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The Ball is Dead! A Murder Mystery

Offense is down league-wide. The evidence suggests that MLB has killed the “juiced ball” in favor of a “dead ball”.

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It’s elementary, my dear Watson. The baseball is dead. And MLB is the murderer.

As I was watching Miles Mikolas duel against Max Scherzer on Monday night, I couldn’t help but notice the current state of offense for the Cardinals. And not just the Cardinals.

Yes, I realize it’s foolish to wonder about the hitting on a night when the team’s bats were facing the best pitcher of this generation. Scherzer was dealing. But so was Miles Mikolas. And Mikolas, as much as I’ve propped him up here on the site, is no Max Scherzer.

If we broaden our field a little, that kind of outing from a Cardinals starter in Busch shouldn’t surprise. After some early season hiccups, likely due to the compressed Spring Training, the pitching staff – rotation and bullpen – have really rounded into form.

Meanwhile, baseball’s Mr. Universe, Tyler O’Neill has only one homer on the season. Paul Goldschmidt’s slugging% is .328. Dylan Carlson’s batted balls routinely look like they’re traveling underwater.

I’ve been hearing rumblings on Twitter and even during broadcasts that offense is down. Reports suggest homers are also down and scoring along with them.

Accompanying these rumblings are half-baked speculative why’s: “Pitchers are ahead of hitters.” “Cool spring weather. Bats will warm up when the weather does!” “The batters were locked out and couldn’t work out as normal.”

The implication behind these “whys” is that an early season downturn in offense will change if given enough time. That’s probably true for individual Cardinals’ hitters. At the time of writing – Tuesday morning – no Cardinal has more than 65 plate appearances. The team has only played 15 games. These small sample sizes subject individual players to the ebbs and flows of hot and cold streaks.

Logic that works for one doesn’t work for all. If we add up all of those too-small samples for each player on 30 different teams, each with 28-man rosters, the sample grows exponentially. There have already been over 18,000 MLB plate appearances.

When it comes to statistical modeling, 18,000 events is a huge sample. Even though it’s still early in the baseball season, it’s late enough for league-wide statistics to be relatively stable, analytically meaningful, and predictive for the rest of the season.

In other words, Dylan Carlson’s offensive season could still change a great deal. But baseball’s offensive season is pretty well set.

What does that mean? It means that IF we are seeing some kind of massive difference in offense in these first few weeks of the season, we’re probably going to see something close to this for the entire season, and that would point toward some kind of meaningful change in the playing environment of Major League Baseball.

So, like any good “consulting detective” (i.e. a high-functioning baseball sociopath), I dug out my deerstalker (look it up), threw on some tweed, pulled out the magnifying glass, and started sleuthing. The more I looked at the “crime scene” that is the murder of MLB’s offense, the more I found intriguing evidence to consider.

Is offense down? What specifically has changed? Why has it changed? And what does that mean for the Cardinals?

Let’s just start with the first of those. Reports throughout the league are that offense is down. I believed them but I wanted to see for myself. Is it true? And if so, by how much?

The answer is an emphatic yes, it’s true. Offense is down. And down a lot.

There are a lot of ways to measure this, but let’s just look at average offensive production stats by league over the last 5 years. Fangraphs has all that right here.

Several things jumped off the page. wOBA, which doesn’t neutralize per the league stats, is a good place to start. League average normally falls in the .320 range, though as you can see, it fell to .314 last season. This year it’s collapsed down to .305.

That’s … well, that’s Aaron Miles, folks. Or Daniel Descalso. That’s nearing what we would consider “replacement level” offensive performance for a backup middle infielder. Except it’s not a backup middle infielder. That’s the average offensive performance of all players, including all those starting slugging corner infielders and brand-new National League Designated Hitters.

Just as a point of comparison because I know that not everyone is familiar with wOBA, if .305 is Aaron Miles, then the old league average of .320 looks more like Juan Encarnacion, Jhonny Peralta, or David Freese, at various points in their careers.

Interestingly, almost all of that dip in wOBA composite production stems from one area: SLUG%.

League average slug% is currently .368. .368! That’s about 50 points of slugging below the average from ’18-’21. It’s 43 points below just last season.

Honestly, that’s a shocking drop in power league-wide. It’s huge. It would be – by .001 – the lowest league slugging percentage since the 1980s.

The next lowest is 1981 when the league slugged .369. That year, though, the league had an average wOBA of .314 – significantly higher than right now. This won’t surprise any Cards fan over the age of 40, but the back-then players invested in other ways to produce offense than just hitting homers. So, average offensive production overall (.314 wOBA) wasn’t that far off from recent history (.320’ish) but the way batters went about producing it was quite a bit different.

Those of you who want a return to the good ol’ days of the 80s are getting your wish… minus the bouncy AstroTurf, engrained slap-hitter batting skills, and the much lower pitch velocities that allowed that to happen.

Erase all that now. “Power” – measured in this case by slugging percentage (and we could do ISO, too) is way down. Players haven’t adjusted to this very new reality. So, unlike the hitters of the ‘80s, they just can’t score.

