It is no secret that baseball is rapidly becoming a “three-true outcome” game and everyone, from Major League Baseball to its fans, traditionalist, or new-age, is concerned. Through games on May 26, 36.1 percent of plate appearances are ending in a strikeout, walk, or home run. That number is well up from 2019, where the number was 35.1 percent.
Granted, a part of this is because that is what the game has become nowadays. The combination of sabermetrics, pitchers throwing harder, a greater understanding of exit velocity and launch angle, and more hitters like Aaron Judge and Franmil Reyes coming up to the plate has led to what feels like an all-or-nothing approach around baseball.
MLB hitters have seemingly received a boost from MLB itself in past seasons, especially when it comes to the baseball. At this point, it’s now an open secret that Major League Baseball’s home run explosion was caused by a baseball with well-balanced breakfasts (juiced) in the last few years. In the last five 162-game major league seasons, the previous home run record of 5,693 set in 2000 has been obliterated twice (2017 and 2019). By the way, none of this mentions the spike in home runs in Triple-A in 2019, the first year that the MLB baseball was used at that level.
Are home runs objectively fun? Yes. Some of the most legendary moments in baseball history have come from the long ball. It is almost an objective fact that the home run saved baseball after the 1994 strike. But in a three-true outcome, analytical world, that also means a product where at least 36 percent of plate appearances have zero action on the field. To someone like you and me, that’s fine; Jacob deGrom, Corbin Burnes and Gerrit Cole striking out 15 a game like it’s cooking scrambled eggs is fun. For the casual fan, this is about an hour and 10 minutes of nothing in a three hour game, and that is not ideal for a league that is desperately trying to land the young viewer again.
So something needed to be done about baseball’s TTO game at some point…but maybe “unjuicing the ball” was not the best option.
In February, MLB released a memo to all 30 clubs that the ball would be changing slightly to try and combat the number of home runs in the game, increasing “drag” on the ball. The way that the ball would be changed is best explained in the linked article by Ken Rosenthal and Eno Sarris, but the best thing we learned then was that, despite denying such accusations in 2019, Major League Baseball had a say in the way the ball was made, and was taking a stand to remove TTO baseball.
Great sentiment and all. But it seems like three major things weren’t accounted for: 1) MLB front offices weren’t suddenly going to change their offensive strategies from TTO to 1985 baseball from February to April, 2) the apparent usage of foreign substances by pitchers despite plans to crack down on it this year, and 3) whether aided by the use of pine tar or not, the emergence of dominant pitching in baseball.
The latter two factors already make it difficult enough to hit Major League pitching, and if those situations were not tackled before any thought of the juiced ball, it would lead to very messy and pitcher-friendly results. In fact, because of the new baseball, pitch velocity is up, pitch movement is up, as reported by Sarris in mid-April, and presumably because of pine tar use, spin rate is up by 12 rotations per minute (as of May 26) from 2020. In other words, it is much harder to hit in baseball based on that alone, and it is why there have been six (seven) no-hitters this season, four of them by teams in the bottom six in wOBA. But let’s dig further.
The overall results of the new baseball so far? Major League hitters are hitting a would-be record low .237, the same as the year of the pitcher (1968). For the first time since 2009, no batter hit double-digit home runs in March/April. The league average wOBA is tied for the third-worst in league history at .310, albeit with an xwOBA right around where baseball has been the past two seasons (.320). Going further, if you look back at the past six seasons of Statcast technology, all but 2020 (a measly -.001 wOBA-xwOBA) show some trend of OVERPERFORMANCE in the league average. So either the difference between the baseballs are now throwing the usually-trustworthy expected stats off, or there’s an actual trend here (the former is likely either way).
If you look at the batted ball numbers, it’s not hard to see why: balls are hit harder than ever before. Teams are averaging a 88.9 exit velocity (93.3 EV on line drives and flyballs) on batted balls, both increases from the past four seasons. Additionally, 39.3 percent of batted balls have been hard hit, a substantial increase from each of the last four seasons. Your best bet at this point is to highlight the substantial drop in average launch angle, but even THAT is somewhat disproven by the results of the ball that was used in 2017.
So why has offense dropped? Fangraphs’ Devan Fink found earlier this month that a lot of the premier batted ball types that were hit for home runs in 2019 were turning into outs and doubles. To paraphrase, “hitters reached base 82% of the time on these flyballs in 2019 but are now reaching just 65% of the time”, a 17% decrease. That is among a very noticeable decrease in batters reaching base in general.
This leads to some different conclusions. This could just be a blip on the radar (a sample size of just over 35,000 balls in play is pretty low). The month of April usually shows a decent drop-off in offensive power due to the cold weather, and even then, Sarris found in early-April that the home run rate was steady or rising from past non-2019 Aprils, and Fink’s post-April data confirms this. Maybe there is an approach adjustment period needed for hitters to figure out the new baseball that will lead to more offense, as noted by Lindsay Adler of The Athletic.
Those just might be supplemental solutions that will improve the data at the end of the year, but it is likely not the best conclusion. It is apparent that baseball came up with a one-trick solution to try and fix offense, ignoring — or what feels ignored — the natural (and artificial) dominance of pitching as well as the current offensive approach in baseball, and instead of simply decreasing home runs, baseball has set offense back in total. Once again, die-hard fans will watch no matter what, but offense is key to secure the young/casual fan.
In short, the league is not ready for an “unjuiced” and “deadened” baseball, and “subtle” changes made to the baseball have not been very subtle. Until MLB addresses the actual root(s) of the problem (foreign substances, the mound, etc.), it will never fix the issues of TTO baseball that they are trying to fix.
This article was originally seen in the Friday, May 20 edition of IBWAA’s Here’s the Pitch Newsletter.
Follow Payton Ellison on Twitter (@realpmelli14). No Yankee fans, the Yankees offensive struggles are no different from the rest of the league right now.