There was some general chatter throughout the year about the 2022 season being a bit different offensively. The run-scoring environment had changed, and that was apparent if you were paying attention. It was much weirder than that if you dig into the numbers though. The ways in which the environment changed are interesting, and the Royals did not actually follow league trends in some ways. Just as a disclaimer, any streaks I talk about omit 2020 because it was short and weird and, in my opinion, not representative enough to include.
Offenses overall struggled to score in 2022 with a drop of 1,193 total runs (5.4%) from 2021. To make sure we are comparing fairly I also looked at it as a rate stat. In 2021 there was a run scored every 8.26 plate appearances. This year it took 8.75 plate appearances to score a run on average, so half a plate appearances more per run (5.9% increase). That is a sizeable shift in overall production, so what caused this to happen.
The league has been toying with the baseball for a number of years, and it seems the new ball in 2022 actually brought down home run rates like they wanted. Fly ball rates have been climbing steadily over the last decade as launch angle has become a common thing to look at in a batter profile, and this has led to home runs being the primary source of offense. This year the fly ball rate ticked up to 37.2%, the fourth highest of all time, but only 11.4% of those turned into home runs, the lowest rate since 2015 and way below the 13.6% of the season before. This is one of the primary reasons run scoring was down, but there was more to it than just home runs being suppressed for everyone not named Aaron Judge.
Along with the focus on launch angle and home runs, we have seen a corresponding uptick in walk rates and strikeouts for a number of years. The walk rate has not gone down from one season to the next since a small drop in 2014. Similarly, strike-out rates have not decreased since 2005! For fifteen years strike-out rates have consistently marched upward, until 2022 that is.
Both numbers went down this year, and by a lot. Walk rates went from 8.7% to 8.2%. Half a percent might not seem like a lot, but over a full season that takes about 3 walks away from each spot in the order on average. The strike-out rate drop was even more drastic going from 23.2% to 22.4%, so almost a full percentage point. These obviously point in opposite directions, walks being down is bad for offense and strikeouts going down should be good for offenses.
Other recent offensive trends in baseball have included lower BABIPs and batting averages due to the shift. This continued this year with BABIP down to .290 and the league-wide batting average being down to .243, but both were very small drops at .002 and .001 respectively. Small yes, but more balls in play due to fewer home runs, fewer walks, and fewer strikeouts means that the BABIP drop affected many more plate appearances. The batting averages now are lower than they have basically ever been in modern baseball with the exception of 1967 and 1968 when they cratered. Otherwise, you have to go back to the dead-ball era, and even then you only have 1884, 1888, and 1908 with league batting averages below the 2022 level. Next year this trend is likely to reverse with the new anti-shift rules being implemented.
All of these changes pushed the league slash line from .244/.317/.411 in 2021 to .243/.312/.395, an OPS drop of 22 points to just .706 across baseball. However, the Royals went along with the crowd for only part of the ride. They did have their home run rate fall by more than the league, and it fell by more than the league mostly because of Salvador Perez having his monster 2021 and then hitting less than half as many this year.
What is interesting though, is that the Royals walked and struck out more this year than last, going in the opposite direction of the rest of the league. The rookies are changing the way that the Royals offense is operating by moving toward the crowd and doing it while the crowd is regressing back toward them. It also means the Royals OPS drop was only 16 points, much less than the league on average in a tough offensive year.
Add to that a bunch of lefties who get shifted a lot like Vinnie Pasquantino, MJ Melendez, Michael Massey, and if he can make is way back to the bigs Nick Pratto, the shift changes could be very beneficial to the Royals next season. It could all add up to a Royals team that is trending the right way offensively next season, which would be nice to see.