Want to find a power hitter this offseason? Good luck.
Several longtime power hitters found in 2022 that blasts that customarily landed several rows into the stands instead expired well shy of the wall. The sight of barreled balls — particularly those hit to the opposite field — transforming from homers into outs created panic and confusion.
J.D. Martinez became a star by developing a swing plane geared to drive fastballs out to right-center while pulling breaking balls over the fence. But in 2022, fastballs he crushed to right were no longer producing familiar results.
“That stuff affects you mentally more than you know,” said Martinez, who cited a ball he blasted to right-center at Fenway in June with an exit velocity of 104 miles per hour against Tigers lefty Tarik Skubal. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, got him!’ It got caught at the warning track. I’m like, ‘How does that happen? This is unbelievable.’ I’m in [the cage] thinking, ‘OK, I’m missing a gear in my swing.’ I start tinkering. Then my next three at-bats go to [expletive].”
“I got killed on my oppo fly balls,” agreed Sox outfielder Tommy Pham. “I’m a guy that relied on my oppo juice. This year it just ain’t there. It’s killing me.”
Leaguewide, homers were down significantly. After a record 6,776 were hit in 2019, MLB’s homer total dropped by 12 percent in each of the last two years, with big leaguers going deep 5,215 times in 2022.
Players who blast 30 homers have become even scarcer, going from 58 in 2019 to just 30 this year. Middle-of-the-order power hitters such as Martinez and José Abreu saw their power numbers dwindle into the mid-teens.
Some players and teams believe that the power drop-offs couldn’t be foreseen because they weren’t entirely a product of eroding skill but instead of changing game conditions — specifically, the ball. Prior to the 2021 season, Major League Baseball — which owns a stake in Rawlings, the company that produces the baseballs MLB uses — altered the specifications to lower the ball’s coefficient of restitution, with the goal of making the ball less springy after the absurd 2019 power surge.
Because of what MLB described as supply-chain problems, it actually ended up using two balls in 2021: Leftover stock of the springier balls that were manufactured for 2020 and the deader balls manufactured for 2021. Hitters and teams were puzzled when balls hit almost identically yielded two very different outcomes.
In early 2022, the inconsistency faded, yielding to a more straightforward decline in power, viewed by some as the product of both the deader ball and the use of humidors in all 30 parks.
Hitters became frustrated that barreled balls were dying well short of their expected distances. Not all such shots were affected equally, however.
Barreled balls (defined by MLB.com as balls hit 98-plus miles per hour at a launch angle that typically yields an extra-base hit) to the pull side saw a slight drop in the frequency with which they left the yard. In 2019, a pulled barrel resulted in a homer 74.3 percent of the time; in 2022, that was down to 65.7 percent.
But to center and the opposite field, the decline was profound. Barreled balls turned into homers with roughly 31 percent less frequency when hit to straightaway center, and with 29 percent less frequency when hit to the opposite field.
The approach at the foundation of many players’ success became a liability. In 2021, Martinez hit .714 with a 2.714 slugging mark and nine homers when barreling balls to right. In 2022, despite nearly identical exit velocities and launch angles, he hit .400, slugged 1.400, and had just three homers on such balls.
Those sorts of drastic and unforeseen power plummets wrought havoc on teams’ projections.
“If you’re sitting there and planning your club, you’re thinking, ‘Gee, the ball doesn’t travel like it used to, so how am I going to play this?’ “ said Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, citing Nick Castellanos, who went from 34 homers in 2021 to 13 in 2022, as a player whose numbers didn’t align with his quality of contact.
“We’re all getting whipsawed by this,” said another GM. “We’re all trying to figure this out. We’re not used to that. There was a long period where it felt pretty stable. Now it doesn’t feel stable. You’re always trying to evaluate players in the context of what’s going on. That’s become really [expletive] hard.”
Some evaluators downplayed the idea that a deader ball suppressed homers, feeling numbers normalized after weather-induced early-season drops. Others suspected that the ball changed at some point during the season to produce more homers.
“There’s no way we played with the same ball the entire year this year,” said one big league coach. “From the beginning of the year, there’s just no way it was the same ball.”
Could the power-hitting environment change in 2023? Players aren’t banking on that.
Multiple MLB officials said that neither the ball specifications nor the humidor regulations are going to change for 2023. Players aware of that stance are contemplating more pull-oriented approaches, especially given that the elimination of shifts will further reward balls hit to the pull side.
