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Your Fantasy league standings probably look pretty weird right now. That's generally true in any small sample size, and we're just a month into the season, so it's not unexpected. However, even within that context, this has been a strange season. In the 12-team Roto league I'm playing with my Fantasy Baseball Today podcast co-hosts and some other analysts, I'm sitting in second place overall, with stronger hitting than pitching. That's not necessarily surprising, as I invest more in hitting than pitching, relative to most of my competitors, but it's the numbers themselves that look off.

For example, lead the league with a .2598 batting average; in this league, that would have been good for fifth place a year ago. However, I rank just eighth in ERA at 3.610 and in WHIP with 1.1746 mark; those would have been fifth and sixth last season. Offense is down across the league, and it's changing how you should perceive your Fantasy teams; a .230 batting average isn't sinking you when nearly 40% of qualified hitters are worse right now, while Sandy Alcantara's 3.03 ERA actually puts him in the bottom half of qualifiers right now. 

We're a little more than a month into the 2022 season, so this is a good time to stop and take stock of where offense stands. Runs, HR, and SB are all down from last season's pace, so let's dive into each individually to see what is going on and how it changes the way you should think about Fantasy. 

Runs

Let's start at the 30,000-foot level with league-wide scoring trends before we dive in further. MLB teams are averaging 4.04 runs per game right now, the lowest mark for a season since 1981. Runs per game are down from 4.53 in 2021 and haven't been below 4.1 since 2014 when it was 4.07. That's a significant decline …

But, there is some context required here. Offense is almost always lower early in the season. You surely remember a lot of hand-wringing about offense this time last year, when there was a no-hitter bid seemingly every night, and scoring was down to 4.26; for the season as a whole, the league averaged 4.53 runs per game per team, so there was some healthy improvement from May 1 on. We should expect something similar in 2022, and if you jut isolate March and April stats from the previous 10 years, you'll see that, while offense is low, it isn't quite the outlier it seems: 


March/April RPG

2022

4.07

2021

4.26

2019

4.63

2018

4.47

2017

4.42

2016

4.24

2015

4.27

2014

4.21

2013

4.26

2012

4.16

(Interestingly, the worst year for offense in this span overall was 2014, and scoring was actually slightly higher in March/April.)

It's worth noting that it is possible we'll see an even bigger boost in offense as the weather warms up thanks to the presence of humidifiers in every park, as Scott White wrote about here. Maybe this is just the new reality we have to deal with every year, with offense down abnormally early on in the season before heating up with the weather. But that does rest on an assumption that home runs will start happening more frequently in the coming months because offenses are still highly dependent on home runs for scoring, and that's where the biggest drop is coming.

Home runs

So far in 2022, teams are averaging just 0.91 home runs per game, the lowest mark since 2014 and just the fifth season since 1994 where teams are averaging less than one homer per game. That's impacted by the colder weather in April, obviously, and could be even more impacted by weather warming up thanks to the humidors, if that hypothesis is correct. 

Right now, the ball just isn't traveling as far as it has in the past, seemingly due to changes in how the ball is produced and stored. Just 10.1% of all fly balls are turning into home runs, the lowest rate since that same 2014 season, and down from between 13.6% in 2021 and a high of 15.3% in 2019. And, it's not because the ball isn't being hit as hard – league-wide average exit velocity is at 88.8 mph, right in line with 2021 and actually higher than any prior season.

38.9% of all batted balls have been hit at least 95 mph, also the highest of the StatCast era, but those batted balls aren't as productive as they have been in the past. You can see this most clearly in the "barrel" stat from StatCast – a barrel is defined as "batted-ball events whose comparable hit types (in terms of exit velocity and launch angle) have led to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage." MLB.com offers a more direct definition here of the ranges of exit velocity and launch angle involved in barreled balls here, but the TL;DR version is, barrels are very, very good. But they're less good in 2021 than any other prior season:


Barrels/pitch

wOBA on barrels

BA

SLG

2022

1.35%

1.208

0.676

2.184

2021

1.36%

1.342

0.772

2.591

2020

1.27%

1.391

0.797

2.714

2019

1.26%

1.408

0.814

2.821

2018

1.17%

1.375

0.773

2.634

2017

1.10%

1.468

0.826

2.885

2016

1.10%

1.433

0.81

2.762

2015

0.97%

1.44

0.793

2.717

Barrels are happening as often as they did last season but are resulting in dramatically worse results. That is the primary reason offense is down, and it's made Fantasy analysis harder because a lot of the tools we've used in the past have to be recalibrated for this new reality. 

