For the first two weeks of the season, MLB offenses looked... weird.
The league batting average hovered around .230—down more than 20 points from 2019 and lower than anything that baseball had seen in decades, roughly around the mark set in the Year of the Pitcher in 1968. There were no major changes in walks or strikeouts, but BABIP (batting average on balls in play) had completely collapsed. That meant a lack of base hits, which tilt the overall offensive numbers significantly. It all prompted a wave of quick analysis—was this the result of changes in pitching strategy? of the unorthodox schedule? the empty stadiums? the baseball itself? the defense? The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh and The Athletic’s Eno Sarris published detailed pieces on the conundrum on the same day last week.
But then, just as quickly as the trend had established itself, it seemed to reverse. For the last week and a half or so, offenses have rebounded, approaching normal behavior from last season. So... what’s going on here?
What We’ve Seen So Far, Week by Week
And for context, here are the same league stat lines from the last few full seasons:
The numbers from the last two weeks are very similar to what we saw from all of last year—almost identical. There are more home runs, but for a moment, set those aside. In terms of the stats that had previously stuck out for the league as potentially worrisome? They’re now dead on. The league’s batting average is right back where it was in 2019 (down to the decimal point, at least for today). BABIP is back in its typical .290ish range. The base-hit problem that plagued the end of July does not appear to be registering this far into August. It pays for guys to put the ball in play again. Which would seem to indicate that after a few weeks to get going, offenses have adjusted to new conditions and stabilized around their levels from last season. All is well.
Were this a typical season—162 games, full spring training, pandemic-free—it might seem reasonable enough to chalk the first two weeks up to just a weirdly slow start, or simple randomness, and leave it at that. But there are so many other factors in play that it’s worth trying to find some context.
How Slow Is A Typical Slow Start, Anyway?
Of course, generally speaking, it’s not surprising to see lower offensive numbers across the league for the first few weeks of the season. There are typically a few simple explanations for that: Batters are getting settled at the plate and refining their eyes, and, of course, there’s the weather. We know that the ball doesn’t carry as far when it’s cold, and in March and April, it can be cold indeed in most ballparks. That’s certainly not the only reason that league offense might take some time to get going, but it’s a reason, and it’s key to the statistical patterns that we usually see at the start of the season.
Here are the numbers from the first four weeks of 2019, for example:
There isn’t the consistent upward trend that we see from week to week in 2020. But the general principle holds: the first week of the season featured weak offense, highlighted by a frighteningly low batting average (right around where it was for the first week of this season), and then it bounced back. In fact, the change in batting average from Week 1 to Week 4 in 2019 was almost exactly the same as it was in 2020; as you’d expect, BABIP fluctuated meaningfully in that window, too.
The case was somewhat similar in 2018:
We’ll spare you any further charts, but rest assured, some variation of this has happened in every season since 2012—the first week or two feature low numbers that bounce back fast. It’s not unusual for the league to struggle to get the ball in play at the start of the season before recovering quickly.
The 2020 situation is slightly unusual in that the swing from Week 1 to Week 4 was just so big, but it’s not that much bigger than what we saw last year, which had double-digit swings for both average and BABIP.
But the context for it is new. The preparation for the season was completely different than usual. There are all sorts of playing conditions that have been tweaked. A July Opening Day removed the usual concerns about cold, which should have meant that offense might receive a slight boost early in the year, particularly when coupled with factors like the universal designated hitter and the rash of pitching injuries. Instead, we had... this.
So what was behind it? All of the theories from Lindbergh’s and Sarris’s stories last week still seem like they could have been in play for the first two weeks. There’s the fact that hitters went months without seeing live pitching during the hiatus and then had to get back in action quickly. There’s the fact that pitching management has looked different this year—with starters getting pulled early and deep bullpens that mean hitters might not have the chance to face most pitchers more than once or twice. There’s the fact that there are better situated infields with more shifts. (So far, 36% of pitches have been thrown in front of a shifted infield, compared to 26% last year.) There’s the fact that the baseball itself is variable. And there’s probably some level of randomness, too.
Whatever it was, hitters seem to have adjusted, as more balls in play are now ending up as hits. If pitchers started out ahead of hitters in 2020, for whatever reason, that seems to be evening out. There are plenty of unusual things about this season—just look around—but it doesn’t look like the league batting average will ultimately be one of them. For now.