Offense Go Bye Bye

We’re about a month into the season (holy cow, seriously, it’s whizzed by so far!), and offense is down at levels we haven’t witnessed in a loooooong time. So I’m going to take a break from my usual player specific leader and laggard boards and review some leaguewide metrics. You may have noticed in your fantasy league standings that pitching ratios are significantly better than we’re used to. In my shallow 12-team mixed league, four teams are sitting pretty with a sub-3.00 ERA! Two teams have a sub-1.00 WHIP (I’m barely above at a 1.0057)…whaaaaaaaaaaat?! Even in my AL-Only Tout Wars, four teams have posted a sub-3.00 ERA, which is just insane! Naturally, these strong pitching results must mean that offense has been missing. Let’s review some of the most basic of metrics to find out what’s driving the decline in offense.

5-Year Hitting Metrics
2018 8.5% 22.3% 12.7% 0.161 0.296 0.315
2019 8.5% 23.0% 15.3% 0.183 0.298 0.320
2020 9.2% 23.4% 14.8% 0.173 0.292 0.320
2021 8.7% 23.2% 13.6% 0.167 0.292 0.314
2022 8.7% 22.7% 10.2% 0.139 0.282 0.305

Let’s begin with the plate discipline related metrics, walk and strikeout rates. Walk rate is identical to last year and in line with previous seasons going back to 2017, with the exception of the shortened 2020 season. That 2020 season walk rate was the highest since 2000 and really sticks out.

I figured for sure that an increased strikeout rate would be one of the driving factors of the decline in offense. Surprisingly, it’s not. It has actually declined, after peaking during the short 2020 season and three straight years of at least 23%. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be so surprising given the shortened spring training, that gave pitchers less time to build up their arm strength.

Clearly with a stable walk rate and more balls in play, we haven’t yet stumbled upon the driving force of the decline in offense. So let’s keep moving.

We’ll discuss both HR/FB and ISO together, as the first metric is a big driver of the second one. We’ve gotten used to home run mania, with fly balls leaving the park at record rates. FanGraphs HR/FB rate data only goes back to 2002, and the league remained relatively stable in the 9.4% to 11.5% range every season through 2015. Then in 2016, the rate jumped to what we assume is a historical high of 12.8%. It jumped again the following season to 13.7%, before dropping back to nearly match 2016 the next year. Then it skyrocketed again in 2019 to 15.3%, which may very well go down as the highest HR/FB rate in baseball history. That mark has gradually declined since, but last year was still one of the highest marks in history.

This year’s HR/FB rate decline to just 10.2% brings it down to the lowest we’ve seen since 2014, and the second lowest since 2012. That’s a big deal. So I would assume that’s probably because batters are simply hitting their fly balls less hard, resulting in fewer dingers, right?

Flyball Exit Velocity
Season FB EV (MPH)
2015 90.3
2016 91.1
2017 91.2
2018 91.6
2019 92.0
2020 92.3
2021 92.2
2022 92.1

Ummmmm no. Fly ball EV jumped above 92 MPH in 2019 and has remained there since. The decline this year to 92.1 from a peak of 92.3 in 202 is negligible. So it’s baffling that batters have posted such a dramatically lower HR/FB rate despite hitting their flies at nearly the same EV as they peaked at two seasons ago.

Naturally, the big drop in HR/FB rate is driving down ISO. This is the lowest ISO we’ve seen since 2014, which of course is the same year we saw the last single digit HR/FB rate.

But it’s not just the drop in home run power that has resulted in lesser offense! Check out that BABIP trend! That BABIP is the lowest since 1988!!!! Batted ball distributions are slightly negative (lower LD%, higher IFFB%), but the magnitude of change doesn’t seem large enough to explain such a big drop in BABIP.

The decline in HR/FB rate and BABIP are what has driven league wOBA down to its lowest mark since…1965!!! Now remember, offense does tend to increase as the weather gets warmer, so it’s not totally fair to be comparing mostly April offensive levels to full season levels historically. However, I can’t imagine the pickup is going to be big enough to avoid becoming one of the worst offensive seasons in recent memory.

So what actions can we take in our fantasy leagues? Be even more cautious than ever before when deciding to start that mediocre two-start pitcher because you feel an obligation to auto-start your guys during every two-start week. I typically do, but now an implosion or two is going to hurt you more than in the past given that the ratio baselines are better than ever. It also means you might be seeing more hitters than usually jettisoned to your league’s free agent pool because of a slow start. Take advantage!

Fantasy baseball is all about relative production, not absolute production. Slow starts this year seem to be far slower than usual, but that’s because of the leaguewide slump in offense. Everyone, in aggregate, is hitting worse. So don’t panic more than you normally would (actually, you shouldn’t be panicking about a slow start to begin with, but if you can’t help yourself, do remember the entire league is on the struggle bus right now) and try to take advantage of owners who are.

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.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
7 days ago

It’s gotta be those silly humidors.