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Call off the Search: Offense is Back in Major League Baseball and Everything’s Fine

By: Taylor Bechtold

It’s time to close all investigations, subdue the widespread panic and take a deep breath with the realization that everything is going to be OK in the batter’s box this season.

Offense has shown signs – and then some – that it has returned, only a week and a half or so after speculation had run rampant concerning the demise of scoring in Major League Baseball. At that time, we read about how hitters were still trying to get their timing down, the aerodynamics of ball had changed, more teams were using humidors and playing better defense because fielders could communicate better and had an improved line of sight without fans.

Others suggested teams were utilizing the defensive shift more effectively and executing a better pitching strategy, and some believed there’s just an overall lack of talent because players are being continually shipped in from clubs’ alternate sites because of COVID-19 or injury issues.

Mookie Betts hit three home runs against the Padres on Aug. 13.

What caused the high and wide search for answers? After roughly two weeks and 220 regular-season games – though there’s nothing ‘regular’ about this season – MLB batters were hitting .230 with a .275 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and a .713 OPS while teams combined for 8.72 runs per game. That average was easily on pace to be the lowest in big-league history, behind even the .237 mark in “The Year of the Pitcher” in 1968 that was so alarming that it caused MLB to lower the mound. The .275 BABIP was on pace to be the league’s lowest since 1972. But since August 10, MLB batters are hitting closer to normal levels with a .255 average, .299 BABIP and a .773 OPS while teams have combined for 10.16 runs per game.

For comparison’s sake, the league-wide batting average was .252 with a .298 BABIP and a .758 OPS during a 2019 season that featured the highest home run total of all time and the fourth-most total runs in MLB history.

In the 220 games from July 23-August 9, teams hit five home runs or more in a game on five occasions, put up 10 runs or more 26 times and players had 32 multi-homer performances. In the 201 games since, clubs have belted five homers or more in a game 11 times, scored 10 runs or more on 39 occasions and players have had 37 multi-homer games, including Mookie Betts’ three longballs against the San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 13. The Padres became the first team in MLB history to hit a grand slam in four consecutive games Aug. 17-20, Jose Abreu tied a major league record by going deep in four straight plate appearances, and the Chicago White Sox have hit 30 homers over their past nine games – just to name a few of the hard-hitting highlights.

Jose Abreu homered in four straight plate appearances against the Cubs.

So does the return of higher batting averages, more scoring and home runs mean the early kneejerk reaction to the slow start was way off base? In some cases, but not all. It’s likely true that defensive players have a better line of sight and are able to communicate more effectively without noisy, light-colored t-shirt-wearing fans, but it wouldn’t make enough of a difference as to decrease batting averages by such a wide margin. It’s not like fielders drop a statistically drastic number of flyballs and popups each year because they can’t see the ball or hear a teammate calling for it. Furthermore, the MLB-wide fielding percentage entering this week is .984 – the exact same figure it was in 2019.

There’s no reason to assume inaccuracy in reference to studies that have revealed that the ball is showing some drag, much more like it did during the 2019 postseason than it did during a regular season in which homers soared out of the yard an all-time record 6,776 times. League-wide, home runs were hit every 24.6 at-bats last regular season and 26.2 at-bats during the 2019 playoffs. But after homers were hit every 26.4 at-bats through Aug. 10, they’ve been leaving the park every 23.5 at-bats since – even higher than the longball happy 2019 regular season.

So what could be offsetting the apparent drag on the baseball? It might be the result of the never-ending rotation of pitchers that seem to be making their MLB debuts on a nightly basis as a result of an increased number of pitchers on the injured list either by happenstance or as a side effect of a spring training that was cut short and a rush into a 60-game season some three months later. Entering the week, only four teams have played 30 games and yet we have already seen 92 pitchers make their MLB debuts. That’s more than 60% of what we had all of last year’s 162-game campaign (153). Considering that rookie hurlers have posted a 4.69 ERA, the influx of young arms has driven up the league-average ERA to 4.45.

Was it possible that pitching strategy had improved early on this season? Well, here’s what we do know about that: Pitchers are throwing fewer fastballs. In fact, four-seamers and two-seamers are being thrown less than 50% of the time this season after they were used 52.5% of the time in 2019.

Pitch Type2019 %Thrown2020 %Thrown
4-Seamer37.035.2
2-Seamer15.514.6
Changeup10.912.2
Curveball10.610.6
Slider18.719.3
Cutter5.66.3
Splitter1.71.8

Why?

The data shows that hitters struggle more with offspeed pitches, so teams are catching on and throwing them more often. In each of the past two seasons, for example, MLB batters have a far higher average against fastballs and cutters than they do any other pitch.

Pitch Type2019 BA2020 BA
Changeup.233.225
Curveball.225.217
Cutter.263.267
Fastball.277.265
Slider.216.203
Splitter.204.223

It’s interesting to note that batting average against the fastball is – or was – also down this year. It’s partly because hitters aren’t getting as many fastballs in fastball counts. It’s also likely to be easier to hit a 95-plus MPH heater when you’re seeing it all the time as opposed to facing more offspeed in between.

But hitters seem to have made an adjustment as the league-wide batting average has gone up substantially against every pitch in the opponents’ repertoire since Aug. 11.

Pitch TypeBA, 7/23-8/10BA, 8/11-8/23
Changeup.217.234
Curveball.209.228
Cutter.252.284
Fastball.255.278
Slider.198.210
Splitter.213.234

Let’s not rule out the fact that batters might have been still trying to get their timing down early in the season as they normally would in March and April. In those months, MLB batters have hit .255 over the past 10 years before gradually going up to .263 in May and .265 in June. The slow start this season was a bit extreme, but these are extreme circumstances considering hitters entered this season essentially having seven of the previous eight months off.

There were likely several unique factors at work that caused batters to get off to such a slow start in 2020, but as the season has progressed we’re seeing them start to get to back into the groove and hit the ball with ferocity.

Offense is back, much to the chagrin of pitching staffs around the league, but everyone else can go ahead and heave a big sigh of relief.

 

Research support provided by Greg Gifford, Tim Abel, Jacob Jaffe, Chase Weight and Sam Hovland. 

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