“Now, you’re pretty much encouraging just straight pull hitters. No one that goes the other way is getting rewarded,” said Martinez. “The only way you’re going to get rewarded is if you hit a low liner that’s a single. Who cares about that?”
CBA serves its purpose with rookies
For years, players fumed about the widespread MLB practice of service time manipulation, in which the call-ups of top prospects did not occur out of spring training but rather a few weeks into a season in an effort to delay the players’ free agency and/or arbitration eligibility. The AL Rookie of the Year voting offered a glimpse into the incentives and disincentives in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that might work against that practice.
The Mariners committed to 21-year-old Julio Rodriguez — who’d never played above Double A entering the year — as their Opening Day center fielder. He rewarded that commitment with a .284/.345/.509 line, 28 homers, and 25 steals.
Because Rodríguez finished in the top three in award voting after spending the entire season on Seattle’s big league roster, the Mariners earned an extra draft pick at the back of the first round. Moreover, the Mariners rendered the absence of the potential “loss” of a year of Rodríguez’s services irrelevant by signing him to a 12-year, $210 million extension.
Meanwhile, the Orioles’ Adley Rutschman, who likely would have cracked the Opening Day roster, instead debuted in late May after rehabbing from a shoulder injury. Still, the 24-year-old catcher was credited with a full year of big league service time for finishing in the top two in Rookie of the Year voting. As a result, he’s on track to reach free agency after the 2027 season, rather than the 2028 season.
For the Red Sox, the draft-pick incentive adds to the appeal of opening with Triston Casas in the Opening Day lineup.
NL Rookie of the Year winner Michael Harris II likewise skipped Triple A, reaching the big leagues after playing just 43 games in Double A to open the year.
This year marked the first time since 2006, when Detroit’s Justin Verlander and Florida’s Hanley Ramírez took top rookie honors, that the two winners of the award had reached the big leagues without any experience in Triple A.
Harris suggested that a life spent playing against top athletic talents across sports in travel ball tournaments ensured that he wasn’t star-struck upon his arrival in the big leagues.
“My whole life, I’ve been playing the top, top talent in the country, starting from when I was 7,” said Harris. “I feel like if you can play in Double A, you can play in the big leagues. It’s the same game.”
‘TIS THE SEASON
Red Sox free to shop elsewhere
Three-time Cy Young winner Justin Verlander and two-time Cy guy Jacob deGrom are free agents. So are 2022 All-Star Carlos Rodón and 2021 All-Star Chris Bassitt. But according to major league sources, the Red Sox — whose 4.53 ERA ranked 25th — appear unlikely to enter the bidding for any of the big four.
While the team is expected to be one of the biggest spenders this winter, the Sox are more likely to spread spending across several targets. With Verlander potentially targeting a salary north of $40 million a year and deGrom potentially seeking more than $30 million per year, the Sox are likely looking elsewhere for starters.
The Sox also seem more reluctant to pursue players who rejected the one-year, $19.65 million qualifying offer from their 2022 clubs than they were a year ago, when they gave up a second-round pick to sign Trevor Story.
However, the team had two extra picks (one for losing Eduardo Rodriguez in free agency, another after being unable to sign their 2021 second-rounder) in the first two rounds. Moreover, because the team stayed under the 2021 luxury tax threshold of $210 million, the penalty for signing a player who’d received a qualifying offer was the loss of a second-rounder and $500,000 in the team’s international amateur bonus pool.
In 2023, the Sox will only have one second-rounder, making the loss of that pick more consequential. And because they spent past last year’s $230 million luxury tax threshold, the Sox will get only a fourth-rounder if Xander Bogaerts or Nate Eovaldi sign elsewhere. Further, the penalty for signing a player who received a qualifying offer would be two picks (a second- and fifth-rounder) and the loss of $1 million in the team’s international amateur bonus pool.
The Sox haven’t ruled out signing a player who received the qualifying offer, but their approach to such players has been reserved thus far.
Other thoughts on the offseason:
▪ Much as has been the case with Bogaerts, multiple industry sources believe that the Sox’ top pitching priority is to re-sign a familiar, longtime contributor: Eovaldi. The Sox continue to pursue a multiyear deal with the righthander.
