Subscriber Mailbag: Where Are All the Runs?
Scotty from Illinois asks:
Am I crazy for feeling like offense is way down in the minors? Seems like most prospects I follow are really struggling.
I would start answering this question by noting it's still very early, but the broad answer is no. Teams are scoring roughly the same number of runs per game this year as they did last year, even if they may be doing it in some different ways.
Looked at broadly, that's a very difficult question to answer because it's hard to know what to compare this April's stats to if we want to get to what's normal. Trying to determine what is “normal” around the minors right now is an impossible task. In 2019, Triple-A began using the same baseball as was in play in the big leagues, which saw home run rates skyrocket. Then there was no 2020 season. In 2021, MLB experimented with a variety of rules changes at different levels of the minors (including an automated ball-strike system in the Florida State League and a new pitch clock in the California League). There also was a delayed start to the 2021 season, which meant that we don’t have April games to compare against this year’s April games.
This year has seen more rules changes, as well as experiments in Double-A with pre-tacked MLB balls.
And that doesn’t even acknowledge the changes in levels. The Florida State League and California League used to be in High-A. Now they are in Low-A. The Northwest League has gone from being in short-season ball to High-A. The Midwest League flopped from Low-A to High-A and the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues have seen a number of teams switch from one to another while others moved up from the short-season New York-Penn League. All of that means we can't easily compare Low-A offenses in April 2022 to Low-A offenses in 2019.
To answer your question honestly, I’d say we don’t know and we may never fully know exactly what is driving current changes in stat trends. Are current trends driven by the April weather? Or are they because of rules changes? Or are they because of changes in league structures? Is it equipment changes? Or are these just continuations of pre-existing trends in rising home run, strikeout rates and walk rates?
The answer is probably a little of all of these, which means there are no clear and easy answers as to the factors at play.
With all of those many, many caveats out of the way, here are the most intriguing early-season statistical trends of 2022.
1. Stolen bases are way up.
Major League Baseball wants to encourage more action on the basepaths with some of its rules changes experiments. A limit on the number of pickoff throws, plus the pitch clock, which limits the amount of time a pitcher can hold the ball (and how much they can vary their time to the plate), has created the opportunity for teams to run wild.
This year, teams are averaging 1.45 stolen base attempts per game. That is the most since 2000 and is a 33% increase since 2018.
Not only are they attempting steals more often, basestealers are much more successful. Currently, basestealers are successful on 78.6% of all attempts. That is far beyond the break-even points at which it makes sense for a team to attempt a steal.
2. Home Runs Are Still Plentiful
In the minors, hitters are averaging a home run every 39.7 plate appearances this year. That would be the second highest rate of the 21st century, trailing only last year’s home run every 35.8 plate appearances.
And that’s in April. The cold weather usually suppresses home run rates. We haven’t had an April to compare to since 2019, so we have to go back a few years. In 2019, Triple-A hitters went from a home run every 32 plate appearances in April to one every 27 PAs over the rest of that season. Double-A hitters hit a home run every 53 PAs in April to one every 48 PAs over the entirety of that year. If we see a similar increase in the home run rate this year, the rate by the end of the year could rival what we saw in 2021.
This year, the rate is one home run every 30.7 plate appearances in Triple-A; one every 34.0 plate appearances in Double-A; one every 35.7 plate appearances in High-A, and one every 46.7 plate appearances in Low-A.
3. Walks And Strikeouts Keep Climbing
Last year was the first time in the 21st century that the walk rate in the minors climbed above 10% of plate appearances. This year, it’s reached 11%. But it’s not just the walk rate that keeps climbing. This year’s strikeout rate (25.9%) is also up from last year’s 25.5%. Last year’s rate was easily the highest strikeout rate of the 21st century. The K-rate was below 20% from 2000-2012 and didn’t top 21% until 2016.
The walk rate is above 11% in Low-A, while the other three levels hover just below 10%, so it’s conceivable that the loss of short-season ball could be playing a minor factor in this rise since some pitchers may be pushed to full-season ball a little quicker.
4. Batting Averages Have Plummeted
There’s reason to wonder if batting averages will climb as the weather warms up, but they have quite a ways to go. Currently, minor leaguers are hitting a collective .240. The overall MiLB batting average has dipped below .250 only once since 2000—last year, when the minors hit .247.
5. The Run Environment Hasn’t Changed
So walks and strikeouts are up, but so are home runs and steals. Batting averages are down, but on-base percentages are tracking close to recent MiLB levels. Add it all up and the runs per game (4.9) remains one of the higher marks in recent MiLB history.
Considering runs scored usually trend upward as the weather warms up, that 4.9 runs per team per game isn’t far off last year’s 5.0 runs per game, which was the highest scoring environment since 2000’s 5.1 runs per game. If you go back to 2015, full-season MiLB clubs were averaging only 4.25 runs per game, a far cry from where they are now.