(I Can’t Get No) Batting Average by Brendan Gawlowski April 27, 2021 Yesterday Jon Sciambi shared a tweet with a few, seemingly impossible stats: MLB slash into today 232/310/390…BA would be lowest ever…in 2008 about 42% of swings put balls in play, this year 35.4%. In 08 the swing/miss % was 20% and this year it is 27.3%. Yikes. — Jon Sciambi (@BoogSciambi) April 26, 2021 Yikes indeed. While all of those numbers are concerning on their own, it’s actually the batting average figure that most struck me. If a .232 league batting average sounds absurdly low to you, you’re not wrong. In fact, it’s the lowest since at least the turn of the twentieth century. The .232 mark is five points worse than the league hit in 1968, when Bob Gibson spun a 1.12 ERA, only one American Leaguer managed to hit .300, and nearly a quarter of the season’s games ended in a shutout. It’s also seven points lower than the worst collective batting average of the Dead Ball Era, a year the league slugged .305. And it’s far, far lower than anything in recent memory: Lowest BA Since 1973 Year Batting Average 2021 .232 2020 .245 2018 .248 2014 .251 2019 .252 2013 .253 1989 .254 1988 .254 2015 .254 Say what you will about Three True Outcomes baseball, a batting average this low is a bit of a problem. And while the magnitude of the problem may come as a bit of a shock, the “why” is pretty easy to explain. Much of it can be attributed to strikeouts, of course. Pitchers are fanning their opponents 24.6% of the time, up from 23.4% in last year’s shortened season. Strikeout rates seemingly only go up each year, but it’s worth noting that this is a pretty dramatic uptick even by that standard, easily the largest year-over-year we’ve seen this century. (Hat tip to Marc Webster for noticing.) It’s not just strikeouts though, as BABIP is also a big part of the story. Over the last two decades, as seemingly everything else evolved, BABIP remained remarkably constant. Since the league BABIP’d .289 in 2002, hitters have posted a figure between .291 and .299 every year since. There’s not much of a correlation between BABIP and strikeouts in that time, either: The league hit .291 on balls in play in 2003, and .296 in 2019, when both strikeouts and the home run rate were considerably higher. This year though? This year batters are hitting .282 on balls in play. The league hasn’t been this low since the late 1980s, and it’s by far the lowest figure in the last 25 years. Why is BABIP cratering all of the sudden? Partly, it’s an April thing. Like homers and batting average, BABIP tends to be a little lower in April. Over the last decade, BABIP has risen after April in each season, by about five points overall. It also might be partly a shifting thing. Defenses have shifted on a third of plate appearances this year, which is actually down a tiny bit from 2020, but up nearly 200% since 2018. While shifting isn’t particularly effective in the aggregate, shifts do convert contact into outs more efficiently than un-shifted defenses. It makes intuitive sense that the increase in shifts would harm BABIP at some point. The league’s batted ball profile also comes in to play here. The GB/FB ratio is as low as it has ever been, and with a 13.3% HR/FB rate, plenty of balls in the air are either falling into gloves or flying over the wall, neither of which is good for BABIP. It makes sense that some combination of cold weather in April, combined with an increase in shifts and fly balls is to blame. I’d like to examine exit velocity here as well, but given some weird factors surrounding the composition of this year’s ball, I’m worried that any cross-comparison between seasons would add more ambiguity than it would correct. Regardless of the reasons, the fact remains that the league is hitting .232. As with 1968, the average is low enough to have a visibly distortive effect on the field. Already, we’ve had three no-hitters this year, with more surely on the way (I’m counting Madison Bumgarner’s, dammit). The Braves, victims of Bumgarner Sunday afternoon, only had one hit in the first game of the twin bill as well. The Yankees are hitting .206 as a team, which is wretched, but it’s not even the worst in baseball, as the Tigers are hitting .205. To think of it another way, when Kiley McDaniel rolled out his 20-80 scouting primer, a .260 batting average was considered average, a 50 grade. When I interned with the Mariners a year earlier in 2013, the team’s scale was delightfully more granular but followed the same basic rhythms: Batting Average 20-80 Grade Batting Average 80 .340+ 75 .322-.339 70 .313-.321 65 .304-.312 60 .290-.303 55 .273-.289 50 .257-.273 45 .241-.256 40 .226-.240 35 .216-.225 30 .201-.215 20 .000-.200 Arguably, these charts were already a touch out of date: The league as a whole hit .255 in 2012 and