Why are home runs down? Is Vladimir Guerrero Jr. the best hitter in the world? Answering 20 early MLB questions

Why are home runs down? Is Vladimir Guerrero Jr. the best hitter in the world? Answering 20 early MLB questions post thumbnail image

Two weeks into the Major League Baseball season, offense is down, home runs are disappearing, complete games are nonexistent and the overreaction machine is working in overdrive.

You have questions. We have answers.

It feels like my team isn’t scoring very much. Am I wrong?

Nope. Scoring has dropped, and it’s almost entirely attributable to one big change from last year. This year’s batting average (.234) is identical to last year’s through 10 team games. On-base percentage is up .001. But the leaguewide slugging percentage is down from .392 each of the past two years to .380 this season. Accordingly, runs per game have dipped from 4.44 last season to 4.22 this year — nearly a 5% decrease.

And that’s because home runs are down. Like, way down, as the numbers from ESPN Stats & Information’s Mike Bonzagni show. And while the rates certainly grow as the weather warms, numbers since MLB introduced Statcast starting in 2015 indicate the difference between those exhibited through 10 games aren’t altogether different from a full 162-game season.

Percentage of plate appearances ending in a HR

Year First 10 All 162

2015 3.80% 4.20%

2016 4.43% 4.86%

2017 4.79% 5.26%

2018 4.22% 4.81%

2019 5.56% 5.85%

2020 4.87% 5.27%

2021 4.79% 4.89%

2022 3.93%

Over the past seven seasons, teams have finished the season averaging 0.2 more runs per game for the season than they did in April. Should that hold, this would mark the lowest-scoring season since 2015.

OK, so guys aren’t hitting home runs. What’s to blame?

Well, let’s first understand how home runs come to be.

The lowest exit velocity on a home run this season was 93 mph. The launch angle on a ball can vary greatly. A Giancarlo Stanton missile left the park on a 15-degree trajectory. A Jazz Chisholm Jr. moon shot arced out at 45 degrees. All other 286 home runs in the first 10 games for each team fell within those parameters.

The sweet spot is somewhere between 20 and 35 degrees. More than 90% of home runs hit this season have left the bat at that angle. The percentage of balls hit 93 mph-plus with 20 to 35 degrees of launch have gone for home runs 29.8% of the time — the lowest mark over the first 10 team games played since Statcast came to be and down from last year’s 34.17%.

A specific area is where the change is really happening, though. It’s on balls hit between 100 and 102 mph at those same launch angles. Only 16.42% of such batted balls are going for home runs. Over the past seven years, that number has been 33.1%. That is not just an outlier. It means something is happening.

The likeliest culprit: the ball itself. This is not a new story. A book could be written on the controversies surrounding the MLB ball and its inconsistencies. Such is life with a handmade product, sure, but when home runs are collapsing at similar rates to which they grew in 2019, the ball will face rightful scrutiny. Unlike any fear of nefarious juiced balls or using multiple specs in one season, this might have a less sinister answer: For the first time this season, all 30 teams are using humidors to store their balls. Humidors don’t necessarily dampen the flight of balls; their benefit comes more from making the ball as uniform as possible.

Perhaps as the weather and humidity levels change, so too will the home runs. In the meantime, the diminished rate is the clear and obvious story to emerge from the first two weeks of play. When the calendar turns to May, we’ll have an even better idea if it was little more than an outlier that corrected itself or something that will have a profound effect on the 2022 season.

Are pitchers doing anything differently?

For years, pitchers have trended away from throwing fastballs, and this looks to be the season that it finally happens: fastballs will no longer constitute a majority of pitches thrown. Of the more than 40,000 pitches thrown this season, only 48.3% have been fastballs — down from 50.5% last season.

The fastball has been replaced by its tilty, spinny cousin, the slider. Since 2015 — a year in which fastballs made up a massive 56.8% of pitches thrown — slider usage has jumped from 14.5% of pitches to 21.7% this year.

