Through the first two months of the 2022 MLB season there has been a lot said about one of the most fundamental parts of the sport, the baseball itself. The simple fact is the ball is not flying as far as it did in 2021, 2020, and 2019.
In 2019, the peak of the home run evolution across baseball, and when the ball was statistically at its’ most friendly to the hitters, the average OPS stood at .758. Through the start of the 2022 season, the average OPS across the league is .697. On-base percentage has seen a drop from .323 to .311 league-wide, but the main difference comes in slugging percentage, where a league-wide .435 slugging percentage in 2019 has dropped to just .396 in 2022.
While some of the decrease in offensive production may improve during the summer months as temperatures get warmer, it is likely that home runs and slugging will not bounce back to their pre-2022 levels. How does this affect the sport now, and what does it mean for the future?
A Revolution in How the Sport is Played
As the Statcast era began, it created a revolution in how the game of baseball was played and strategized. The best possible outcome from an at-bat was a home run, and teams sought a way to maximize that outcome. The launch-angle revolution was born, and as front offices across the sport sought to maximize results it came at the cost of strikeouts and the end of the two-strike approach.
The long-term result was fewer balls being put in play across the sport. Extreme statistical profiles emerged and became evidence of how the sport had evolved. Home run rates grew dramatically, until, in 2019 the Twins broke the single-season home run record with 309 on their way to a 101-61 record and an AL Central title. Of the top ten teams in the MLB single-season home run leaderboard, five are in 2019, with two others also in the Statcast era, the 2018 Yankees and 2021 Blue Jays.
Unfortunately, the change in how the sport was played created problems in how interesting it was to watch. While home runs are exciting, the corresponding increase in strikeouts and walks created a problem for the MLB.
An Entertainment Product
As the action on the field decreased the sport became less interesting to watch, and the MLB faced a problem. Baseball, like any other sport, is an entertainment product, if viewers aren’t entertained, they stop watching. Of course, the problem isn’t quite that simple, but at its’ core that is the issue that was, and is, facing the sport.
The response to this issue is beginning to form, and the first way it is being addressed may in fact be the baseball itself. Front offices value the home run because it helps them win at a rate that makes the negative impacts of pursuing it worth the cost. If it becomes harder to hit a home run, then it makes the pursuit of launch angle and the maximization of home run rates harder to justify as compared to the corresponding cost in strikeouts and other negative outcomes.
This adjustment, along with other approaches to improving entertainment such as expanding the bases and a pitch clock, will improve the overall entertainment value of the MLB.
Adjustments Take Time
While the steps to adjust the play on the field to make the league more entertaining are necessary, they can have unintended consequences. It is hard to make adjustments to how a game is played, the player development process, or the overall offensive profile of a team or league.
The result is a 2022 season where, no matter if the ball was changed slightly on purpose or totally by accident, the outcomes have changed. Across the league, adjustments will be made to the new reality, but those adjustments take time measured in years rather than months. By 2032 the way a front office approaches building a team will likely have totally evolved, and maybe for the better if the MLB’s intended changes have the desired effect, but that can come at the cost of the results and entertainment in 2022.
As baseball repositions itself for the future the changes in the present can be seen. Time will tell if the changes are successful, but evolution is part of the fabric of any sport, and the process by which it takes place can be fascinating to watch.