kyle-tucker.jpg

Was it your imagination, or did several struggling hitters, including some you were on the verge of dropping, suddenly come to life this weekend?

No, it happened, and here's just one bit of evidence: Teams averaged 4.4 runs in the 45 games played Friday through Sunday, up from 4.0 in the 287 games prior. Friday and Sunday were banner days in particular. A number of high-end arms served to suppress the scoring on Saturday.

It's just a sliver of an already small sample of season, but it fits in with trends we've seen in the past. When the calendar flips to May, offense goes up. In fact, it tends to go up every month until September, when it drops off again. But never is it worse than in April, and rarely is the gain greater than from April to May.

Ah, but this year is different, you've heard. This year, the deadened ball is in constant use and humidors have been installed in every stadium. A barreled ball is no longer a surefire success. Fly balls hit 110 mph are dying at the warning track. Doom and gloom is everywhere.

It's true, all of it. I won't deny the offensive environment is much worse than a couple years ago. What I contend, though, is that the biggest change happened last year. What we've experienced to this point is more of a continuation.

Or maybe last year was a practice run. It's when the deadened ball was first introduced, if only intermittently. It's also when about one-third of the league began storing balls at 70 degrees and 50 percent humidity, something Colorado and Arizona had done for years to even the playing field for pitchers. So the league was already wading into this weirdness before fully taking the plunge. And how did it go? Here's the month to month breakdown:

League averages by month, 2021

BA

OPS

BABIP

HR/FB

K%

April

.232

.699

.283

13.3%

24.4

May

.239

.712

.292

13.1%

24.0

June

.246

.737

.294

14.5%

23.2

July

.248

.742

.293

14.1%

22.7

August

.246

.732

.292

13.2%

22.6

September

.250

.743

.294

13.3%

22.3

And here are how those numbers compare to this April:

BA

OPS

BABIP

HR/FB

K%

.233

.678

.283

10.1%

22.9

From April to April, it's not so different. OK, so the home run-to-fly ball rate is down (understandably), and so is the strikeout rate (more on that in a bit). But we can expect similar improvement on balls in play in the months ahead, which means plenty of hitters are about to right themselves.

We forget how bad last April was because things improved so much thereafter, but doing what I do doesn't allow me to forget. Coming out of the juiced ball era, the decline in offense was even more of a shock to the system. The league had been turned upside-down. About the only player hitting was Yermin Mercedes.

I mean it, too. Here's just a smattering of the high-profile hitters presumed dead last April before coming back to life last May. And trust me when I tell you it's just the tip of the iceberg:

2021 turnarounds (an incomplete list)

April BA

April OPS

BA after

OPS after

Kyle Tucker

.181

.610

.320

.987

Kyle Schwarber

.206

.619

.277

.983

Mitch Garver

.172

.644

.289

.957

Paul Goldschmidt

.214

.597

.310

.936

Marcus Semien

.211

.658

.275

.909

Brandon Lowe

.182

.665

.260

.903

Jorge Polanco

.207

.555

.279

.874

Josh Bell

.113

.464

.279

.865

Jose Abreu

.213

.690

.271

.859

Hunter Renfroe

.167

.485

.271

.859

Ryan Mountcastle

.198

.515

.266

.853

Lourdes Gurriel

.224

.572

.285

.823

You think you have problems now? Again, coming out of the juiced ball era, the above was cause for full-blown panic. But it also should have conditioned us to this new reality, one where the margin for error on a batted ball has become too thin to hold up to the environmental rigors of April.

Granted, not every hitter was made right once the weather warmed up. Some on the fringes continued to suffer from the ball not carrying as far. Our understanding of certain batted-ball metrics had to change and is continuing to evolve still, but in the end, it was only those on the fringes that saw a dramatic reduction in relative value. It wasn't almost everyone like we've seen so far this year and like we saw last April. If the decline in offense is absolute but the impact is mostly shouldered by a fringy few, then the experience of playing Fantasy Baseball won't actually change that much, certainly not beyond what it did last year. After all, hitters who lose value from one year to the next are nothing new. They happen every year, for a variety of reasons. 

And maybe a few more will happen this year, for all the reasons I've already pointed out, namely the deadened balls and humidors becoming universal. What hasn't gotten as much attention, though, are the countervailing factors that could serve to improve the offense.

Remember the sticky substance ban that kicked in last June, bringing pitcher spin rates back down from the superhuman levels they had reached in recent years? It's part of the reason offense ticked even higher in the closing months last season, and MLB has redoubled its enforcement of it this year, actually examining pitchers' hands instead of just belts, gloves and hats.

How do I know it's had an effect? The strikeout rate this April was down from last April, dropping from 24.4 to 22.9 percent. It's been actual decades since we've seen strikeouts drop from one year to the next. April tends to be the worst month for strikeouts, too, so the rate should continue to improve in the months ahead. More contact is obviously a boon for offense even if that contact is less fruitful.

League strikeout rate by year

2015

20.4%

2016

21.1%

2017

21.6%

2018

22.3%

2019

23.0%

2020

23.4%

2021

23.2%

2022

22.9%

The other countervailing factor is the humidors themselves. While storing the balls at 70 degrees and 50 percent humidity has a deadening effect in drier environments like Colorado and Arizona, it should have the opposite effect in some of the more humid environments around the league (perhaps even most of them), as Eno Sarris of The Athletic has documented thoroughly. A ball that's wetter than its surroundings is deadened, but a ball that's drier than its surroundings is livened.

Of course, nowhere is at its most humid yet, so this particular effect remains to be seen. But as the weather warms up and the summer air seeps in, the increased offense that we're already expecting could be even more pronounced than usual.

Maybe that's our new reality. Maybe with all the manipulation of the ball, we need to recognize that the season will start out as an offensive wasteland but with a major correction to follow. Maybe it means giving hitters longer to right themselves, perhaps all the way through the end of May, which is what I'm advising this year. It's frustrating, but think of all the studs you would have forfeited last year if you had made a snap judgment in April.

Now imagine things playing out much the same way this year, which is what I think we're already beginning to see. Will offense improve enough to reverse the overall trend of decline? Well, no. But will it improve enough to make worthwhile production attainable by more than just a handful of players at each position? Enough to ensure that the hitters you drafted to be difference-makers by and large will be? Enough to put hitters and pitchers back on near equal footing and make the aesthetic of the game one we can enjoy still? Yes, yes and yes.

The next few weeks will tell us for sure.