The slider revolution is a reliever-driven endeavor. This season, bullpen arms are throwing it 26.1% of the time, compared to 17.3% from starters. The one-inning, max-out culture of modern baseball practically invites it — and the jump among relievers from 21.9% slider usage in teams’ first 10 games last season is no accident. Sliders have generated whiffs on 36.3% of swings, higher than the fastball (19.3%), cutter (26.5%), curveball (31.4%) and changeup (33.3%). Only the splitter, thrown by about 40 of the nearly 500 big leaguers who have pitched this season, has a higher whiff rate than the slider (39.8%).

Is that why relievers are throwing just as many innings as starters?

The average start thus far this season has lasted 4.53 innings. Barely half a game. There still hasn’t been a complete game this year (the record for longest wait into the season is 20 days, set in 2019) The days of starters going deep into games is history, sure, but this is bordering on absurd.

Now, it’s important to note that the lockout-shortened spring training is partly to blame for this. But the ramp-up period before the COVID-shortened 2020 season was even briefer, and starters over their teams’ first 10 games averaged 4.61 innings per contest. By the end of the season, that number jumped to 4.78 innings — not a particularly meaningful leap but at least something. Last season, with a full spring training, starters in the first 10 games averaged 5.03 innings … and finished the season at 5.02.

The numbers thus far support teams’ increasing use of relievers. The average starter’s ERA: 4.27. Reliever’s: 3.53 — nearly three-quarters of a run better. Batters against starters are slashing .245/.319/.399 compared to .221/.307/.358 for relievers.

OK. So no one’s hitting the ball out of the park and starters are barely throwing. What does all that mean for the big offseason signings so far?

There were 11 nine-figure deals this winter. Some are going swimmingly, and others are — well, you’ll see.

Corey Seager, SS, Texas Rangers: He’s been perfectly solid — and already has a nomination for most confounding moment of 2022 after Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon walked him with the bases loaded in the fourth inning to give Texas a 4-2 lead.

Kris Bryant, LF, Colorado Rockies: The Rockies have the third-best record in baseball (and their division, thanks to the juggernaut Los Angeles Dodgers and doing-it-again San Francisco Giants, and Bryant has acquitted himself rather well, hitting .359. He’s still looking for his first home run with the Rockies.

Freddie Freeman, 1B, Los Angeles Dodgers: He’s been everything the Dodgers wanted and more. Freeman’s flair for the dramatic may be unmatched in baseball. His opposite-field home run in his first plate appearance against his longtime team, the Atlanta Braves, set Dodger Stadium aflutter.

Max Scherzer, SP, New York Mets: Scherzer has a 2.50 ERA, has struck out 23 in 18 innings, looks like he’s primed for a huge year … and has been the worst of the Mets’ starters, who sport ERAs of 0.00 (David Peterson), 0.75 (Chris Bassitt), 0.84 (Carlos Carrasco) and 2.20 (Tylor Megill, who gave up his first runs of the season Tuesday).

Kevin Gausman, SP, Toronto Blue Jays: Gausman has been BABIP’d to death, but his peripherals scream ace, with a 14-to-0 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 10⅔ homerless innings portending very well.

Javier Baez, SS, Detroit Tigers: A bum right thumb landed him on the injured list, but Baez already won a game Opening Day with a walk-off single and another with a two-run homer. The Tigers are learning quickly: It’s not always going to be pretty, but Baez is the sort of player you want on your team.

Nick Castellanos, OF, Philadelphia Phillies: With an OPS over .850, he’s the bat the Phillies needed to not win the NL East for the 11th consecutive year.

So those big additions all seem to be going well. Which might have their fans a little nervous so far?

Marcus Semien, 2B, Texas Rangers: Among the 185 qualified players, his FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement of minus-0.2 ranks 179th. Thankfully, unlike the leaguewide trends, all it takes is a few big days at this point in the season to return the 31-year-old Semien to his MVP-level play.

Trevor Story, 2B, Boston Red Sox: After a protracted winter, Story signed a $140 million deal on the eve of the season and is still searching for his footing, with a .643 OPS in seven games.

Carlos Correa, SS, Minnesota Twins: While his strikeout rate has doubled over last season’s to 36.8%, Correa, like Story, got a late start this spring. He should heat up soon.

