What does a great offensive MLB season look like in 2022?

What does a great offensive MLB season look like in 2022? post thumbnail image

Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman has been an MVP runner-up in 2019, a World Series champion and a two-time All-Star. By his standards he’s not having a good season, hitting .221 with just six home runs in 52 games through Sunday. Indeed, by the numerical standards we’re used to that isn’t much of a season for anyone.

However, given the leaguewide offensive context of 2022, Bregman is actually having a solid enough year at the plate.

His OPS+ is 112, which is 12% better than that of a league-average hitter. What does that mean? We cite OPS+ a lot here, but if you’re not familiar with the metric, it takes a batter’s on-base percentage plus slugging percentage and normalizes it across the entire league, making minor adjustments for factors such as home park effects, with a 100 OPS+ a league-average hitter.

Bregman is hitting .221/.336/.387, but the major league average is just .240/.311/.388, which would be the lowest leaguewide OPS since 1989 (although it’s been trending upward in recent weeks). He also plays in a park that has favored pitchers, so that helps his adjusted OPS.

Still, it can be hard to get past that .221 average. It’s a little ironic, right? Sabermetricians have spent decades telling us that batting average is overrated — and it certainly can be — but when there was an offensive drought at the start of the 2022 season, what did everyone want? More hits … higher batting averages … more balls in play.

Every sport has the issue of comparing numbers across eras. In the NFL in 2021, 10 quarterbacks threw for 4,000 yards; 20 years ago, just two did so. Michael Jordan averaged 28.7 points in 1997-98; Luka Doncic averaged 28.4 in 2021-22 — but in a season in which the average NBA team scored 15 more points per game.

But in baseball, we care much more about the numbers. They’re simply more important to fans than in other sports.

When the numbers get out of whack, it throws our brains for a loop. What does an All-Star season look like in 2022? What does a good season look like? What does an average hitter look like? Let’s look at some examples and compare them to numbers from the past (cherry-picked for dramatic effect and all stats are through the start of the week).

Level I: 170 OPS+ or greater — MVP-type dominant season

This is a very high level. Bryce Harper led the majors last season with a 180 OPS+, Juan Soto was at 177, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at 167 and Fernando Tatis Jr. at 166. Those were the top four. You can win an MVP award with an OPS+ lower than 170, but you usually need something else to go with it, such as playing an up-the-middle position or playing great defense at a corner position. But if you’re at this level, you’re making headlines all season long.

2022 example: Aaron Judge, RF, New York Yankees
(.313/.382/.677, 21 HRs, 1.059 OPS, 201 OPS+)

Historic comparison: Babe Ruth, 1932
(.341/.489/.661, 41 HRs, 1.150 OPS, 201 OPS+)

An OPS+ of 200 or greater is rarefied territory: We’re talking historic — and, yes, Judge is having that kind of season. There have been just 12 seasons with a 200 OPS+ since 1970, six of those from Barry Bonds, another from Juan Soto in the shortened 2020 season. The year George Brett hit .390? His OPS+ was 203. To put the low offensive environment of 2022 in perspective, Judge’s 1.059 OPS ranks just 45th among the 50 seasons with a 200 OPS+ since 1900.

In fact, Judge’s OPS is nearly identical to when he hit 52 home runs and finished with a 1.049 OPS in 2017. But his OPS+ that season was 171, as the American League hit .256 with a .753 OPS compared to .237 and .687 so far in 2022. Judge is hitting over .300, in a time when hitting for average is harder than ever. He’s on pace for 63 home runs, when hitting home runs has been more difficult than in recent seasons.

It’s neat, of course, that Judge’s season lines up with that of another Yankees right fielder — a guy you might have heard of. It wasn’t Ruth’s best season, but it was his last of 10 seasons with an OPS+ of 200. He was 37 years old, putting on weight, and couldn’t really run, but he could still hit, draw walks and mash the ball over the fence. Not to put any pressure on Judge, but that was also the year of Ruth’s famous called shot in the World Series.

Fun fact: The only other seasons with a 201 OPS+ were by Norm Cash in 1961, Ted Williams in 1954 and Jimmie Foxx in 1933.

