Remember April, that first glorious month of a baseball season more anticipated than most, when everything you wanted was still attainable and all seemed right in the world?
It probably gives you a chill thinking back on it now.
Yup, April put a scare in us. Offense was … well, it was nowhere to be found, and because it corresponded with the introduction of a “deadened” baseball, we quickly braced for what appeared to be our new reality. Chris Towers did some great research and drew some scary conclusions. We clung tightly to our sweeties and held our collective breath.
Then came May, glorious May, with its post-shower flowers and its normalizing temperatures. Those temperatures are important because, well, the chill you remember from April wasn’t just down your back. That month was cold, unseasonably so, with game time temperatures often registering in the 30s and 40s.
It might explain what we’re seeing happen to offense here in May.
I kept coming across hitters putting up much better numbers than in April — some to the point of correcting their season-long stat lines, others still having a ways to go. These discoveries prompted some research of my own, which revealed that the new ball is playing much more fairly in the season’s second month, to the point I wonder if it was unfairly blamed in the first place. Here’s a quick breakdown of the league-wide numbers:
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All of 2020
Pretty much says it all right there, but specifically, I want to focus on BABIP because that .283 number from April is the most egregious to me. For as much as league-wide numbers can fluctuate from year to year, BABIP holds fairly steady, typically residing within a couple points of .295. It does change over the course of a season, though, rising every month before dropping again in September.
It’s completely normal and expected, then, that the season’s low point for BABIP would be April. What isn’t normal is for it to be that low and for it to jump that much, 13 points and counting, from one month to the next. The May mark on its own is fairly typical, so unless the ball has changed again (and we would have heard pitchers complain about the grip if it did), then it stands to reason that it isn’t the No. 1 reason for offense collapsing in April.
So what else was different about April? Again, the temperature was, and because BABIP is so closely tied to temperature — always following the same trajectory of rising every month until September — it makes sense that an unseasonably cold April would make for an outrageously low BABIP.
That’s not to say that the new ball has had no impact. The home run rate has barely moved from April to May, going from 1.17 to 1.18 per nine innings as compared to 1.34 last year. This year’s mark compares more to the 1.16 mark from 2018, which is regarded as the tamest year of the juiced ball era. But it is still part of the juiced ball era, which began in the second half of 2016, so a similar home run rate would still indicate that home runs are more prevalent than they were for the majority of our lifetimes. They’re just not as prevalent as in 2017, 2019 or 2020.
The raised seams on the new baseball may also be elevating the strikeout rate by improving pitcher grip and pitch movement, but then, the strikeout rate rises every year. An increasing strikeout rate with a decreasing home run rate will mean a lower batting average — there’s no way around it. But if there’s no decline in BABIP to exacerbate the issue, it won’t be nearly as bad as we saw in April.
Long story short, I’m expecting a hitting environment similar to 2018, which is what many predicted coming into the season. It’s not quite as hitter-friendly as we drafted for, but it’s not a night-and-day difference either. Functionally, even if not technically, 2021 is still part of the juiced ball era.
And here’s the best part: Almost every year, the biggest jump in league-wide BABIP from one month to the next is from May to June, so for as many hitters as we saw get back on track in May, there are many more yet to come. Yup, I’d feel better about your underachieving hitters than your underachieving pitchers at this point, at least as a general rule.
To illustrate the point, what follows is a long list of hitters, 42 in all, who have seen their numbers dramatically improve from April to May — again, some to the point of redeeming their season-long numbers, but some still having a ways to go, which could mean they’re being underappreciated. Naturally, not all of them will sustain their May numbers or anything close to them, but if what’s happening on balls in play in May is much closer to typical, then I would suggest, generally speaking, their May production comes closer to matching their abilities than their April production did.
Stats are updated through Sunday, March 23.
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