Robbie Ray, SP, Seattle Mariners: His fastball is down 2 mph and he has allowed four home runs in two starts. The former is far more concerning than the latter, as Ray has always been a home-run machine, but he has generated a higher percentage of swings and misses with his heater this year than when won the American League Cy Young last season, so don’t fret. Yet.

Speaking of new faces: I heard this rookie class was supposed to be an all timer. How’s it doing?

Seiya Suzuki of the Chicago Cubs has actually been the best rookie, but he’s hardly a traditional prospect after starring in Japan. When offseason bidding wound up at $85 million, it was clear teams loved the 27-year-old outfielder. The Cubs are thrilled he loved them back. His seamless transition is exactly the sort of a thing upon which rebuilds are built.

The best non-Suzuki rookie this year has been Cleveland GuardiansSteven Kwan, who has done nothing but hit in pro ball but still eluded all radars. The rest have been a mixed bag.

Here are the slash lines of some of the most highly touted prospects making their debuts: Kansas City’s Bobby Witt Jr. (.139/.162/.250), Seattle’s Julio Rodriguez (.143/.231/.171), San Diego’s C.J. Abrams (.115/.233/.231), Philadelphia’s Bryson Stott (.133/.161/.167). The lesson: Baseball is really hard, even for the most talented players.

There have been standouts aside from Kwan. Since starting 0 for 10, Detroit’s Spencer Torkelson hit .400/.500/.867 over his next five games. Jeremy Pena looks like a natural taking over for Carlos Correa at shortstop in Houston. And what’s there to say about Hunter Greene aside from: Wow.

You seriously don’t have anything more to say about Hunter Greene?

Well, for one: He is already the hardest-throwing starter in major league history. The 22-year-old has flung 113 fastballs and averaged 100 mph on the nose, bottoming out at 98 and topping 102, one of 59 triple-digit heaters he has unleashed this season.

After going second in the 2017 draft out of the Los Angeles area, Greene tore his right ulnar collateral ligament in 2019 and missed the season. The rest of the Cincinnati Reds‘ roster might leave something to be desired, but in Greene, the Reds have a 6-foot-5, 230-pound monolith whose fastball, for all its speed and splendor, may actually be his second-best pitch behind an 87-mph slider on which he still hasn’t yielded a hit having thrown it 41 times.

Shame the Reds traded away all his teammates. Speaking of: What was the most important trade of the offseason?

With all due respect to Seattle acquiring Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez from Cincinnati, the Mets adding Bassitt and San Diego shoring up its bullpen with Taylor Rogers, Atlanta replacing Freeman with Matt Olson is the obvious choice, and not just because he’s hitting .413/.534/.652 and leading the big leagues in WAR.

The Braves recognize their window is larger than most teams because of the team-friendly contracts for Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies that so deeply advantage them. Add to that their young starting pitching (Wright and Ian Anderson among them) are under control for the next five seasons, plus four more years of third baseman Austin Riley, and Atlanta had the core and financial flexibility to add a star. As much as the Braves paid in prospects for Olson — and pay they did — turning around and locking him up for the next eight seasons guaranteed a thumper in the middle of their lineup for the prime of his career.

This is Team Building 101 in modern baseball: Develop good players, hope they sign undermarket deals and add consequential players around them via trade, free agency or, as is Atlanta’s case, both.

I feel like we’re missing a lot of stars this season, right? Any idea when we’ll get them back?

Correct. There’s a case to be made that we haven’t seen the three best players in the entire NL yet this season.

Acuna played his first game Tuesday at Triple-A Gwinnett after blowing out his ACL last July and, health permitting, he’ll be back at latest the first week of May, adding a top 5 player in the game to a team that’s already plenty good without him.

Jacob deGrom will get another MRI on the stress reaction in his right shoulder blade Monday, and it’s expected to offer some clarity into his return. The Mets are hopeful the best pitcher in baseball can return by late May, though their starters are doing quite all right without him.

Fernando Tatis Jr. played Sunday. The sport was soccer, of course, and the fact that he wiped out on the field at Petco Park wasn’t altogether reassuring to those who’d rather place him in a glass case and let a broken left wrist suffered in a motorcycle accident this winter heal. (His soccer slip wound up with him landing on his right side, it should be noted.) While Tatis’ return date is unclear at this point, his return, like Acuna’s and deGrom’s, will be a welcome moment for the sport.

