It’s been fascinating to watch baseball evolve and how various metrics have trended over the years. While it’s still a tiny sample size for players, it’s definitely not for the entire league as a whole. So let’s observe and discuss the major hitting trends several weeks into the season and how it impacts fantasy valuations and your teams.
Walk rates are up, as are strikeout rates. This has been an uninterrupted trend since 2015, but if you go back to 2000, you’ll see that walk rates had been this high, but then steadily declined until bottoming in 2014, and then rebounding. On the other hand, strikeouts have been consistently rising since 2006. Unfortunately, the walk rate rebound hasn’t been nearly enough to offset the strikeout rate jump, which has hampered both batting averages and on base percentages. That means that consistent high batting average and OBP guys are worth even more, making Mike Trout even more monstrous in OBP leagues than he already is.
BABIP has taken another dive and this is its lowest mark going back to 2000. It hasn’t been a lack of line drives or too many pop-ups. Instead, it’s been a rising fly ball rate, proof positive of the fly ball revolution slowly pulling in new members. Fly balls have lower BABIP marks that liners and grounders, so more flies means fewer balls falling in for a hit.
However, more flies are good for homers, so that helps explain the pop in ISO and improvement in AB/HR. Furthering those marks is a surge in HR/FB rate. You thought 2017 was peak with the so-called juice ball, eh? Maybe not! All these homers make the low power guys even less valuable as your alternative is likely a 15-20 homer bat in a 12-team mixed league.
Since every hitter seems too busy running around the bases to steal one, you’ll notice that hitters are attempting a steal even less frequently than last year, also continuing a trend. That helps the Billy Hamiltons of the world to regain the lost value from the lack of homers, but boosts the guys who aren’t hurt by the increase in homers, yet still steal bases, like Mookie Betts.
New plate approach — loft the ball, hit the ball to the pull side, hit it HARD! Batters have been pulling the ball more and more (remember these rates include all batted ball types, not just fly balls), which likely mean more pulled grounders into the shift, pushing down BABIP. The spike in Hard% is just crazy, as it’s so significant that it’s hard to explain. Have hitters across the league all hit the weight room like mad and gained that much power the last two years? Or has it been learning how to best access that power at the plate?
Batters are swinging at the lowest rate of pitches outside the strike zone, which matches with the increase in walk rate. Because swings at pitches inside the zone has been stable, aside from a random increase last season, Swing% is down thanks to the drop in O-Swing%. Although batters are swinging less, they are having more trouble actually making contact. Contact on pitches both outside and inside the zone are in a consistent slide, which is further validated by the consistently rising SwStk%.
Pitchers threw pitches inside the strike zone at a much lower rate in 2018, but that mark has rebounded marginally this year. Yet, it still remains well below previous seasons. Oddly, pitchers are still throwing first pitch strikes, albeit at a very slightly lower rate, so it must be after that first pitch that they are going outside the zone.
All these trends have been pretty consistent, which begs the question…when do we hit peak/bottom and the trends stabilize?!
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.