NEW YORK — Last season, dwindling batting averages put baseball in a panic and prompted a midseason change in the enforcement of rules banning sticky stuff by pitchers.
The crackdown was awkward — remember Gerrit Cole stumbling over a question on Spider Tack? Or Max Scherzer defiantly beginning to disrobe during an in-game check by umpires? Funny enough, it also worked, with batting average rising from .232 through April 30 to .244 by season’s end.
In 2022, even with the designated hitter added to the National League, the hits are missing again — and suddenly, the power has gone out, too. This time, the culprit doesn’t look so straightforward.
The batting average across the majors this April was a lousy .231, once again on pace to fall under the record low of .237 set in The Year of the Pitcher in 1968. After several years of surging home run totals, batters are slugging a measly .369 and averaging 4.03 runs per game, both lows for baseball since the strike-altered 1981 season.
Ripple effects from labor strife are a suspect in this year’s offensive downturn. So, too, is the baseball, of course, along with caveats about cold weather and small samples.
“It’s hard to say anything is a trend yet,” Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly said.
There is one area, at least, of universal agreement.
“Pitching is really good,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone offered. “Really good.”
Despite the New York Mets’ consternation over a spate of hit-by-pitches, checks for sticky stuff seem to be limiting pitchers’ ability to blow batters away, and their control hasn’t been compromised. Strikeouts are down significantly, from 9.30 per nine innings through April 30 last year to 8.69 this season. Walks are down slightly, to 3.35 per nine, and hit by pitches are also down, from 0.5 per nine to 0.43.
Even with last June’s crackdown on illegal grip aids, the balance of power may still be tilted too strongly toward pitchers. Two lockout-related factors likely tipped those scales in the first month of 2022.
First, baseball’s labor stoppage robbed hitters of a full slate of preseason exhibitions.
“A lot of guys got 30 at-bats in spring training,” veteran Yankees slugger Anthony Rizzo said. “Now that everyone is 50, 60 at-bats in, it’s like a full spring training.”
The evidence is certainly there in the Bronx: New York averaged 3.25 runs per game in the first two weeks of the season and 6.8 runs since.
“For hitters, it takes a while,” Mattingly said. “Once they lock in timing, you’ll see guys that start off slow, but once they kind of click it in, then it just stays there.”
Second, the shortened spring also prompted short-term changes to prevent pitcher injuries that may also be spurring pitcher effectiveness. After planning to limit staffs to 13 pitchers beginning this season, baseball instead expanded rosters from 26 to 28 players, eliminated limits on available pitchers and held off on adjusting rules governing minor league assignments.
Starting May 1, teams will be kept to 14 rostered pitchers, and that will drop to 13 on May 30. The hope is that shortening bullpens will limit teams’ abilities to use a revolving-door approach to bullpen usage.
“The couple extra roster spots help you kind of protect pitching early on,” Boone said. “So you’re going to more fresh guys, and I think better than at any time, pitchers are equipped with what they should be throwing and who they match up well against.”
Of course, the baseball seems to be at fault, too.
“It’s not exactly juiced,” Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka said with a laugh.
After lively baseballs contributed to record-setting home run totals in recent seasons, Major League Baseball attempted to slightly deaden its baseballs in 2021 — the hope was to reduce flight by 1 or 2 feet on balls hit 375 feet.
Pandemic-related production issues interrupted those plans, and the league ended up using batches of baseballs from both before and after the manufacturing adjustment last season.
In a memo to teams send March 29, MLB informed teams that “those production issues have now been resolved and the 2022 season will be played with only balls manufactured after the 2021 production change. No manufacturing changes have been made for the 2022 season.”
Many hitters adapted their strategies to account for the way baseballs were flying from 2015-20.
“Had a teammate that used to scream, ‘Take it on down, I bet I live!’ when we had turbulence on plans,” slumping Reds star Joey Votto said last week in a quote tweet of a 2021 story about MLB changing baseball production. “Deadened the ball, I bet I hit.”
The league has also added humidors to all 30 stadiums in an attempt to normalize conditions across the country, but there’s suspicion that the climate-control efforts are having an adverse effect in cold, dry surroundings.
“Have there been some balls that you think are out off the bat dying at the track?” asked Chicago White Sox general manager Rick Hahn. “Yeah, but that happens every year, it seems.”
It’s an issue that could work itself out when temperatures and humidity rise in the summer. Crucially, even when it gets cold again by October, humidity averages in the fall are generally higher than in the spring.
For now, though, hitters are noticing the difference.
“Sometimes, you get a little worried, like, ‘Man, why didn’t that ball go out?’” slumping Yankees slugger Joey Gallo said. “You know, I’ve hit some balls really good this year, and they’ve been caught at the wall or on the warning track.”
There’s reason to think the drop in offense won’t remain this extreme. The home-run rate was up even over April’s final week, at 0.97 homers per nine innings versus 0.93 from April 7-23. Still, it’s looking like 2022 could be a long season for the guys in the lineup.
“It being April and cold and all that, and, you know, probably the ball being a little bit of a factor, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Boone said. “But the first thing I would say is pitching is really good.”