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Offense in baseball is broken

Run scoring is down - why?

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Chicago Cubs v. St. Louis Cardinals

Remember runs in baseball? You know, when a player is able to touch every base and get back home?

You may have noticed that there aren’t a lot of those being scored in baseball right now. We’re only a few weeks into the season, but teams this month have averaged just 4.04 runs per game, the lowest-scoring April since 1981. The league is collectively hitting .231, a full 13 points worse than last April, which was the previous worst April batting average in the divisional era. Even the added emphasis on home runs hasn’t helped much - this month’s ISO is just .137, the same as it was during pitcher-dominant Aprils in the 70s and 80s.

What is to account for the broken offense around baseball? Here are a few culprits.

Deadened balls

Baseball has tried to tinker with the game to decrease the “three true outcomes” - walks, strikeouts, and home runs - and increase contact and action. After accusations the ball was juiced, MLB said it would deaden the ball a bit, but actually used two different sets of balls last year due to supply issues.

This year we may be seeing the full stash of deadened balls. It is difficult to determine how lively the balls are because MLB does not make them available for testing, but looking at the Statcast data and drag on the ball, as Rob Arthur at Baseball Prospectus did, can give us a clue.

When drag is low, as in the 2019 season, we have massive home run totals. When drag is higher–like in the 2018 or 2021 seasons–we have more moderate (though still historically high) homer rates.

Through about two weeks so far this season, it appears we are on track for a high-drag, and thus low-homer, year.

You can also see that exit velocity is actually up a bit from previous years. As J.P. Hill at Viva el Birdos puts it, “players are hitting the ball harder but getting less out of the contact.”

In 2019, the average exit velocity was 88.7 – the same as this season. However, in ’19, balls traveled on average 174 feet. 10 feet further than balls struck this season at the same average velocity.

This will affect more than just home runs too, if players are slamming the ball as hard as ever but getting less out of it, a double over the left fielder’s head becomes an out, line drives over the shortstop get snagged, and hot grounders through the hole find gloves.

Humidors

This year, all 30 teams have humidors at their ballpark, up from 10 last year. Humidors were originally introduced to Coors Field in Denver to counteract the dry air and altitude that made for a high-offense game. Eno Sarris of The Athletic describes the intended effect of the humidors on baseballs:

This effort to provide similar storage for game-day balls won’t produce the same outcome in each park, however. In drier parks, the humidor will add water to the air surrounding the ball, which will reduce the bounciness of the ball. We’ve already seen this when the humidor was installed in Denver and Arizona, with corresponding drops in home run rates and offense overall.

In more humid parks, the humidor will remove water from the air, which will increase the bounciness of the ball, and in turn increase the distance the ball travels in the air. That means more offense.

The effect has already been rather significant, according to Mike Petriello of MLB.com.

The effect could be different once the warm summer months roll around. Warmer air can hold more water, so we could see the humidor remove more water, and add bounciness to the ball. Kauffman Stadium has the sixth-highest absolute humidity in the league, so perhaps we will see more balls flying out of the yard this summer.

Bloated bullpens

With the shortened spring training, baseball expanded rosters to ease pitcher workloads. There was already a trend towards expanded bullpens, but so far this year we are seeing 16-man pitching staffs and a parade of relievers for hitters to face. That means fewer pitchers are pitching on zero days rest, and relievers tend to do worse when pitching on zero day’s rest.

While starting pitchers are off to a good start this year, Ben Clemens at Fangraphs writes that relievers have been dominant this year.

Relievers are pitching a lot better than that. They’re on pace for a season we haven’t seen in decades. Thus far, they’ve posted a 3.34 ERA. They’re striking out nearly a quarter of the batters they face.

Baseball will cut rosters down to 26 by May 2, limiting the number of pitchers to 14. Starting May 30, teams can carry no more than 13 pitchers. So perhaps we can see offense pick up at that point.

Increasing defensive shifts

Batting averages have been plummeting ever since radical defensive shift usage has become commonplace. Some of that is due to rising strikeout rates, but even Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is down to .282, the lowest for an April since 1988. Teams deploy shifts 37.2 percent of the time, up from 30.9 percent last year and the most we’ve seen teams use shifts. There has been talk about banning radical defensive shifts, and if offense continues to sputter, this could give baseball a reason to move forward with a ban.

Shortened spring training

The common adage is that pitchers are ahead of hitters early in the year, because hitting is hard and it takes time to get used to it again after a dormant off-season. Hitters only had just over three weeks to prepare for the season, so it might make sense that they’re not yet fully ready for the season. On the other hand, the evidence that hitters are behind pitchers to start the year isn’t entirely clear.

Unusually cold weather

Whether it’s climate change or just an unusual cold pattern, much of the country has experienced unusually cold weather this April. Seattle has had its coldest April in years, Cleveland had a frigid stretch of weather, and Chicago has a freeze warning this week. Perhaps once the weather warms up, runs will pick up.

What do you think? Is it a problem that offense is down? What can baseball do to increase run scoring?