I was planning on writing a piece for Monday around 10 numbers you need to know from the first few weeks of the MLB season, but as I started researching for it, I kept coming back to one number being far more important than any other when thinking about how the rest of the Fantasy Baseball campaign may play out: 1.233: That number is the collective wOBA on barreled balls so far this season for all hitters. This number, more than any other, might tell us more about how this season is going to go than any other.
First, for the uninitiated: MLB.com defines wOBA as "a version of on-base percentage that accounts for how a player reached base … The value for each method of reaching base is determined by how much that event is worth in relation to projected runs scored (example: a double is worth more than a single)." And a "barreled ball" is defined as "a well-struck ball where the combination of exit velocity and launch angle generally leads to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage."
You can see where this season stands out already, no? Historically, a barrel has led to a wOBA between 1.375 and 1.470 during the StatCast era, but that number fell to 1.342 in 2021, the lowest mark on record --. This season's number is substantially lower than that, though it's worth noting that weather and other factors can impact how far the ball travels – last season, the wOBA for all barreled balls in April was 1.277 … so we're still well south of that.
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BaseballProspectus.com published a piece Monday from Robert Arthur showing that the 2022 ball being used has more drag – i.e., due to a number of factors, the ball isn't as aerodynamic and thus isn't traveling as far as previous seasons.
1.277 last season. There are gory mathematical details in that piece that highlight the impact, but you can see it in something as simple as the share of all fly balls turning into home runs: 10%. For the full 2021 season, that was 13.6%, and even in April it was 13.3%, and no season has seen a mark lower than 11% since 2014.
League-wide average exit velocity is down just a tad, from 88.9 mph in 2021 to 88.7 so far, but that's also the same as it was in 2020, when HR/FB ratio was 14.8%, so that doesn't seem to explain it. Average exit velocity only on line drives and fly balls is at 92.9 mph, compared to 93.0 mph last season, the second-highest mark in the StatCast era.
This isn't a quality of contact issue, it seems. It could be a humidor issue – MLB mandated for the first time that all teams install a humidor to store baseballs, creating a uniform storage environment for the first time ever. That could lead, as we've seen in Coors Field and Chase Field, to a suppression of offense across the league. However, that doesn't seem like a satisfactory answer, given that the impact of a humidor would be different depending on the environment of the park – in a more humid park, the humidor would, in theory, make the ball bouncier by removing water from the air around the ball.
This could be an unseasonably cold or dry season across the league, which would magnify the impact of the humidor, but I haven't seen any evidence to suggest that is the case. It could be some other kind of a fluke – spring training was shortened, so maybe hitters are behind pitchers at this time of year. Or maybe the expanded rosters in place through the end of the month have impacted the quality of competition somehow; maybe we're seeing more plate appearances by worse hitters?
A seemingly more reasonable explanation may lie in the fact that 46.4% of all plate appearances have been against relievers so far, compared to 42.4% last April. Relievers tend to be more effective, on the whole, than starters, so maybe that explains it … except that probably still wouldn't explain why the ball isn't traveling as far when hit at similar velocities, launch angles, and the rest.
It could be a combination of all of these factors, but the ball itself seems like the likeliest. We know, due to production issues, that the league had to use balls made for the 2020 season in addition to the 2021 season, and the different manufacturing standards in those two batches led to inconsistent results depending on which batch was being drawn from. Perhaps now we're seeing balls exclusively manufactured to the same standards, leading to a more uniform reduction in bounciness/increase in drag.
Either way, what we're seeing so far is that offense is down once again. That was an issue last season, especially early on, but things normalized as the weather warmed up – and as the league cracked down on the use of foreign substances by pitchers to increase their grip (and spin rate, and overall effectiveness). It's impossible to say if we'll see a similar trend this season, but the early returns suggest we could be seeing decreased offensive output around the league.
That would mean fewer big homer totals, of course, and it would also make batting average even more scarce. It might mean more teams turn to stealing bases to try to manufacture runs, but that's total conjecture – and doesn't necessarily fit with the more analytically inclined environment around baseball that eschews risking outs for the marginal value of an extra base.
None of this is worth overreacting to, of course. Even if every trend we've seen so far held true for the rest of the season, the impacts wouldn't be totally predictable; Ketel Marte and Joey Votto aren't necessarily struggling right now because the ball isn't traveling as far. We have a large sample size for the league as a whole, which allows us to be reasonably confident about the environmental changes we're looking at, but the sample size for individual players is still way too small to change how you think about the overwhelming majority of them.
Certain types of hitters may be better or worse served in this potential new offensive environment, but trying to figure out who that might be based on what we've seen so far is going to be incredibly tough. For example, while we seemingly correctly identified DJ LeMahieu as a player who would be adversely impacted by the changes to the ball last season, he's off to a red-hot start to this season in an offensive environment that, theoretically, should be worse for his skill set. You're probably just as likely to overreact in the wrong direction as to make a savvy, forward-looking move right now.
But, obviously, this is all worth continuing to monitor. A league with less offense is going to change how we value players – it's going to make a 3.50 ERA pitcher less valuable than before, and it would make those high-average hitters even more valuable. You might need to pivot to a different type of roster to have a chance to compete in this new reality, and being aware of these trends could give you a leg up.