hadn’t fallen in the middle of the range listed above (where, logically, you’d expect to find a 50 bat) for five years. Still if that looked a tick off back then, it looks downright antiquated now. If we were to take the system Kiley debuted back in 2014, where each half-grade represents a 10-point climb in batting average, and center it around the .232 average the league is producing now, the updated version looks something like this: Modern Batting Average 20-80 Grade Batting Average 80 .292 75 .282 70 .272 65 .262 60 .252 55 .242 50 .232 45 .222 40 .212 35 .202 30 .192 20 .180 Obviously, this is an imperfect exercise, and for weather-related reasons if nothing else, we can expect the average to climb higher over the course of the year. Still, it’s striking: If you can hit .255 these days, you’re a plus hitter. Along the way, a rational feedback spiral has developed on major league rosters. In a game where fewer balls are in play, teams can afford to cut corners on defense. Eloy Jiménez and Andrew Vaughn have all the range of a traffic cone in left field, but in a small park without all that many balls coming their way, the White Sox can get away with hiding them in left in a way they couldn’t even 10 years ago. The same goes for Dominic Smith, Ryan Mountcastle, and several others. Something similar happens around the infield, where guys like Ty France are standing well out of position because teams can mitigate a bad gloveman’s damage with intelligent shifting, creative shading, and a 25% strikeout rate. Almost inevitably, the guys playing out of position are power hitters, and the consequence of all of this is that teams are able to squeeze more and more mashers into the lineup. In response, pitchers have ever more incentive to miss bats and managers are increasingly motivated to ensure that only their best starters face a lineup a third time. The average start this season is under five innings, and you can count the number of pitchers averaging six frames an outing on two hands. Part of that undoubtedly stems from workload and injury concerns after 2020, but it’s also clear that managers will go to their 95-mph-and-a-slider guys in the fifth inning so long as they have enough arms to grind through the rest of the game. Which, of course, they do: the rule limiting teams to 13 pitchers has fallen by the wayside, and at last glance several teams were carrying 14 hurlers. (As a side note, I’m reasonably confident that if teams were given 30-man rosters, we’d see plenty of 17- and 18-pitcher staffs, and in turn even shorter outings from most starters). The only way to beat the inevitable steady dose of high-octane heat is to swing for the fences and pray like hell for contact, which leads to more whiffs… which restarts the loop all over again. I think that most fans at this point have a pretty good sense that the shape of offense in the major leagues these days is quite a bit different than it was in previous decades. But as the league’s average slumps into the low-.230s, it’s worth reviewing recent history and the path ahead. As you may recall, the first batch of the livelier balls debuted in mid-2015, right when teams were scoring fewer runs per game than at any point since the pre-strike era. While the league denied making the change intentionally, goosing the ball made a certain amount of sense: a lively pill could help keep offense afloat and prevent pitchers from gaining the upper hand and perhaps buy time for teams or the league to solve the underlying imbalance between pitching hitting. Now, we’re now six years down the road from that. A look at the early season numbers and Rob Arthur’s work suggests we’re playing with the second liveliest ball in history, and the league is hitting .230 with a sub-.400 slugging percentage (lower than all pre-juiced ball seasons save for 2014). Scoring hasn’t fallen to 2014 or early-2015 levels, but it’s close. Barring intervention from the league, it’s hard to see the trend toward the Three True Outcomes decelerating, much less reversing. Whether all of this is a bad thing, of course, depends on personal preference. It’s not like a low batting average ruins the sport or anything. Personally, I think this has been a very compelling season so far. At this point though, it seems that most fans would prefer a game where the ball finds outfield grass more often. The path to that outcome isn’t entirely clear: It will be hard to reverse the feedback spiral, and the twin challenge of augmenting contact without turning the sport into home run derby will prove a delicate balance to strike. The rule changes in the minor leagues are a good start in this direction, but any real alterations likely won’t come to the majors for years. Hopefully with a bit of BABIP luck, we can keep clear of the .220s until that time comes.