What about prospects? Anyone joining their big league squads soon?

Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez, C/SP, Baltimore Orioles: It’s just a matter of time until the best 1-2 prospect punch in baseball arrives. Rutschman may have broken camp with the Orioles if not for a triceps injury, but he’s expected to return any day now and join Rodriguez at Triple-A Norfolk. In two starts there, Rodriguez has struck out 15 in nine innings while walking just one.

Triston Casas, 1B, Boston: Every day Bobby Dalbec struggles only increases the likelihood Casas will take over the Red Sox’s first-base job sooner than later. At Triple-A Worcester, he’s doing exactly what he’s done in his previous stops: hit for immense power, show uncommon plate discipline and give Red Sox fans even more reason to be excited about the future.

Corbin Carroll, CF, Arizona Diamondbacks: He’s not exactly on the timetable of Rutschman, Rodriguez or Casas, but Carroll is every bit their caliber as a player. While he has played just 57 games in the minor leagues and is currently at Double-A, his elite tools more than make up for his slight frame. Size in baseball matters not. All that’s important is that you can play, and Carroll, 21, is a superstar in the making. The only question is whether Arizona, with no hopes of contending, will wait until next season to summon him.

George Kirby, SP, Seattle Mariners: As if the Mariners didn’t already have enough young, excellent starting pitching, Kirby has a chance to be the best of them all. Chosen No. 20 overall out of Elon in 2019, he wowed the organization at the team’s alternate site in 2020, came out throwing 100 in 2021 and could contribute at the major-league level now if necessary.

Max Meyer, SP, Miami Marlins: The Marlins’ surfeit of young arms includes Meyer, the third pick in the 2020 draft, who has blazed his way to Triple-A and been nearly unhittable in two starts there. Between Meyer and Eury Perez, the 19-year-old at Double-A, Miami might have the best pair of starting pitching prospects in baseball. And keep an eye on shortstop Kahlil Watson, who slipped to the Marlins with the 16th pick in last year’s draft and could move very quickly.

Speaking of moving, how are the free-agents-to-be looking so far?

While this isn’t seen as a great pitching class, Rodon, Bassitt, Joe Musgrove (1.42 ERA) and Noah Syndergaard (1.59 ERA) all have been excellent in their first two starts. The best player in the class, Trea Turner, is doing Trea Turner things for the Dodgers: hitting for average, showing good pop, running faster than just about everyone and playing a solid shortstop. And in the vein of solid shortstops: PixerXander Bogaerts, who is primed to opt-out of the final three years of his deal with Boston, just keeps hitting. Joey Gallo could use a taste of that hitterishness, as could Jose Abreu, who is due to break out any time now.

Lest we not forget Aaron Judge, who is bound to be one of the biggest stories this season after turning down a seven-year, $213.5 million extension offer from the New York Yankees on Opening Day. Through 11 games, Judge, who will turn 30 on April 26, has driven in a single run on a solo homer. More deep flies are bound to come, and when they do, it’s bound to make a difficult decision for the Yankees — pay up or let him walk like Robinson Cano — that much harder.

Let’s get down to business. I want to beat all the jobbers in my fantasy league. Whose early excellence is real?

Dylan Cease, SP, Chicago White Sox: I told you to grab him at 25-1 for the AL Cy Young. He’s now 8-1. The lesson, as always, is that if you listen to me you’ll get rich.

Carlos Rodon, SP, San Francisco Giants: Rodon has ditched his changeup and gone almost exclusively fastball-slider, which you can do when you sit 97 from the left side with the former and generate swings and misses from both sides with the latter. If his arm can hold up for the season, he’s going to opt-out this winter and be a very, very rich man.

Nolan Arenado, 3B, St. Louis Cardinals: He has walked more than he has struck out. His power stroke is unimpeachable. The glove remains gilded. Arenado may be on the wrong side of 30, but after two seasons with ugly averages on balls in play, a return to .300 isn’t out of the question.

Great. But those guys are long gone in a lot of fantasy leagues. Who are some players I might be able to snag before others catch on?

