Key offensive numbers are down league-wide, and the balls that MLB uses may be why. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)
STATS & ANALYSIS

Is MLB Entering a New Dead Ball Era?

We’re only a month into the 2022 MLB season, but the decline in offense this year has been alarming, and the baseball themselves might be to blame.

Offense in Major League Baseball slumped to new lows in April — exactly the opposite of what the sport needs in order to drive new fans and revenue as its average fan gets older by the year.

After games played on April 30, Baseball-Reference data showed that each team averaged 4.03 runs per game, down exactly half a run per game, per team from the 4.53 average in 2021. That’s an entire run per game in a year where the National League adopted the designated hitter rule in an effort to boost scoring.

Here’s a quick and blunt breakdown of how else offense declined early in 2022 (which, to be fair, usually does bring lower scoring with colder early season temperatures in the Northeast).

  • League batting average fell from .244 to .231
  • On-base percentage decreased from .317 to .306
  • Slugging percentage plummeted from .411 to .369
  • OPS dropped from .728 to .675
  • Home runs per game fell from 1.22 to 0.905
  • There were 5,392 strikeouts in April compared to 4,825 hits. That 1.1175 strikeout to hit ratio is up from the 1.0673 mark in 2021.

There is some good news in the data. The league-wide strikeout percentage fell from 23.17% to 22.98%, which could be in part due to the sport-wide designated hitter rule. And the percentage of three true outcomes (home run, walk, strikeout) that comprise MLB’s stagnant, lack of action problem, also fell from 35.13% in 2021 to 34.3% in April.

But the bad news far outweighs the silver linings in April’s offensive data. MLB OPS has fallen every year since 2019, when it was .758. In April, it was more than 70 points lower.

How do you solve that?

Perhaps MLB should stop messing around with the baseballs, or perhaps make the baseballs more lively to increase scoring and interest in the game. The league admitted to using two different baseballs last season: one smaller, lighter “dead” baseball and one heavier “juiced” ball due to COVID-19-related production delays. The problem is that nobody was informed of this during the season last year, and now MLB claims that only the lighter ball is being used in 2022.

“I feel like [MLB] changes [the ball] based on what they want to see,” Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Kevin Gausman said last week. “They talk about wanting more offense, then all of a sudden there [are] more homers than have ever been hit. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on.”

Baseball said it’s added a humidor to all 30 MLB ballparks and is taking other measures for a uniform baseball. But players have been complaining about a dented, more squishy ball that doesn’t travel as far, as well as baseballs that appear inconsistent from inning to inning, not just game to game.

“MLB has a very big problem with the baseballs. They’re bad,” New York Mets starting pitcher Chris Bassitt said last week. “Everyone knows it. Every pitcher in the league knows it. They’re bad. They don’t care. The MLB doesn’t give a damn about it. They don’t care. We’ve told them there are problems with them. They don’t care.”

Pitchers aren’t happy despite the decreased scoring making them look better. Hitters certainly aren’t pleased with balls they’re expecting to leave the yard dying at the warning track. The biggest losers are the fans, who come to see the best players in the world at the peak of their abilities only to be hindered by things outside their control.

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Scoring is good for baseball, but is MLB keeping run totals down based on the baseballs it allows to enter games?

With just the lighter, more dead ball reportedly being used this season, according to MLB, could we already be experiencing a dead ball era that lasts throughout 2022?

University of Illinois physics professor Alan Nathan came out with a series of charts last week finding that the drag on batted baseballs this year is lower than 2021, meaning that even if baseballs are hit as hard as last year, they won’t travel as far this season.

How is that good for the game?

Will things improve naturally as the weather improves and baseballs travel further? Probably. Perhaps the shorter spring training and expanded early season roster sizes — now lower — also factored in.

But if this is the baseball we’re going to get the entire season, scoring will be down and the on-field product will be diminished. And that’s exactly what MLB does not need right now as it tries to attract— not repel— a newer, younger audience that should represent the future of its fans, especially after a long, bitter lockout that delayed the start of the season and may have alienated prospective baseball fans in the process. MLB regular season attendance figures have dropped the last five years in a row. Will lower scoring help?

As the month of May kicks into full gear, let’s see if MLB does anything to mitigate the drop in scoring we’ve seen thus far or if this is just the new normal.

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