Welcome to the 2022 Fantasy Baseball Trends: Hits Are Down but Home Runs Are Up!
In this final version of the 2022 Fantasy Baseball Trends column, we will look at a very strange trend that has emerged in major league baseball over the last 10 years. Going back decades, home run rate has tracked with and correlated to hits per game by a team. The more hits per game a team has, the more home runs they hit, and vice verse.
But lately, that trend has shifted in the opposite direction and home runs are going up while hits per game are plummeting. It could be caused by a number of factors: increased strikeouts, focus on three true outcomes by hitters, or smaller ballparks. One thing is for sure, however. If this trend continues, we are going to have to rethink what our baselines are for batting average home runs for our fantasy players.
How does this shift affect our fantasy baseball planning for 2023? Let's dig into the data and find out.
2022 Fantasy Baseball Trends: Hits Are Down but Home Runs Are Up
After the 1968 Major League Baseball season, the league knew that something had to be done to level the playing field between pitchers and hitters. In that season, teams scored an average of 3.42 runs per game, the lowest in baseball since 1908. And 1968 is the only year since 1909 that team hits per game fell to below eight per contest. The average slugging percentage that year was a meager .340, which is still the lowest in modern baseball history.
Major League Baseball lowered the mound 10 inches, shrank the strike zone to the size we know today, and gave some advantages back to the hitter. It was a problem of equity and the league management knew how to solve it. I wonder what the league management are saying today now that strikeouts per game are higher than ever, team hits per game are reaching pre-1968 levels, but home runs are being hit at the highest rate in baseball history.
Hitter Power vs. Pitcher Power
It's true that home runs and hits for each major league baseball team have been moving in opposite directions in recent years. From Baseball-Reference, here are the average team hits per game compared to the average team home runs per game from 1950-2022.
You can see that throughout history, home runs hit largely followed the overall hit trend. No matter whether it was the power boom of the late 90's and early 2000's or the pitching-dominant years of the late 1960's, home runs stayed at about a rate of 0.8 to 1.0 hit per team per game. Even in 1968, that number was still 0.62 per game.
But about 10 years ago that began to shift. Even as we have shifted back and forth between dead balls, rabbit balls, corked balls, and every other type of baseball you can conjure, the trends are striking. Hits are plummeting while homers are soaring.
Unsurprisingly, strikeouts are also coming in at unprecedented rates. The past five years have produced the five-highest team strikeout rates in Major League history (2022 is fifth-highest, 8.36 K's per game per team). If ever there were a way to point to the fact that players are simply home run hunting, it is this fact. Players are striking out AND hitting home runs more than at any point in baseball history.
In 2022, for example, this is most clear when you compare all seasons since 1950. We are on the verge of completing the 73rd season since that year. The 2022 season ranks 12th in home run rate among those 73 years (1.07 per team game), but it ranks just 36th in slugging percentage.
What Does This Mean for Our Fantasy Teams?
There is not much we can do to prep or modify our 2022 fantasy baseball teams as most league playoffs are under way. The bed we made throughout the regular season is the one we are sleeping in now. But where this can help us in 2023 and beyond is in managing expectations to this new normal.
For example, as the strikeout rate inches closer and closer to an average of 9.0 punchouts per team per game (8.36 in 2022, 8.68 in 2021), the strikeout who gets you a strikeout per inning is now just league-average. This season, there are 36 starting pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched who have at least 9.0 strikeouts per nine innings. That means each team in a 12-team league can have three. They're no longer special. Of those 36 pitchers, 17 have at least 10 K's per nine innings.
On the hitting side. there are now 45 players who have at least 20 home runs. And we have almost four weeks of games left. There are already 10 players with at least 20 dingers.
I cite these examples to show that these strikeout and home runs numbers are not aspirational numbers in 2023. They are now the new baseline. It's the players who can give you a second or third dominant category beyond buckets of homers and strikeouts that should stand out in 2023.
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