This season was supposed to be different.
After offense fell to near-historic lows last year, many baseball fans hoped this would be the season when the trend of pitcher dominance reversed course.
Not so fast.
Through the first month of the season, pitchers are dominating hitters at an unprecedented rate, with run-scoring and the league-wide batting average below even last year’s numbers. Hitters arguably haven’t struggled this mightily since the landmark “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968.
Major League Baseball has an offense problem, and it’s getting worse.
Through the first 27 days of the season, batters have posted an anemic .232 batting average — significantly worse than the record-low .237 mark in 1968. As pitchers continue to throw harder thanks to maximum-effort mentalities and offseason workout regimens, batters are struggling to catch up. Just since 2019, the league average has fallen 20 points, from .252 to .232 so far this season, as of Wednesday afternoon.
Combatting this in recent years has been an increase in home run numbers. With hitters focused on launch angles and the league surreptitiously tinkering with the ball to make it fly farther, the number of long balls skyrocketed to rates even higher than at the heart of the steroid era.
But even that’s changed this season. MLB teams are averaging just 0.90 homers per game this season — almost half a home run less than the 1.39 mark from 2019.
Obviously, fewer hits and home runs have led to lower-scoring games. Across the majors, teams are scoring just 4.04 runs per contest — nearly half a run worse than last season. The last time run-scoring was this low was during the strike-shortened 1981 season. MLB teams in 2022 are scoring closer to teams from 1968 (3.42 runs per game) than they are to 2019 (4.83 runs per game).
“Pitchers are really good,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “Really good.”
These numbers are especially surprising considering the implementation of a universal designated hitter this season. When the American League introduced the DH in 1973, the batting average in the Junior Circuit jumped a massive 20 points. This year, the National League batting average is down nine points compared to last year.
Of course, there is one big caveat to these paltry numbers: It’s early.
Offense is typically down in the first month of the season due to a combination of cold weather and lower humidity. Add in rustiness thanks to a shortened spring training caused by the 99-day lockout and increased roster sizes that allow teams to carry more 95-mph relievers, and it shouldn’t be a shock that offense is down.
“For hitters, it takes a while,” Marlins manager Don 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.”
Nationals fans have also likely noticed the difference. While the Nationals’ season-long offensive numbers are fine — ninth in runs per game and 19th in slugging percentage — the team went through a brutal eight-game home losing streak in April that encapsulated the offensive struggles teams are facing. During the skid, the rebuilding Nationals, who are living up to the expectation of being one of the league’s worst teams, scored just 16 runs. Even worse, their new designated hitter, Nelson Cruz, is hitting just .143 with two home runs, as of Wednesday afternoon.
The current offensive environment has even led some to question whether the makeup of the baseball is, once again, messing with the game. Opposite to how the baseballs were constructed from 2015 to 2020, the league de-juiced the balls last season to curb the astronomical home run totals. According to The Athletic, the commissioner’s office sent a memo to teams in late March that “no manufacturing changes” were made to the baseballs ahead of the 2022 season.
But some players aren’t convinced.
“Sometimes, you get a little worried, like, ‘Man, why didn’t that ball go out?”’ Yankees slugger Joey Gallo said. Gallo is hitting just .180 with two homers this season.
“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 been no better data point for the dead-ball theory than a flyout Nationals outfielder Yadiel Hernandez hit against the Marlins last week. In what looked like a sure-fire grand slam, Hernandez crushed a pitch to left-center field that was easily caught by the Marlins’ center fielder on a windy night.
Hernandez was shocked, and so were the metrics. The 107.3-mph batted ball with a launch angle of 30 degrees was a home run 98.2% of the time in 2021 and 100% in 2020, according to MLB analyst Ryan Spaeder.
After the game, Cruz told The Washington Post that Hernandez’s smash not flying out of the park was “weird.”
“I don’t know,” Cruz said when asked why offense is down across the league. “Ask MLB.”
— This article was based in part on wire service reports.