2022 example: Jose Ramirez, 3B, Cleveland Guardians
(.291/.393/.632, 14 HRs, 1.024 OPS, 193 OPS+)

Historic comparison: Carl Yastrzemski, 1967
(.326/.418/.622, 44 HRs, 1.040 OPS, 193 OPS+)

Ramirez isn’t hitting .300, but his season so far matches up with one of the most epochal individual seasons in major league history: Yaz’s MVP and Triple Crown year, in which the outfielder led the Red Sox to the AL pennant in their “Impossible Dream” season. Ramirez has been a staple in MVP voting in recent years, with four top-six finishes since 2017. This season he has raised his game to a new level thanks to this mind-boggling stat: He has 30 walks and just 15 strikeouts, posting the lowest strikeout rate among qualified hitters. A 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate in 2022, when the average is 2.63 in the opposite direction, is some absolutely ridiculous contact hitting — and Ramirez also does it with power.

Fun fact: The other 193 OPS+ seasons came from Babe Ruth in 1929 (.345, 46 HRs), Lou Gehrig in 1928 (.374, 27 HRs), Shoeless Joe Jackson in 1911 (.408 average!) and … of course … George Stone in 1906 (he led the AL in batting average, OBP and slugging).

Level II: 150 OPS+ — great season

Somewhere around a 150 OPS+ is a great season — you’re probably getting some MVP votes and ranking among the league leaders (or perhaps even leading the league) in some offensive categories. Matt Olson had a 153 OPS+ last season and finished eighth in the AL MVP voting. Tyler O’Neill had a 149 OPS+ and finished eighth in the NL MVP voting.

2022 example: Pete Alonso, 1B, New York Mets
(.283/.359/.552, 16 HRs, .911 OPS, 158 OPS+)

Historic comparison: Alex Rodriguez, 2002
(.300/.392/.623, 57 HRs, 1.015 OPS, 158 OPS+)

Alonso is a key reason the Mets have cruised to a big lead in the NL East, beginning the week tied with Mookie Betts for the NL lead in home runs and leading the majors with 54 RBIs. He had a red-hot May, hitting .315 with nine home runs and driving in 30 runs in 29 games. Alonso’s .911 OPS ranked 12th in the majors and compares to his big rookie season back in 2019, when he finished seventh in MVP voting after hitting 53 home runs with a .941 OPS.

Compared to 20 years ago, however, a .911 OPS would have ranked a mere 27th in the majors. A-Rod was one of nine players who topped 1.000 that season. He posted one of the greatest offensive seasons ever by a shortstop, leading the majors in home runs and RBIs (142). Again, however, it’s all about context. Rodriguez benefitted from a hitter-friendly home park with the Texas Rangers, hitting .323 with 34 home runs at home compared to .277 with 23 home runs on the road. The AL hit .264 that year with a .755 OPS. So Alonso, playing in a more neutral park this season, matches up.

Fun fact: Besides A-Rod, three other players with 158 OPS+ drove in at least 140 runs — David Ortiz in 2005 (148), Albert Belle in 1996 (148) and Edgar Martinez in 2000 (145). Five others led in home runs: Ryan Braun in 2021 (41), Mike Schmidt in 1974 (36), Ripper Collins in 1934 (35), Hack Wilson in 1927 (30) and Jimmy Sheckard in 1903 (9). Side note: We definitely need more players named Ripper.

2022 example: Luis Arraez, Utility, Minnesota Twins
(.358/.447/.407, .854 OPS, 1 HR, 157 OPS+)

Historic comparison: Vladimir Guerrero Sr., 2004
(.337/.391/.598, 39 HRs, .989 OPS, 157 OPS+)

This is a bizarre one. Guerrero won AL MVP honors in 2004 with a typically awesome Vlad season, including some big games in September to help the then-Anaheim Angels win the AL West. The right fielder hit 39 home runs and drove in 126. How can Arraez, with his complete lack of power, compare to the power-hitting Guerrero? What’s the saying? OBP is life — and nobody has been better at that in 2022 than Arraez. The Minnesota infielder led the majors in both batting average and on-base percentage at the start of the week.

OK, that said … does Arraez’s game work optimally in this current style of baseball? That’s another study. The lack of power and relative lack of runners on base in front of him means he doesn’t drive in many runs. Rod Carew, in a similar offensive context, had an identical 157 OPS+ for the Twins in 1975 thanks to a high batting average but drove in 80 runs. Arraez has just 13 RBIs, in part because he has just six extra-base hits (according to Baseball Reference, an average MLB hitter would have 21 RBIs in a similar number of plate appearances).

