are pointing accusatory fingers at the baseball itself. Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, for example, told reporters: "I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but something is different."

This is a reasonable enough stance simply in context of the recent history of the ball, which can be fairly summarized as "shady." The ball was obviously juiced in the latter half of the 2010s, but then downright inconsistent in 2021. Per Bradford William Davis of Business Insider, that was because two different balls were in use throughout the season.

What makes Roberts' claim even more reasonable is that there actually is a new development that concerns the baseballs. As reported by Eno Sarris of The Athletic, there are now humidors at all 30 of the league's stadiums. The idea is ostensibly to make the behavior of balls more consistent, but humidors have also been known to reduce the bounciness of the ball in drier climates. 

Since the league isn't yet into the warmer, more humid weather of the summer months, it makes sense that the offense-suppressing effect of humidors would be the norm to this point.

It's a Times Through the Order Thing

Moving on to more straightforward matters, the effect of the past winter's 99-day lockout on the league's early offensive output also demands discussion.

Specifically, to the extent that the lockout pushed back the start of spring training and shortened the time that starting pitchers had to build up their arms. The Clayton Kershaw perfect game controversy is the most visible repercussion, but it can also be seen more broadly in how starters are averaging a paltry 4.7 innings when they take the hill.

This, in turn, is further exacerbating the ongoing death of the third-time-through-the-order penalty:

Graph via Google Sheets

It used to be that hitters could count on getting three cracks at that day's starter, but that has been increasingly not the case in recent years and especially so now in 2022. As for why this matters, it's all there in the batting average splits for this season:

  • 1st PA vs. SP: .236 AVG
  • 2nd PA vs. SP: .240 AVG
  • 3rd PA vs. SP: .284 AVG

Alas, those third plate appearances against starters are turning into first plate appearances against relief pitchers. Those typically favor the hurler, as they're thus far yielding just a .216 average in 2022.

It's a Fastball Thing, or Lack Thereof

As if having to look at so many different pitchers wasn't hard enough, it's also not so easy anymore for a hitter to go to the plate and sit on a fastball.

This isn't so much because velocity is holding its upward trend, though that's certainly a challenge in its own right. It's more so because only 55.4 percent of all pitches are fastballs, which is on track to beat 2020 for the lowest fastball rate of the pitch tracking era.

It's doubtful that anyone needs to be told that breaking balls and offspeed pitches are harder to hit than fastballs, but the numbers are worth beholding anyway:

Graph via Google Sheets

For hitters, one potential silver lining here is that their massive dropoff against offspeed stuff might not be sustainable for pitchers. There's a 26-point gap between the actual and expected batting average they're allowing on their offspeed pitches.

Even still, it's doubtful that a change in hitters' fortunes in that department is going to force pitchers into throwing more fastballs. The decline of fastballs isn't a new development, as the league's fastball percentage was also below 60 in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

It's Also a Shift, a Rookie and (Maybe) a PitchCom Thing

Elsewhere on the topic of things that are more common than they used to be, defensive shifts have also proliferated about as much as it seems.

When the Statcast era began, about three-quarters of all pitches were thrown in front of standard infield alignments. Now in 2022, it's all the way down to 54.1 percent. Teams obviously wouldn't be moving away from standard infield defenses if shifts weren't working, but we'll nonetheless note that the numbers on ground balls in 2022 bear that out:

As for what else is dragging down the league's batting average, the league's rookie class has quickly gone from being an amazing story to more like a problem. FanGraphs has rookies hitting just .210 as a group, tying the class of '68 for the lowest of the modern era.

It's not as easy to account for the early impact of the new PitchCom system, but it may be making good on one of its desired effects. That is to reduce sign-stealing, so it at least bears monitoring that the average with a man on second base is down 18 points from 2022. That's compared to a 14-point decrease with the bases empty.

Hurry Up with Those Rule Changes

To be clear, it's not all bad news on MLB's offensive front.

Notably, strikeouts per game are down from 8.68 in 2020 and 2021 to 8.57 this season. So it goes for the percentage of three true outcomes—strikeouts, walks and home runs—which is down to 34.5 from 35.1 in 2021. This means defenders are seeing more action, which hypothetically makes for a more enjoyable viewing experience.

But in reality? Not really.

It's nice that there have been more balls in play, but well-struck fly balls that die at the warning track and ground balls hit right at well-placed infielders aren't really anyone's idea of a good time. Nor is it enjoyable to see so many starters getting such quick hooks, and all the breaking and offspeed pitches...OK, fine, those are pretty cool.

Isn't that right, Matt Brash?

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Matt Brash, Filthy Breaking Balls. 😷 <a href="https://t.co/k2TQbR6ZXf">pic.twitter.com/k2TQbR6ZXf</a>

Brash and other purveyors of filthy stuff aside, the enjoyability of baseball's product will be lacking for as long as the deck remains so thoroughly stacked against hitters. And it's all the more alarming knowing that there is no easy fix like there was last year. Whereas MLB could and ultimately did snap its fingers on sticky stuff, the changes that would help right now simply can't happen overnight. 

Fortunately, MLB is at least on the right track with the experimental rule changes it's carrying out in the minor leagues. These include a pitch clock, which might slow down fastballs if it comes to the major league level. They also include regulations on defensive shifts, which we think are a no-brainer. There's also larger bases, which could lead to more infield hits and stolen base attempts.

There might even be a way to reinvigorate the role of the starting pitcher. The league would merely need to take a cue from Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, who pitched the idea of limiting teams to 10 pitchers plus one emergency hurler. That way, they'd only have so many arms to turn to on a given night.

In the meantime, baseball's offensive environment sort of is what it is. All anyone can do is hope that the bats will heat up with the weather as the season moves along.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.