Do a little Sherlock-Holmesian deductive reasoning on all of that and it’s obvious that the problem is not “the lockout” or “pitchers are ahead of hitters” or “the cold weather”. There has been some kind of direct change in the baseball-playing environment.

This can be proven.

This topic is apparently in the baseball collective at the moment because as I was writing this article, Ken Rosenthal and Eno Sarris (probably monitoring my Twitter feed) posted an extremely thorough article over at The Athletic. If you have a subscription, you can read what they had to say here: Baseballs Aren’t Flying as Far, and Home Runs are Down Across MLB. Is it the Ball Itself? Definitely worth the read. And the subscription, if you haven’t done it yet.

I won’t steal too much of their thunder. But I will build on it.

Rosenthal and Sarris point out something that fascinated me. One would think that a decrease in power stats and overall production would show up in the Statcast data. It doesn’t.

Slugging% is way down. But average exit velocity is … up? Sorta, yeah.

In ’21 and now in ’22, the average exit velocity was 88.7-88.8. That’s notably up from 2015 to 2020 when the highest EV was just 88.5.

Somehow players are hitting the ball harder but getting less out of the contact.

That’s measurable, too. Slide over one column on the chart. That is a simple stat: average distance. That measures the average distance that balls travel on contact in play.

I think it’s useful here to compare apples to apples. In 2019, the average exit velocity was 88.7 – the same as this season. However, in ’19, balls traveled on average 174 feet. 10 feet further than balls struck this season at the same average velocity.

There is no natural phenomenon that explains a 10-foot decrease on average in distance traveled by balls in play over just three seasons. Not over these huge sample sizes spread out over multiple ballparks across an entire country. That’s not just cold weather. It’s not just the lockout or pitchers being ahead of hitters.

It’s elementary, my dear Watson. The baseball is dead. And MLB is the murderer.

That’s the conclusion that scientists and really smart baseball people have reached over the past two seasons. It’s the conclusion the data supports.

Sarris has been tracking this for a while and believes – with significant proof to support his thesis – that, due to supply issues, MLB used two different baseballs last season: one that was this current “dead ball” and another that was the old-style “juiced” ball. That explains why offense was just sorta down last season but not enough to really show up in the overall stats. And why it’s taken such a big dip this season as the supply chain has evened out post-COVID.

Why change the ball? This all ties back to the league manipulating the baseball in order to create – eventually – a game less structured around three true outcomes (homers, k’s, and walks) and more well-rounded. That’s something they have openly admitted they want to see happen.

That’s your murder. And your motive.

But what does it mean? For the Cardinals specifically?

I think it helps explain the approach that the Cardinals have taken toward roster construction. IF MLB is changing the baseball so it won’t travel as far. AND you play in a baseball stadium – Busch – that actively suppresses the distance balls travel (i.e. home runs). THEN home runs will be hard to come by and balls-in-play will be the real threat for scoring runs, even in a 3-true-outcome game-style. SO, defense matters; at Busch, you need infielders who can really pick it and outfielders who can really go get it. AND you need pitchers who can keep runners off the bases by limiting walks and who throw in a way that results in balls-in-play going to those fielders more frequently than not.

Who to target, then? Speedy outfielders. Rangy, slick-fielding infielders. Sinkerball pitchers. Starters who can limit walks. Maybe even some relievers who can get Ks to get out of late-inning trouble because there will be a lot of close games. (So long as you don’t have to pay for them.)

The Cardinals have talked about Busch’s run-suppressing environment as a strategic advantage for the club. (That’s one of the reasons why they did not seriously consider moving in the walls this winter.) It enables them to get more out of lower-quality pitchers whose stuff plays “up” at home.

Now, I can argue against that logic all day. Yes, Miles Mikolas went pitch-for-pitch with Max Scherzer last night. That doesn’t mean Busch makes Mikolas as good as Scherzer. If Busch and the defense buoy Mikolas, how much more would they buoy Max? A worse pitcher is a worse pitcher, even if the run-scoring environment is also worse.

But the Cardinals’ defense is, without question, superior. And their offense is pretty good – or at least it should be pretty good relative to other teams in this pretty bad power-hitting environment that is Major League Baseball. If everyone is bad and you’re better than bad, then you’re good. Or something.

Anyway, the Cardinals would have known about MLB’s plan to tweak the ball. They also fully understand the impact of their own stadium, from both internal studies and the park factor values that are readily available. They have very intentionally tried to build a roster that they think fits this playing environment while taking advantage of undervalued aspects of the market. Like sinkerballers. And control experts. And defense.

Now, despite the large sample size, it’s possible if unlikely that this could change significantly. Offensive production is so far down that it’s kind of hard for me to believe it will stay that way, despite over 18,000 events that point to it so far. Maybe hitters will adjust. Maybe the league will adjust and resurrect the old, juiced baseball. I just wouldn’t expect either to happen any time soon.

The dead ball era is back in baseball. Baseball killed the ball. And the Cardinals are accomplices. If you’re a fan of offense, you better start tweaking your expectations. Runs will be hard to come by this season.