Another comparison: Jim Rice’s MVP season in 1978 also registers at 157 — he hit .315/.370/.600 with 46 home runs, 139 RBIs and 121 runs scored, one of the iconic seasons of the 1970s. Arraez is not going to come close to approaching those RBI and runs scored figures. The AL offensive environment that year was higher — but not that much higher, at 4.20 runs per game with a .711 OPS. Yes, Fenway was a hitters’ paradise (Rice hit .361 at home with 28 home runs, .269 with 18 on the road), but on the surface, Rice’s season is so different from Arraez’s that it’s difficult to believe they’re on the same scale.

Still, not making outs is a good thing, and Arraez has excelled at not making outs. And while batting average is old school and often mocked, hitting .358 when the league average is .240 is an extraordinary feat.

Fun fact: Kirby Puckett’s highest OPS+ was 153.

Level III: 130 OPS+ — All-Star season

You will make a lot of money if you’re pounding out consistent seasons with a 130 OPS+. You will make some All-Star teams, although it’s a little harder to do so if you’re a first baseman or designated hitter, where the offensive bar is high. You can even finish high in the MVP voting if you play a premium defensive position and have some other big offensive numbers. In 2021, Freddie Freeman had a 133 OPS+, Marcus Semien a 131 and Nelson Cruz a 130.

2022 example: Freddie Freeman, 1B, Los Angeles Dodgers
(.294/.379/.455, 4 HRs, .834 OPS, 132 OPS+)

Historic comparison: Max Muncy, 2019
(.251/.374/.515, 35 HRs, .889 OPS, 132 OPS+)

The current Dodgers first baseman … and the one who drove in 98 runs and scored 101 in 2019. They have the same OPS+ — and yet their power numbers are nothing alike, as Muncy hit 35 home runs while Freeman is on pace for 12. Since 2019 wasn’t so long ago, you might recall that it was the granddaddy of home run seasons. Muncy was one of 28 players to hit at least 35 home runs. Indeed, Freeman’s season is also essentially identical in offensive value to his 2021 season with the Atlanta Braves — when he hit .300 with 31 home runs.

Fun fact: Frank McCormick — another first baseman — won the 1940 NL MVP award with a 132 OPS+ for the Cincinnati Reds. No, that’s not the lowest for an MVP winner. St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Marty Marion had a 90 OPS+ in 1944. Twins shortstop Zoilo Versalles had a 115 in 1965. Jimmy Rollins’ 119 for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2006 is the lowest this century.

2022 example: Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Yankees
(.215/.318/.482, 13 HRs, .800 OPS, 130 OPS+)

Historic comparison: Paul O’Neill, 1998
(.317/.372/.510, 24 HRs, .882 OPS, 130 OPS+)

Rizzo hammered eight home runs in the Yankees’ first 17 games and was the toast of New York, a brilliant free-agent signing for two years and $32 million. He has fallen off since, all the way down to .215, and the toasts haven’t been as frequent. Still, throw the numbers in the mixer, make some adjustments and you get right fielder Paul O’Neill from the legendary Yankees team from 1998. If you’re a Yankees fan, you would be pleased with that kind of production — even if Rizzo’s .215 average is more than 100 points lower than O’Neill’s. Yeah, I know, it’s weird to type that, let alone say it out loud.

Back to context. O’Neill’s season came in a league where the average team scored 5.01 runs per game; the Yankees averaged 5.96. In Rizzo’s league, the average is 4.08 per game, nearly a full run lower (and that’s even with the inflated total that comes with the free ghost runner in extra innings). The 2022 Yankees are averaging 4.78 runs per game. Here’s another way to look at it. The 1998 Yankees scored 965 runs and O’Neill created an estimated 113 runs, or 11.7% of the team’s total. The 2022 Yankees scored 258 runs through Sunday and Rizzo had created an estimated 29 runs — or 11.2% of the team total.

But, yes, I agree: I like the guy with the .317 average as well.

Fun fact: Andre Dawson won the NL MVP award with the Chicago Cubs in 1987 with a 130 OPS+. He led the NL in home runs and RBIs but was just 12th in OPS+.

