Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, May 29, 2024 -- "May...Be a Problem"


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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter: May...Be a Problem
Vol. 16, No. 32
May 29, 2024

On Tuesday, there were 102 runs scored in 15 games, fewer than seven per contest. Eleven of those runs -- more than ten percent -- were scored in just three Calvinball innings, so when playing actual baseball, there were 91 tallies, or barely six runs scored per game. In May, teams are averaging just 8.24 runs per game. That drops to 8.06 in the first nine innings. For the entire season, MLB teams are scoring 8.2 runs a game when not placing a free runner on second, which would be the lowest mark since 1978.

The slash line for the day was .226/.286/.342, roughly what Cole Tucker is putting up this season. This wasn’t a particularly unusual day. MLB OPS was under 700, with OBP under .310, for all three days of Memorial Day weekend.

For the month, MLB teams are hitting .239/.307/.388. One thing we tell ourselves when slogging through April is that things will get better in May. That hasn’t been the case this year. League OBP is seven points lower, OPS four points lower, since April. The May OBP of .307 (.306 outside of Calvinball) is an historically significant number.

Right Turns May (lowest league OBP in May, since 1901)

1968   .291
1908   .293
1966   .300
1972   .305
1917   .305
1905   .307
2024   .307
1904   .308
1909   .308

You don’t need me to tell you that’s a bad list of years to be on, periods when the baseball was made of wax paper and Elmer’s glue, or years in which the lack of offense was so low the rules of the game would soon be changed.

If we restrict ourselves to only those years since 1969, when the mound was lowered and the strike zone returned to reasonable dimensions, this month sticks out even more.

Right Turns May, Nixon Era and Beyond (lowest league OBP in any month, since 1969)

September   1917   .305
May         1972   .305
April       2022   .307    
May         2024   .307
September   1972   .308

(There are three days left in May. With 90% of May games in the books, this number isn’t going to move enough to change the conclusions.)

It’s not, for once, the strikeouts. Since the universal DH was adopted in 2022, strikeout and walk rates have stabilized, the former between 22% and 23%, the latter between 8% and 9%. No, it’s results on contact driving the falloff. Batting average on balls in play is .288, the lowest since 1992. Batting average on contact is down 14 points from last year, to .316, the lowest since 1993. Slugging on contact, .510, is down 40 points from 2023 and the lowest since 2014.

It’s all about ball flight. You know about homers being down. I use a metric for which I don’t have a cute name -- doubles and triples as percentage of contact -- for sussing out where exciting plays like those are going. That figure is down to 6.73%, the lowest since 1993, and under 7% for just the fifth time this century. 

Another way to look at the offensive drought is how current batted-ball outcomes are breaking Statcast a little. Expected outcomes on balls in play, over a season, should match actual outcomes on balls in play over a season. Here are the expected and actual numbers on balls in play for the last three years.

Great Expectations (actual vs. expected stats, 2021-23)

       AVG  xAVG    SLG  xSLG    wOBA  xWOBA
2023  .250  .248   .417  .414    .280   .281  
2022  .244  .240   .398  .389    .273   .271
2021  .246  .243   .414  .408    .276   .277

That’s a lot of numbers, but all you really need to know is that at the end of the year, expected and actual stats will be within a few points of each other. There’s a time in every season when the smart guys behind Statcast look at the actual outcomes on batted balls and adjust the expected outcomes to match. So if flyballs at X launch angle and Y exit velocity are producing Z results in a given year, expected stats will adjust to that.

Those adjustments haven’t been made for 2024 yet. Right now, Statcast is looking at all the batted balls and, like me, ending up disappointed.

The Letdown (actual vs. expected stats, 2024)

       AVG  xAVG    SLG  xSLG    wOBA  xWOBA
2024  .242  .247   .390  .407    .271   .279

It’s even more stark when you look at the results on the best-hit balls, what Statcast calls “barrels.”

Barreled...Out (actual vs. expected stats, 2024)

       AVG  xAVG    SLG  xSLG    wOBA  xWOBA
2024  .685  .735  2.273 2.450   1.218  1.295

Statcast is expecting an extra 50 points of average, an extra 80 points of slugging and wOBA on these balls. Those expectations have been dashed. Directionally, it’s a mess. In each of the last three years, the actual outcomes on barrels have been better than the expected ones, sometimes by as much as 40 points of wOBA. This year, obviously, the reverse is the case. For whatever it’s worth, the rate of barrels is constant, 1.3-1.4% of batted balls, over the four-year period. Players are hitting the ball on the screws as much as they ever have, just getting much less for their hard contact. Thanks, Obama.

Something is wrong. I’ve been warning about this since the summer of 2017, when a home-run spike focused attention on the baseballs. From June of that year:

We’re already watching stagnant, two-true-outcome baseball as it is. What happens when the one thing propping up offense, and watchability, gets “fixed”?

I’ve come back to this point time and again over the last seven seasons. As strikeout rates climbed over 20% to choke offense, as league OBPs slipped from the .330s into the .310s, the only path teams had to scoring was to slug. You can’t run a long-sequence offense in a league where baserunners are this precious. One-run strategies are worthless when the overall batting average is in the .240s, when leverage relievers are striking out 30% and more of the batters they face. All you can do is try to score as many runs as possible on as few swings as possible.

Well, now they’re taking even that option away. When we say “it’s the baseball,” it’s a concept as much as anything else. It could be the coefficient of restitution -- how well the ball jumps off the bat. It could be the way the ball flies, which we can measure by its drag signatures. It could be the effects of being stored in a humidor -- as all baseballs are now -- on those factors. Whatever the case, though, the baseballs in play in 2024 are not flying as well, and that’s taking the last path to run scoring away from hitters.

This isn’t a small problem. Across the long sweep of baseball history, there is a strong correlation between run scoring and baseball’s popularity. Seamheads enjoy a good 3-2 game as much as an 8-7 one, but casual fans tend to tune in when balls are flying out of the yard. A league that hits .240/.311/.387, in which teams score a bit more than four runs a game, isn’t going to do much more than get people psyched for the opening of NFL camps in July.

MLB has to figure out where it overshot the mark with this year’s balls, in connection with either the production or the humidors, and fix it. Another month of sub-.310 OBP ball would be a disaster.