Fantasy Baseball: How To Take Advantage of This Season's Offensive Decline
If it seems like there is a dearth of good hitting through the first two months of the Major League Baseball season, that's because there is. The art of hitting the baseball safely onto the field of play has taken a holiday so far in 2018, and, in all likelihood, your fantasy team has been affected by the dropoff.
One year after the league set a record for home runs hit in a season, baseballs are flying out of the park with less frequency -- though above the historic norms -- and there have been fewer base hits than at any time in the last decade. In fact, in the month of May, all hitters have combined to hit for a batting average of .248, the lowest for the month in 46 years, when batters hit .244 in May of 1972.
This hasn't been an aesthetically pleasing trend to watch, and it's definitely had an effect on season-long fantasy squads. How?
The table below shows season-long totals for this season, last season and those numbers from the 2008 season, which are used as a reference point for how things have changed in 10 years.
Some of the numbers above may be skewed a bit, because this year's numbers obviously have been culled before the weather gets hotter and the balls travel better. This year's April also saw some of the coldest and nastiest weather the league has seen in years, so let's compare numbers for the month of May in each of same three seasons.
Compared to last year, MLB hitters are hitting 6 percentage points worse on their averages and 13 worse than a decade ago. It's also interesting that in an era in which on-base percentage and walks are emphasized as much as getting hits, we've seen the league's OBP dip 9 points from last year and 13 points from 2008. And, in terms of overall offensive production, the league's wOBA for May is 5 points lower than last season and 7 points lower than a decade ago.
Of course, 2017 saw a dramatic increase in power numbers -- as noted above in the slugging percentage and isolated power figures -- but those numbers have not carried over into the 2018 season thus far.
There is perhaps no one reason why offensive numbers have dipped from last year to this year and below historic norms.
The first possible answer is that hitters are swinging-and-missing and striking out more than ever before. From last year to this year, the league's swinging-strike rate increased by 0.1 percentage points while it's gone from 8.7% in 2008 to 10.6% to this point in the season. It follows that the strikeout rate has gone from 17.5% in '08 to 21.6% in '17 and 22.4% in '18 (according to FanGraphs).
If we narrow the scope of our research to March, April and May, the overall strikeout rate has progressed from 17.0% to 21.5% and 22.4%. And to limit it even further, so far this month, MLB's strikeout rate is 22.2%, up from 21.4% last season and way higher than the 17.6% rate in 2008. Just 10 years ago, the contact rate in baseball was 80.8% for the month of May, whereas it is 77.2% this season.
As home run totals exploded last year, numerous reasons were given for the sudden increase, among them launch angle and a juiced ball. A recent independent report noted there were differences in the aerodynamic properties of the baseball (it flew through the air differently than it ever had before) but came to the conclusion that the make-up and structure of the ball had not substantially changed enough to warrant such an increase. The data also said an increase in launch angle was not responsible for the power surge.
In other words, no one at MLB really knows why homers jumped last year.
Other studies done by experts tell a different story, that baseballs were fundamentally different last season, but outside of MLB there has been no study to definitely say whether this year's baseball is any different from last season's.
It's also possible that pitchers have found a way to combat the launch angle revolution (a trend in which hitters are consciously trying to swing with a pronounced uppercut so to create a greater launch angle and more home runs). Part of that effort can be attributed to pitchers throwing harder.
In 2008, the average four-seam fastball velocity in baseball was 90.6 mph, according to Fangraphs. Last year, it was 92.7 and this year it's up to 92.8 mph. There's not a big difference in velocity, but pitchers are combating the launch angle trend by pitching up in the zone more than last year, resulting in a slightly higher swing-and-miss percentage this season.
The result of these changes is that you're seeing players with lower batting averages and, for right now, lower on-base percentages, than at any time in the last decade.
If you play in a category league, owning players with high batting averages has suddenly become a major advantage simply because there are fewer of them around. When players like Bryce Harper, Paul Goldschmidt and Anthony Rizzo are all hitting below .240, having players who can hit for a higher average is perhaps more valuable than having guys who can slug a home run. In points leagues, this shift doesn't mean as much.
Heading into play on Wednesday, there are 29 qualified MLB hitters who have a batting average of .300 or better. For the entire 2017 season there were 25, and in 2008 there were 34. But it's not just in the high end of the numbers where the difference is notable, it's how many hitters are being allowed to play on an everyday basis with low batting averages.
In 2008, 12 players qualified (3.1 plate appearances per team game) for the batting title with a batting average under .240. Last year there were 15. Through two months of 2018, there are a whopping 46 players who qualify for the batting title with averages under .240. In fact, there are 12 players hitting under .200.
Of course, many of these low-average hitters won't accumulate the necessary number of plate appearances during the course of the season to remain on the qualified list, so the year-end totals will be lower. Additionally, outliers like this will naturally exist when the samples sizes are smaller in May than they will be at the end of September. However, it's clear the shift away from batting average is allowing teams to carry hitters with lower averages on their rosters and in their lineups provided their on-base percentage is decent. The increased strikeout rates also hint that the lower league-wide averages are more likely to stick. That means owning players with averages in the .250-to-.270 range is more valuable than ever before.
This shift also means that there are more pitchers with higher strikeout totals than ever before, which devalues the strikeout a bit. Certainly pitchers with higher whiff totals generally have lower ERAs, so it's still an important category, but it also means it's not necessarily worth carrying a pitcher with a mediocre ERA or a high walk rate just because they get strikeouts. There are plenty of those to go around.
As the baseball season swings into summer, some of these numbers will change. But, for right now, batting average has become an endangered species, and offensive production is taking a hit overall, making high-performing offensive players even more valuable in season-long fantasy leagues. So hold on to them and hope that you can ride them to a league championship.