First month of 2022 MLB season shows hitters still struggling

Batting averages dip slightly, power way down

NEW YORK - Dwindling batting averages put Major League Baseball administration in a panic last year, prompting a midseason change in the enforcement of rules banning the use of grip-enhancing substances by pitchers.

The crackdown was awkward. Remember Gerrit Cole stumbling over a question on Spider Tack? Or Max Scherzer defiantly beginning to disrobe during an in-game check by umpires?

The crackdown also worked, with MLB's overall batting average rising from .232 through April 30 to .244 by season's end.

In 2022, even with the National League adopting the designated hitter, the hits are missing again - and suddenly, the power has gone out, too. This time, the culprit doesn't look so straightforward.

The batting average across the majors in April was a lousy .231, once again on pace to fall under the record low of .237 set in 1968, when the dominance of pitchers led MLB to alter the strike zone and lower the mound after the season. After several years of surging home run totals, batters had a measly .369 slugging percentage last month and the MLB-wide average per team was 4.03 runs per game, both lows since the strike-altered 1981 season.

Ripple effects from labor strife are a suspect in this year's offensive downturn. So, too, is the baseball itself, of course, along with caveats about cold weather and small sample sizes.

"It's hard to say anything is a trend yet," Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly said.

Still, there seems to be at least one area of universal agreement.

"Pitching is really good," New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone offered. "Really good."

Despite the New York Mets' consternation over a spate of batters being hit by pitches, checks for sticky stuff seem to be limiting pitchers' ability to blow batters away, and their control hasn't been compromised. Strikeouts are down significantly, from 9.30 per nine innings through April 30 last year to 8.69 this season. Walks are down slightly, to 3.35 per nine, and hit batters are also down, from 0.5 per nine to 0.43.

Even with last June's crackdown on illegal grip aids, the balance of power may still be tilted too strongly toward pitchers. Two lockout-related factors likely tipped those scales in the first month of 2022.

First, baseball's labor stoppage robbed hitters of a full slate of preseason exhibitions.

"A lot of guys got 30 at-bats in spring training," Yankees slugger Anthony Rizzo said. "Now that everyone is 50, 60 at-bats in, it's like a full spring training."

The evidence is certainly there in the Bronx: The Yankees averaged 3.25 runs per game in the first two weeks of the season and 6.8 runs since.

"For hitters, it takes a while," Mattingly said. "Once they lock in timing, you'll see guys that start off slow, but once they kind of click it in, then it just stays there."

Second, the shortened spring also prompted short-term changes to prevent pitcher injuries that may also be spurring their effectiveness. After planning to limit staffs to 13 pitchers beginning this season, baseball instead expanded rosters from 26 to 28 players, eliminated limits on available pitchers and held off on adjusting rules governing minor league assignments.

With the calendar having flipped to a new month, though, teams will be kept to 14 pitchers on the roster until May 30, when that number will drop to 13. The hope is shrinking bullpens will limit teams' abilities to take a revolving-door approach to their usage of relievers.

"The couple extra roster spots help you kind of protect pitching early on," Boone said. "So you're going to more fresh guys, and I think better than at any time, pitchers are equipped with what they should be throwing and who they match up well against."

Of course, the little white sphere with the red stiches seems to be at fault, too.

"It's not exactly juiced," Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka said with a laugh.

After lively baseballs contributed to record-setting home run totals in recent seasons, MLB attempted to slightly deaden its baseballs in 2021 - the hope was to reduce flight by one or two feet on balls hit 375 feet. Pandemic-related production challenges interrupted those plans, and MLB ended up using batches of baseballs from both before and after the manufacturing adjustment last season.

In a memo sent March 29, MLB informed teams "those production issues have now been resolved and the 2022 season will be played with only balls manufactured after the 2021 production change. No manufacturing changes have been made for the 2022 season."

Many hitters adapted their strategies to account for the way baseballs were flying from 2015 to 2020.

"Had a teammate that used to scream, 'Take it on down, I bet I live!' when we had turbulence on planes," slumping Reds star Joey Votto said last week in a quote tweet of a 2021 story about MLB changing baseball production. "Deadened the ball, I bet I hit."

The league has also added humidors to all 30 stadiums in an attempt to normalize conditions across the country, but there's suspicion the climate control is having an adverse effect in cold, dry surroundings.

"Have there been some balls that you think are out off the bat dying at the track?" asked Chicago White Sox general manager Rick Hahn. "Yeah, but that happens every year, it seems."

That could work itself out when temperatures and humidity rise in the summer. Crucially, even when it gets cold again by October, humidity averages in the fall are generally higher than in the spring.

For now, though, hitters are noticing the difference.

"Sometimes you get a little worried, like, 'Man, why didn't that ball go out?'" slumping Yankees slugger Joey Gallo said. "You know, I've hit some balls really good this year, and they've been caught at the wall or on the warning track."

There's reason to think the drop in offense won't remain this extreme - the home run rate was up even over April's final week, at 0.97 per nine innings versus 0.93 from April 7-23 - but it still looks like 2022 could be another frustrating season for hitters.

"It being April and cold and all that, and, you know, probably the ball being a little bit of a factor, I don't think there's any question about that," Boone said. "But the first thing I would say is pitching is really good."