For example, you'll often see and hear us refer to expected stats from BaseballSavant.com. They offer hit probabilities for each batted ball based on historical results for similar quality of contact, offering an idea of what a players' production "should" have looked like; it has never been a perfect predictor of results, because every player is different, obviously. But since being introduced, it has been a useful tool for trying to identify players who might be under- or over-performing or to identify whether a player's perceived improvement was for real. 

But right now, those tools are of very limited utility in this new environment, for reasons that I hope are obvious now. If a batted ball hit at 95 mph with a 15-degree launch angle isn't going to travel as far in 2022 as it did in 2021, then that historical data doesn't have much usage, and the expectations will need to be recalibrated to reflect the new environment. That hasn't happened yet, as the league-wide wOBA of .304 is well below the expected wOBA of .329. 

This is why you can't necessarily look at something like the gap between Jesse Winker's .275 wOBA and .388 xwOBA and say he's getting "unlucky" or is likely to hit better in the future. He very well may – I would bet on him besting a .196/.314/.275 line moving forward, certainly – but it's also possible that Winker's current quality of contact just isn't as good as it seems, given the new environment. His barrel rate, average exit velocity, and hard-hit rate all look especially middling, and with his limited foot speed and all-fields approach, it's possible he's just hitting a bunch of in-between line drives right now, balls that might have gone over the fielder's head or into the gap in the past but are just slowing down enough to be caught or cut off. 

What makes this kind of analysis especially tough right now is, that it's hard to differentiate between the players who are especially affected by the new offensive environment and those who might just be running into the negative side of variance. Alex Verdugo is another player like Winker who makes a lot of contact and has an all-fields approach who is also "underperforming" his expected stats, and I could see him being another player who might be especially affected by the new environment. Don't just look at their expected stats and assume they are incredible buy-low values. 

Of course, we've also seen the likes of Joey Gallo, Kyle Tucker, Yasmani Grandal, Luis Robert and Giancarlo Stanton rank among the biggest expected wOBA underperformers, and none of those guys fall under the "middling raw power, all-fields line drive hitters" category, so you can't just point to one particular type of player here, necessarily. Some types of players may be more adversely impacted by the new environment, but in most cases, it's simply too early to know whether that's what we're seeing vs. just a normal cold start vs. just a bit of bad luck. 

This is to say, these expected stats probably shouldn't play too big a part in your analysis of players right now. You shouldn't ignore it entirely – all other things being equal, hitting the ball hard is better than not hitting the ball hard – but right now, we're still trying to figure out what all of this means for hitters. The fact that the offensive environment may even continue to change drastically in the future only makes that more true. Today's underperforming players could turn their seasons around as quickly as things went wrong. Which is to say, as hard as it may be to watch Winker or Gallo or Grandal struggle, just know that they aren't alone and that dropping or trading them at their lowest points may end up dooming your team worse than just riding it out. Have faith. 

Stolen bases

In something like an ideal world, the drop in offensive production would lead to a game with more action, but that isn't what we're seeing, either. So far, teams are averaging 0.46 steals per game, identical to last year's mark and continuing the long-term trend of declining stolen base rates. There are eight players with five or more steals, putting them on pace for 25-plus; 10 players had 25 steals last season. 

So, steals are as scarce as ever, which makes early-season standouts like Julio Rodriguez (an MLB-high 10), Jorge Mateo (eight), and Harrison Bader (seven) valuable even as they struggle to make much of an impact otherwise, at least in leagues where steals are their own category. As long as it remains as hard to find steals as it is right now, you're probably going to have to live with some otherwise underwhelming options in your lineup if you want to compete unless you happened to have Jazz Chisholm, Manny Machado and Tommy Edman on the same team – they're the only players with more than five steals who are hitting better than .269 right now.