Pitchers Are Improving, Forcing the MLB to Compensate, but Not Without Controversy
In 2022, the league batting average was .243, the lowest it’s been in 55 years; league-wide batting averages have dropped each season since 2016, aside from 2019.
The staple for recognizing if a player is an elite batter has always been roughly a .300 batting average or higher. However, by 2022 standards, a .255 batting average is good enough to qualify as a better than an above-average batter.
The percentage of balls put in play has decreased from 42% to 35.4% from 2008 to 2021. In that same span, the swing and miss rate has risen from 20% to 27.3%.
Subsequently, this leads to teams averaging only 4.08 runs per game in 2022, which is the second lowest total in 41 years.
Why is this the case?
Pitchers are Becoming More Dominant
For example, two-time Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom averaged a 99.3-mph fastball, alongside an averaged 93-mph slider in 2022 at 32 years old. Steadily increasing his fastball average of 95-mph as a rookie in 2015.
In the 2021 offseason, White Sox starter Michael Kopech improved his fastball to 105-mph, which is 6-mph faster than the year prior.
Another pitcher, Griffin Jax, improved his four-seam fastball speed the most in 2022, throwing 2.8-mph faster than the year prior. Drastically lowering his ERA -3.01 from the previous season. Jax finished 2022 with a 3.36 ERA on the mound for the Twins.
Several other pitchers increased their speed, like Jorge Lopez, Ryan Helsley, Shohei Ohtani, and Matt Moore, resulting in lower ERAs in 2022.
In 2022, the average four-seam fastball speed is 95.3-mph, which has increased by more than 3-mph since 2008.
Additionally, the league wide strikeout rate has increased every season since 2005, which was 16.4% at the time and is now up to 24.9% in 2022.
The Baseball Dilemma
Prior to the 2021 season, the MLB announced it would use a lighter ball to reduce the number of extreme home runs. However, it was discovered that some balls across 15 different ballparks were found to be heavier.
This botched attempt of claiming to only use one ball turned out to be false information. Later, the MLB admitted to using two separate balls for the 2021 season allegedly due to COVID production reasons.
It doesn’t end there. It was discovered that there were three different balls used during 2022; ‘dead’, ‘juiced’, and ‘goldilocks’ balls.
There were over 200 balls tested, the majority were ‘dead’ balls issued from the previous season. Some were old ‘juiced’ balls, and then the ‘goldilocks’ ball, which is a combination of the ‘dead’ and ‘juiced’ ball.
The ‘goldilocks’ ball is known for being the perfect mix of weight and velocity, but the true controversy sparks from its usage. These balls were used at commemorative games, All-Star week, postseason, and New York Yankee games.
This major issue of ball variation has yet to be truly addressed by the league.
In 2022, several pitchers spoke out complaining about balls morphing out of shape. Seemingly making each ball feel a little different.
Over the years, the ball has seen alters to its makeup. In 2017, Rawlings changed laces distributors, resulting in a 42% spike in home runs because the ball is more aerodynamic.
Then the laces were altered again in 2019 by making the laces thinner and lowering the height of the laces. Subsequently, making the balls even more aerodynamic.
Shattering the previous record set in 2017 for the most homers in a single season.
The 2019 season is known as the ‘juiced ball era’ and somehow these balls were in circulation three seasons later.
Three-time Cy Young winner Justin Verlander called the baseballs ‘a f- joke.’ Back in 2018, the same year, the MLB bought out Rawlings.
On top of that, the MLB brings in major profits each year by selling game-used balls at every ballpark for at least $50 a ball, despite it costing less than $10 to produce them.
What’s next for the MLB?
Banning the Shift
The 2023 season will introduce a ban against shifts at the major league level after two years of experimenting in the Double-A minor leagues. Its purpose is to put more balls in play by restricting defenders.
However, the batting averages pre-ban and post-ban weren’t very different. Among Double-A hitters, the batting averages in the two seasons pre-ban was .247 compared with the two seasons post-ban was .246.
What changed post-ban was a 2.1% increase in strikeout rates. Additionally, the whiff rate accelerated from 22.5% to 24.9%.
By the looks of Double-A data, the shift ban seems like a lost cause. Nevertheless, the MLB wants to shake things up amidst a steady batting decline.