Hitters across Major League Baseball can take heart: They were, in fact, getting robbed of hits and extra bases all throughout April.
The anecdotal factors at hand – a deadened baseball, the use of humidors in every major league stadium, expanded pitching staffs to mitigate a 99-day lockout – conspired to send batting average to its lowest level (.233) in history and runs scored to its second-lowest total (4.08 per team game) in 41 years.
Yet those elements, along with brutally cold conditions in what’s typically baseball’s most challenging month can be more easily explained away, possibly the result of a smaller sample size.
More disconcerting to the hitter is measuring traditional statistics with the league’s Statcast data, revealing a massive gulf in how hard players are hitting the ball and the results they’ve received.
While the major league average has sunk to an all-time low of .233, another first has emerged: A 19-point penalty between batting average and expected batting averaged based on batted-ball data.
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The major league expected batting average, or xBA, is .252, meaning major leaguers have been robbed of nearly 20 points of batting average based on how hard and where they’ve hit the ball.
Meanwhile, expected slugging, or xSLG, has taken an even bigger hit, with the league-wide slugging percentage of .370 well short of the .434 xSLG mark.
Never in Statcast’s eight-season history have batting average and slugging fallen short of their full-season expected marks, as those categories are typically best used to define which hitters have been “luckiest.”
Instead, in 2022, it has served to usefully quantify what hitters, managers and fans alike have seen – a preponderance of balls dying at the warning track. And this comes in the first season of the universal designated hitter, which means National League pitchers aren’t around to depress the totals.
Certainly, the trend can reverse. Beginning Monday, teams are forced to cut their rosters back to 26 players and no more than 14 pitchers; staffs will be capped at 13 pitchers by the end of May as new rules to stimulate offense are enforced after a post-lockout grace period.
That will force starters to go a bit deeper into games, relievers to appear more frequently in back-to-back games and, ostensibly, hitters to get better and more frequent looks at both. Yet with roughly 14% of the season completed, it will be difficult to reverse many offensively-depressed trends.
League-wide on-base plus slugging (OPS) is down to .678, which would be the lowest full-season total since 1972, before the introduction of the DH. (A more typical league OPS is .750). Home runs are down to 0.91 per team game, lowest since 2014 and a 35% drop from 2019, a widely regarded “juiced-ball year” when a league-wide record for home runs was set for the second time in three years.
Yet other factors indicate hitters aren’t any further behind pitchers than normal years. The average exit velocity of 88.8 equals 2021 and is the highest in Statcast’s eight-year history. Strikeouts are actually down 2%.
And the gulf in actual and expected averages is stark. From 2015 to 2019, actual slugging outkicked expected slugging by between 10 and 15 points, indicating players were “lucky” in those years (and the ball was hopping). The numbers were virtually identical the last two seasons (.418-.416 in 2020, .411-.408 in 2021).
That’s what makes the turning of the tables – and a 15% gap in actual and expected slugging – so alarming.
MLB insisted in a March memo to clubs that it was using just one baseball this season, after supply issues put two balls in play last season as the league switched to an ostensibly less-hoppy product. Pitchers and hitters alike have insisted the 2022 balls have not performed consistently.
“We’re the only sport where someone’s going to be happy, and someone’s going to be unhappy when they change baseballs. And that’s [messed] up,” Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor told USA TODAY Sports. “It sucks.’’
While an entire season – and a wholesale testing of baseballs will be necessary to pinpoint the problem – the humidor could be a greater variable than imagined. Pitching staffs will shrink, immediately. The weather will warm, and slow-starting sluggers will find their groove.
If a possibly unintended extra drag on the baseball lingers, the universal humidor, as the lone remaining new variable on the landscape, may prove an easy culprit.