Kyle Wright, SP, Atlanta Braves: Sometimes breakouts take a little time. Wright, the fifth pick in the 2017 draft, is finally commanding his four-pitch mix, but it’s his curveball that’s the star of the show. He pitched twice in the Braves’ World Series win last year out of necessity. This season, he’s ready to be an integral part of their repeat attempt.

Logan Gilbert and Matt Brash, SP, Seattle Mariners: Gilbert, 24, added across-the-board velocity to all of his secondary offerings and is looking the part of an ace. Brash, 23, might already have the best breaking ball in the big leagues two starts into his career. His slider mirrors the movement profile of Blake Treinen‘s nastiest-pitch-in-the-big-leagues candidate.

Jhoan Duran, RP, Minnesota Twins: His fastball sits at 101 mph. His splinker — a sinker held with a split-fingered grip — is in the running for the nastiest pitch in baseball. Health permitting, he’s going to be a dominant closer for a long, long time.

Gavin Lux, 2B/OF, Los Angeles Dodgers: What, Trea Turner, Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Will Smith, Chris Taylor, Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy weren’t enough? The trade of AJ Pollock opened up an everyday spot for Lux, whose plate discipline (seven walks, six strikeouts in 37 plate appearances) and consistent hard contact — 16 of 24 batted balls at 95 mph-plus — scream star.

C.J. Cron, 1B, Colorado Rockies: He plays in Denver. He’s got light-tower power even on the road. And Colorado’s got him for $7.25 million each of the next two years. Oh, and he’s still 40-1 to lead the big leagues in home runs. That might be a stretch, but if the ball really is dead and home runs are more difficult to come by, the guy who plays half his games at Coors Field at very least stands a chance.

Sean Murphy, C, Oakland A’s: When teams were picking at Oakland’s carcass in trade talks this winter, they were told unequivocally that Murphy wasn’t moving, even as he prepares to head into arbitration next winter. It’s easy to understand why. Here are the five players with the hardest-hit balls this season: Shohei Ohtani (119.1 mph), Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (117.9), Giancarlo Stanton (116.8), Murphy (114), Aaron Judge (114). Not bad company. And I bet none of them can twerk like Murphy, either.

Okay, who’s defying expectations — for better or worse? List the most surprising things we haven’t seen this season so far.

Aside from those two ticks on Robbie Ray’s fastball:

  • A Joey Gallo extra-base hit. The Yankees’ prize last trade deadline has four hits in 33 at-bats — and all of them have been singles.

  • The giddy-up on Zack Wheeler’s heater that almost won him the NL Cy Young last year with Philadelphia. His average fastball velocity is down nearly 2.5 mph and he bottomed out at 91.1 mph in his last start after sitting 97 last season.

  • A couple mph on the fastballs of the Dodgers’ Julio Urias and Twins’ Chris Paddack.

  • J.P. Crawford striking out since Opening Day. The owner of a new $51 million contract has gone 36 consecutive plate appearances without a K, which qualifies as a minor miracle these days.

  • A Bo Bichette walk. That’s 49 plate appearances and counting.

  • Tyler O’Neill striking out like he typically does. He got punched in 31.3% of plate appearances last year. This season: 17.1%, with an improved walk rate, too.

  • A dip in attendance. Perhaps it’s a surprise that attendance compared to the first two weeks of 2019 — the last season not affected by the pandemic — is almost flat. In the 150 games played through Monday, the average attendance across MLB was 28,517. In the first 153 games played in 2019, the average attendance across MLB was 28,733. That’s a 0.75% drop. Essentially, nothing.

What’s the most misleading stat so far?

The Tampa Bay Rays‘ pitching staff has the slowest average fastball in MLB at 90 mph.

When I saw this, it didn’t make any sense. Shane McClanahan, who’s on his way to the All-Star Game this year, sits 97. Drew Rasmussen throws 96. Even though the Rays throw by far the fewest fastballs in the big leagues — they’re at 40.2% usage, with Pittsburgh second at 44.4% surely two starters with top 10 velocities would carry the day, right?