▪ For the second straight offseason, the Red Sox also joined a crowded field showing interest in lefthander Andrew Heaney, who posted a ridiculous 35.5 percent strikeout rate last season with the Dodgers. Heaney, however, was limited to 72⅔ innings and also permitted a concerning 1.7 homers per nine innings.
▪ Corey Kluber, who lives in Winchester, discussed deals with the Red Sox the past two offseasons and has had some contact with the team this winter.
“I think they’re well aware of how I feel [about pitching close to home],” said Kluber.
▪ At the Pedro Martinez Foundation gala, Brewers shortstop Willy Adames expressed befuddlement at the Sox’ inability to date to bring back Bogaerts.
“I don’t know why they haven’t signed him yet,” said Adames. “He fits this city great.”
Padres star slugger Juan Soto, meanwhile, offered a recruiting pitch.
“At the end of the day, he’s going to make the right choice,” said Soto. “I hope he makes the right decision on the West Coast [and signs] with S.D.”
▪ Early signings — including the Mets’ five-year, $102 million deal to bring back Edwin Diaz; the five-year, $46 million deal for Robert Suarez to return to the Padres; the Astros’ re-signing of Rafael Montero to a three-year, $34.5 million deal; and the Angels’ three years and $39 million for Tyler Anderson — all suggest a great environment for players.
“There are 27 teams trying to win and a few of them don’t seem to have any spending limits,” noted one evaluator.
▪ With a thin free agent hitting market behind Aaron Judge and Brandon Nimmo, both almost certain to land nine-figure deals, the Diamondbacks are poised to serve as an offseason trade hub. Their move to land righthanded-hitting outfielder Kyle Lewis from the Mariners better positions Arizona to deal from their lefthanded outfield surplus that features Alek Thomas, Daulton Varsho, and Jake McCarthy.
▪ The Red Sox need to add to their outfield and, in a thin market, the addition of 2019 MVP Cody Bellinger — who was non-tendered by the Dodgers after hitting .210/.265/.389 with 19 homers last year — creates considerable intrigue. Yet it’s hard to see Bellinger as a great fit in Boston given how difficult it is for lefties to hit for pull power at Fenway. MLB.com lists players’ Expected Home Runs by Park, a projection made by overlaying a hitter’s spray chart on each park’s dimensions, wall heights, and weather. The site projected that Bellinger would have hit just nine homers if he’d played all of his games last year at Fenway, his fewest in any park.
▪ While Matt Strahm discussed his desire to seek out an opportunity to start on the free agent market during his season with the Red Sox, according to a major league source, the lefthander has solely discussed bullpen opportunities thus far this offseason.
Venable will have to manage many roles
When former Red Sox bench coach Will Venable was hired by the Rangers to serve as manager Bruce Bochy’s associate manager, the most common reaction was, “What on earth is an associate manager?” But the Rangers have started to rethink coaching roles and titles. Last year, for instance, they didn’t have a traditional bench coach, instead hiring Donnie Ecker as a “bench coach/hitting coordinator” who worked with hitting coach Tim Hyers.
As for Venable’s role?
“Will’s responsibilities will be more extensive than a traditional bench coach,” Rangers GM Chris Young relayed through a Rangers spokesperson. “He is going to have a very active role in not only supporting Bruce Bochy, but also the entire staff. It will entail coordinating schedules, fundamentals, advance meetings, communication between departments, liaison with R&D, medical, strength, and of course, in-game responsibilities.”
Red Sox pitchers could be forgiven for popping bottles Wednesday with news that outfielder Teoscar Hernández had been traded by the Blue Jays to the Mariners. In six years with the Blue Jays, Hernández had 22 homers against the Sox, most by any player since the start of the 2017 season, while posting a .312/.367/.632 line in 71 games. Aaron Judge’s 21 homers against the Sox are second most since 2017 . . . Sox lefthander Darwinzon Hernandez has switched agencies; he’s now represented by Octagon. Hernandez looked like a potential late-innings monster while posting a 38.8 percent strikeout rate as a rookie in 2019, but his health and performance have trended in the wrong direction since then. The 2023 season is likely a make-or-break year for his future in Boston . . . Happy 47th birthdays to J.D. Drew (Nov. 20) and David Ortiz (Nov. 18). Ortiz was not the only three-time Red Sox champion born in mid-November: Everett Scott (Nov. 19) — the Red Sox’ cornerstone shortstop of three championship teams in the 1910s — was born 130 years ago.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.