Despite MLB’s public statements that baseball will be more uniform this season because all 30 parks use humidors for storage, the results on the field seem to tell a different story.
For the first month or so of the 2022 regular season, the balls didn’t fly as far as they did a year ago. That was in line with MLB’s plan to encourage batters to bring more balls into play and not just swing in front of the fences. The numbers fell in line, with home runs about 35% below their expected speed, according to research site BallparkPal.com.
Then something seemed to change – almost overnight.
Around May 14, home run percentages rose about 10 to 15 percentage points above what the batted ball data would have projected. They have maintained that level for the past few months. And it’s not because of the warmer weather; that is already calculated.
Could a difference in baseball’s properties be the culprit? MLB has a history of switching the ball in the middle of the season without telling anyone. Thanks to the work of researchers Dr. Alan Nathan, Dr. Meredith Wills and others, we now know a lot more about the impact that even the smallest changes can have on how the ball flies.
League-wide slugging before May 14 was a paltry .375, but in games since (through June 12) it jumped to .410. However, the expected slugging percentage throughout the competition was exactly the same (0.438) both before and after.
Also, when batters hit fly balls early in the season, they ended up as home runs 10.3% of the time. Since May 14, they have left the yard with a clip of 12.2%. (Across those same 2021 dates, the gap was much narrower — 13.1% vs. 13.9%.)
But not all fly balls are the same. Let’s look at balls hit at the optimal angle and exit velocity to produce home runs, which Statcast classifies as “barrels.” Rotoballer’s Jon Anderson recently detailed how many times those running balls have gone for home runs this season — with the number staying even in April, rising slightly in early May and jumping significantly around that weekend of May 14-15.
To take his idea a step further, I looked at the HR/barrel percentage from the start of the season from April 7 to May 13. It was 47.2%. From May 14 through Sunday’s games, it rose to 59.0%.
(Last year, with the same dates, the difference was much smaller: 56.1% vs. 59.8%. And just for fun, during the 2019 home run explosion, the percentages were 71.1% and 76.9%!)
The obvious question now is… where do we go from here? Will we see an even livelier ball in the summer? Or will the humidors have the opposite effect in the hottest and stickiest months by soaking up moisture? from of baseball?
Unfortunately, this type of analysis usually leads to more questions than answers. For now it might be the best thing we can do.
Pitchers finally get healthy
Injuries during the season can be devastating to both MLB and fantasy teams. However, there is also a sense of excitement when those injured players return to the active ranks.
Currently, several high-level starting pitchers have just come off the injured list or are close to being activated after an extended absence.
— Shane Baz, Tampa Bay Rays. After undergoing arthroscopic elbow surgery in March, Baz looked dominant during four minor league rehab bouts. However, the Twins edged him out for five runs over 2 1/3 frames on his return on June 11. Think of that as a speck on the radar.
The Rays have been very careful with Baz, and the innings cap they may have placed on the 22-year-old righthander shouldn’t be a factor now that he’s already missed two months.
— Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers. The three-time Cy Young winner had a fantastic start (4-0, 1.80 ERA) until a pelvic injury sidelined him for just over a month. He returned to the mound in San Francisco on Saturday, lasted only four innings and took the loss. But as with Baz, the first start back tends to be the roughest.
–Lance Lynn, Chicago White Sox. The veteran Righty was coming off arguably the best season of his career (2.69 ERA, 1.07 WHIP over 28 starts) when he suffered a minor knee injury in April. After a long recovery period and three shaky starts in rehabilitation, he gave up three runs and 10 hits in 4 1/3 innings vs. the Tigers.
At 35 years old, it can be a chore for Lynn to stay healthy the rest of the way, but he should provide solid stats as he climbs the hill.
— Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox. the left-hander reportedly hit 96 mph on the radar gun this week at the Red Sox’s spring training facility. That’s a good sign, as he’s working his way back from the stress fracture to his rib cage he sustained throwing at college hitters during the lockout.
After throwing only 42 2/3 innings last season on his return from elbow surgery, Sale could come back later this month as a reliever as a way to build his arm strength.
–Lance McCullers, Houston Astros. McCullers, 28, posted an excellent 3.16 ERA last season but was unable to pitch in the ALCS or the World Series due to a nagging pain in his forearm. He’s just now throwing curveballs again, which means he’ll likely stay out until the All-Star break. But there’s a spot waiting in the Astros rotation when he’s ready.
— Jacob de Grom, New York Mets. As the wildest of this season’s injury wildcards, deGrom has progressed to throwing bullpen sessions as he works his way back from a shoulder injury. The Mets are targeting a return around the All-Star break for their ace, who hasn’t thrown since July 7. That would still leave nearly half a season—with his 1.08 ERA and 146 strikeouts in 92 innings from a year ago, a reminder of what deGrom could still accomplish if it were healthy.
Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner