In 1968 there was an offensive crisis in baseball. Batters were hitting .237 across the league following the 1967 season where they hit .242. Those were two of the lowest batting averages in the league since 1908 and it resulted in MLB lowering the mound to try and level the playing field between hitters and pitchers. We are currently in the midst of a similar offensive crisis as you can see from the table below, which shows the ten lowest league-wide batting averages per season:
Ten lowest batting averages by season
There are three eras clearly visible in this table. First, you have the aforementioned year(s) of the pitcher that resulted in the lowering of the mound. Second you have the late 1880s and early 1900s, which we affectionately refer to as the Deadball Era, due to the lack of offense. And then, you have the lowest and 10th-lowest batting averages in MLB history — last year and this year (so far).
Now, a couple caveats are definitely in order regarding the 2022 numbers. Comparing April numbers to the whole season isn’t exactly an apples to apples comparison. We know hitters struggle more in colder weather, and this has been a chilly April around the league. I happened to look at these numbers last year around the same time (May 12, 2021) for an article for FanGraphs and the 2021 batting average at that point was .234, a full 10 points lower than it would wind up for the entire season. It is reasonable to assume that the 2022 numbers will have a small rebound in them. That said, I would caution baseball fans from expecting a full 10-point bounce in 2022. Last season’s batting numbers were likely augmented by a mid-season crackdown on sticky substances. It seems unlikely there will be a similar curve ball thrown by the league this season.
Even if there were a full 10-point bump for batting averages in the offing in 2022, that would put this year’s offense in a tie with 1967 for the fifth worst hitting environment in history. That is still a crisis of offense for baseball, just not the worst crisis of all time.
There are a number of possible culprits for baseball’s current offensive woes. Pitchers have never been craftier, and they’ve never been asked to throw fewer innings, which allows them to max out on velocity and stuff. Batters see elite velocity and spin maybe two-times through the order before they face a crew of relievers, each throwing maximally nasty pitches for an inning or less.
However, it’s not merely the existence of super bullpens and a reticence to let all but the most elite pitchers face a hitter the third time through the order that is to blame, as this excellent piece from Ben Clemens at FanGraphs shows. We know from reporting in The Athletic and SI that MLB has deliberately deadened the baseball. Despite some, shall we say, production issues, that led to multiple balls being used in 2021, they assure us that it’s really just one ball now. A ball that results in a lot more flyouts than action, as Devan Fink at FanGraphs showed last year:
As if the changing ball and pitching improvements were not enough, Eno Sarris and Ken Rosenthal did a deep dive on the lack of home runs in the current environment and identified another possible culprit. For the first time in 2022 all 30 parks have humidors. Parks with new humidors have seen the distance barrels fly down a full 10 feet compared to last April:
In other words, there are a lot of possible issues here and all of them are making it harder to get hits and score runs. MLB is already tinkering with rule changes in the minors that could improve the offensive environment including a pitch clock and limiting the shift, but none of those solutions will be in force in the 2022 season. So what is a baseball team supposed to do to score runs in a scoring-challenged environment? More specifically, since this is a Cubs blog, what are the Cubs trying to do to score more runs in this environment?
There are a handful of people who have characterized the Moneyball thesis as prioritizing on-base percentage. That is an action that teams in Oakland took in order to compete against clubs with a lot more resources, but the real innovation there isn’t that on-base percentage trumps all. The real innovation is that it’s important to zig while the rest of the league zags, because then you are able to take advantage of market inefficiencies that others aren’t optimizing. Perhaps, then, in the era of the three true outcomes approach to baseball, the market inefficiency is prioritizing contact over home runs.
From 2015 to 2021 the Cubs epitomized a team built around the three true outcomes. They were second in MLB across that time period in walk rate, fourth in that time period in strike out rate, and tied for eighth in home runs. They were 20th across the league in batting average during that time and their wRC+ as a team was almost exactly league average at 99.
Now, most of that time period did not have a designated hitter in the National League, and the Cubs non-pitcher offense looks a little better by wRC+ when you pull pitchers out of the equation, at 105, good for a tie for fifth in MLB. However, the way the team got there is clear. The 2015-2021 Cubs offense was built on walks, strike outs and power.
The 2022 Cubs are tied for 22nd in home runs, 5th in walk rate and 15th in strikeout percentage. Their .246 batting average is good for a tie for sixth in MLB and while their team wRC+ of 108 ranks only 12th in the league right now, it is a relative improvement over the cumulative efforts of the 2015-2021 squad. This is a team built on walks, contact, and striking out less than average.
It remains to be seen if it will work or not. At times the relentless contact from the offense seems like exactly the right prescription for scoring in an offense challenged environment, at other times Lady BABIP is not on the Cubs side and that hard contact results in double plays rather than runs. But so far, the Cubs are an above average team by wRC+ and you can see that in the number of runs they’ve scored per game. Obviously this is still pretty heavily impacted by that 21 run onslaught against the Pirates, but that onslaught is an example of how a team built on contact can score, so it makes sense to include it. Below you can see each team ranked by the number of runs they are averaging per game so far in 2022, as you can see, the Cubs are tied for 11th on this table:
Key offensive stats 2022
I’ll return to this analysis when we have a bit more data to work with later in the season. For now, I’m cautiously optimistic that the Cubs have managed to insulate their ability to score a bit from the dramatically lower home run rates the league is seeing. Time will tell whether that creates run scoring problems of it’s own down the line.