Level IV: 110 OPS+ — good season

This is a good season — again, especially if you’re playing shortstop or center field or catcher. If you’re a first baseman or a bad corner outfielder with a 110 OPS+, your job might be in jeopardy — but you might also be hitting fifth or sixth in the lineup. J.T. Realmuto had a 112 OPS+ in 2021, Mark Canha was at 111 and Enrique Hernandez at 107.

2022 example: Alex Bregman, 3B, Astros
(.221/.336/.387, 6 HRs, .723 OPS, 112 OPS+)

Historic comparison: Ichiro Suzuki, 2003
(.312/.352/.436, 13 HRs, .788 OPS, 112 OPS+)

It was Bregman’s season that generated this idea, and just scrolling through the 215 players who have posted a 112 OPS+ since 1900 provides some fun names.

Ichiro had 212 hits in 2003 for the Seattle Mariners. That’s not even the most hits on the list: Sam Rice had 227 in 1925, when he hit .350 for the Senators. Garry Templeton hit .314 with 211 hits in 1979. Eighteen players with a 112 OPS+ have hit at least 30 home runs, including Hunter Renfroe, Ryan Mountcastle and Miguel Sano last season. Gorman Thomas had two 112 OPS+ seasons, with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1980 (.239, 38 home runs) and the Mariners in 1985 (.215, 32 home runs). Lou Brock hit .297 with 70 steals in 1973, while Carl Crawford hit .301 with 46 steals in 2005 (although steals aren’t factored into the equation). Jason Kendall hit .325 with six home runs in 2003.

All of these remind us that offensive value can be achieved in a variety of ways, which is certainly part of baseball’s lasting appeal. As the sport tinkers with various rule changes, keeping that diversity alive — from power hitters to speedsters — should be of paramount priority.

Fun fact: The most home runs for a 112 OPS+ season? Vinny Castilla with 40. The most RBIs? Dante Bichette with 141. Both played for the 1996 Colorado Rockies.

2022 example: Corey Seager, SS, Rangers
(.232/.299/.424, 11 HRs, .723 OPS, 109 OPS+)

Historic comparison: Kyle Seager, 2017
(.249/.323/.450, 27 HRs, .773 OPS, 109 OPS+)

The Rangers signed Corey Seager and instead are getting Kyle Seager. Corey’s home run numbers are fine, but his batting average and OBP are down from his usual standards — mostly the result of some bad luck on balls in play, as his BABIP stands at .232 compared to his career mark of .336 entering the season. His hard-hit rate is at the 80th percentile and his expected slugging at the 92nd percentile, so I expect his numbers to climb the rest of the season. Maybe he gets up to a 133 OPS+ — like his brother Kyle had in 2016 playing third base for the Mariners.

Fun fact: Joey Gallo hit .206 with 40 home runs for the Rangers in 2018 — and struck out 207 times. Joe Sewell hit .336 with one home run for Cleveland in 1925 — and struck out four times. Both had a 109 OPS+.

Level V: 100 OPS+ — average hitter

This is the league-average hitter. Sometimes you get there via power, or maybe with a higher on-base percentage, but you’re not excelling in both areas. Players with a 100 OPS+ in 2021 included Matt Chapman, Francisco Lindor and Adolis Garcia.

2022 example: Bobby Witt Jr., 3B/SS, Kansas City Royals
(.224/.272/.432, 7 HRs, .704 OPS, 100 OPS+)

Historic comparison: Derek Jeter, 2011
(.297/.355/.388, 6 HRs, .743 OPS, 100 OPS+)

Witt’s style is very different from the 37-year-old version of Jeter — much more power, more speed than even a young Jeter, probably a better defender in the long run. Witt has been a league-average hitter despite a subpar OBP, but we’ve already seen improvement in his game from April to May. If he can improve his approach at the plate, maybe, like Jeter, he becomes the face of a franchise.

Fun fact: Eleven players with at least 5,000 career plate appearances have a career OPS+ of 100 — Brett Gardner, Alex Rios, Derek Bell, Carlos Baerga, Willie McGee, Hubie Brooks, Bill Buckner, Cesar Tovar, Curt Flood, Jimmy Johnston and Art Fletcher.

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