Ode To The Vanishing Base Hit
Or the whomp of bat to ball
To bring a joyful cry
A single, double, triple —
Or none at all, and sigh.
—Joel Sherman, 2022
The annual lesson is not to overreact to April since results in the first month of a season can deceive based on, among other things, small data pools and often inconsistent weather. Two weeks into the 2021 season, for example, you might have been able to convince White Sox fans to erect a statue of Yermin Mercedes outside Guaranteed Rate Field. I ended up getting demoted to the minors by early July.
This season, in particular, quick, bold statements should be avoided. Because of the lockout, what are Weeks 1 and 2 of the 2022 season really should be Weeks 5 and 6 of spring training. It is the first year, in addition, in which humidors are being used in every stadium, and the sample sizes are probably too small to gain a true rendering of the impact.
So consider this just a thought exercise — and a chance for me to write my first poem after 30-plus years at The Post — but I wonder if we are watching a season that will make us recalculate the value of batting average.
Do you remember batting average? For the first century or so of our national game, this was the statistic that most determined the skill of a hitter — the batting champion, after all, was not viewed as the player with the most homers or RBIs, it was the player in each league with the highest batting average.
The Moneyball revolution brought the realization that the most important offensive skill was to avoid an out. Thus, it was not batting average that was the most prized skill, but rather on-base percentage. Generally, it was better to hit .260 with a .360 on-base percentage than to hit .310 with a .330 on-base percentage.
But at the heart of the Moneyball philosophy is not to pray at the altar of on-base percentage or slugging percentage. It was to find undervalued assets. The Athletics of Michael Lewis’ book could not pay for averages or homers or steals. But the rest of the sport had not caught up to paying for successfully reaching base and having long at-bats to drive starters out of the game — before teams had one high-octane leviathan after another coming out of the bullpen to defuse offenses.
That change in the construction of pitching staffs is a reminder that the game is a living organism, shape shifting all the time. Part of the ad-lib to more and more velocity and greater movement on pitches was an understanding that it was harder than ever to string together hits to score runs before three outs. Thus, the best counter was to try to generate runs with one swing. Hence, the launch swing and the quest for more homers, which has brought more strikeouts and less on-field action in games.
But if what is rare is valuable (and perhaps undervalued by those not evolving as quickly): Has the worth of a high batting average come full circle?
Again, I am trying not to be a victim of the moment or what I see regularly. I pretty much watch every Mets and Yankees game. And one big difference early on between the Mets averaging 4.8 runs per game (entering the weekend) and the Yankees 3.0 is the Mets were hitting .259, which was third in the majors. The Yankees were at .220, and amazingly, there were 10 teams worse than them. MLB’s overall batting average was .231, six points lower than the worst season ever.
Arguably, the two biggest surprise teams going into the weekend were the Rockies (8-4) and the Guardians (7-5). They were far and away leading the majors in average, at .284 and .280, respectively. They also led by quite a bit on average of balls in play, and that stat often normalizes (in this case it would lower) as a season progresses.
Still, I just keep wondering if the ability to have a high batting average takes on greater meaning now. Because of the velocity. Because of the pitch movement. Because of the more precise defensive positioning. Hitting the ball hard is, of course, extremely important. Because of shifts, however, if there is not diversity to where hard-hit balls are sprayed, we may continue to see a lot more hard-hit outs, cries of “hitting in bad luck” and encouragement about what the expected batting average is .
As one top AL executive said to me, “If the data for expected average is including years ago, it is meaningless. No one was positioning like they are now. The expected average has to mean something today, so you have to say, ‘What is the expectation for this batter versus the shift likely to be seen?’ ”
I asked if that nullifies the meaning of someone like Joey Gallo producing a lot of hard outs (on those occasions when contact is made), and the executive said, “There is not a lot of variability where he hits the ball hard.” Translation: There will be a fielder there, so Gallo hitting the ball hard, but to the same two or three areas, is not overly beneficial.
That would lead to more belief that you have to hit homers. But so far this year, homers are down to 2014 levels. In spring training, when a mix of baseballs from last season and this season were used, officials from a few teams observed the ball was not carrying on as it had in recent years. That has translated to the regular season, to date, when (obviously) only 2022 baseballs are being used.
Balls hit 95 mph or better at a 25-40 degree launch angle are basically the home run sweet spot — of all the homers hit, 73 percent fell into those specs last year. Of all balls hit within those parameters in 2021, 43.1 percent went for homers. Through Thursday this year, it was 34.3 percent.
If homers are harder to generate, then singles, doubles and triples really do become more valuable. Balls are not carrying as far as in the recent past, the data shows.
Maybe this is just two weeks in April. Maybe with warmer weather, the ball will soon fly and batting averages will soar. Or, perhaps, I will be writing another poem soon.