Then I dug a little deeper, and the answer was so obvious. On April 11, Oakland was blowing out the Rays, and rather than waste his bullpen to pick up starter Luis Patino when he left the game after his 13th pitch with an oblique injury, manager Kevin Cash broke his in-case-of-emergency glass and called for Brett Phillips.

For 28 pitches, Phillips threw an oxymoronic fastball that registered, on average, 46.8 mph. So, yes, with Phillips, Tampa Bay is indeed the slowest-throwing team in the big leagues. Remove his 28 pitches from their numbers, though, and Tampa Bay’s velocity gains more than 2 mph, up to 91.5 mph — still a tick below the league average, still 27th in the big leagues, but certainly not the slowest.

Who hits fastballs better than any team in the AL?

The Toronto Blue Jays, of course. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., George Springer, Teoscar Hernandez, Matt Chapman — they all crush heaters. They crush pretty much everything, actually, and if you haven’t had the pleasure of taking in one of their games yet, do yourself a favor. Among their lineup, their pitching staff (Gausman and big Alek Manoah especially have looked good) and their fan base that makes Rogers Centre one of the most intimidating places to play in baseball, Toronto has proven itself a more-than-worthwhile AL East contender.

Are you going to do the right thing and give Vlad Jr. his own answer?

Well, when you ask it like that, yeah, I guess I kind of have to, don’t I?

Yes.

Fine. Vlad Jr., still just 23, is a resplendent hitter. He punishes pitches that would tie up excellent big-league hitters. He hits for power. He hits for average. If he reverses his plate-discipline numbers — his strikeouts are way up and his walks way down — he’ll even be in the conversation with Washington’s Juan Soto for the Best Hitter in Baseball title.

Best hitter? So Vlad Jr. isn’t already the Best Player in Baseball?

No. That title still belongs to Mike Trout. Sorry. This isn’t the sort of appellation that gets awarded with an interim title like in boxing. Trout missed much of the 2021 season because of a hamstring injury, and he’s out now after getting hit on the left hand with a pitch, but it’s not like some sort of long-term health crisis that’s bound to affect the way he plays has befallen him.

Until his game deteriorates — and pre-injury this season he showed it hasn’t — or another player emerges with a clear multiyear run of better-than-Trout production, it’s best to stop engaging in such foolishness. The Best Player in Baseball isn’t the best player at any particular moment. It is someone who marries excellence with consistency, and all of the candidates right now are either too young, play the wrong position or both (Guerrero and Soto each apply) to suggest unequivocally they are ready to inherit the title. Maybe someday. Maybe soon, in fact. Both, along with Tatis and Acuna, are that damn good.

Uh, did you forget about Shohei Ohtani?

Aside from that whole consistent production-over-multiple-years thing, Ohtani is in perhaps the best position to snatch the title from Trout. Unlike his younger contemporaries, his production and positional value are the best in the sport.

Never forget that Ohtani is doing two jobs at once as designated hitter and once-every-six-days starter for the Angels. It may well be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. For those who worried about his offensive slump to start the season, Ohtani slugged three home runs in a weekend series against Texas to pull his OPS over the league average. And even though his early ERA is 7.56 following a poor second start, Ohtani has added some juice to a fastball that already had a plenty-good combination of velo and movement. Someone else can bet against him turning it around.

For all the (warranted) hype around Vlad Jr. and the return of Trout and the excellence of Byron Buxton before the injury bug bit once again, the AL MVP award is Ohtani’s to lose — as it is every year he stays healthy. To deny him of it, provided he produces as he can, because of monotony or boredom or whatever excuse MVP voters may use to convince themselves against voting him, would be antithetical to the process that exists to reward the best player from that season.

Trout, of course, could return from the hit-by-pitch on his left hand that sidelined him Monday and lay waste to any claim Ohtani has. That the two are on the same team only adds to the urgency to be more than mediocre, which has been the Angels’ existence for more than a half-decade

There is plenty of time for Los Angeles to reverse that — more than another five-plus months, to be exact. The baseball season is just starting, just revealing its wonders, just preparing to let the fans who stuck around know that even if home runs are disappearing and even if starting pitchers aren’t what they once were, there’s still plenty to love.




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