The 2022 MLB Season: Quiet Bats, Suspicious Baseballs, and Resurgent Teams on the Rise

MLB season 2022: Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout looks to the scoreboard while walking back to the dugout holding his bat, with a blurry crowd in the background.
Mike TroutNam Y Huh/AP / Shutterstock

You can’t draw many conclusions from a month of Major League Baseball, and it stands to reason that the first month of the 2022 season would tell us even less than usual. Spring training started late (team owners locked out the league’s players before the two sides finally reached a new collective bargaining deal), and the condensed run-up to the season has probably made things even more turbulent than usual in April and early May. We’re still early in the 2022 MLB season, even as Sunday marked exactly one month since Opening Day on April 8.

The roughly 15 percent of the season that has already been played still counts, though. In that span of time, a few teams have drastically changed their postseason outlooks, and it has also revealed a deeper question: Why are hitters across the league so unproductive? Below are three key storylines that stand out in the beginning of the 2022 MLB season.

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1. The Angels might actually do something with the two greatest players in the game.

By this point, you know the drill. Mike Trout produces at an MVP level every year. The Angels spend a lot of money to surround him with a roster that should be good. A new addition in recent times: Shohei Ohtani does a convincing Babe Ruth impression, giving Los Angeles the sport’s first true two-way superstar in several generations. And none of it matters, because the rest of the roster turns out to have more holes than a poorly paved Southern California road.

Trout has produced at an inner-circle Hall of Fame caliber since not long after he arrived in 2011, and in that time, the Angels have made the playoffs exactly once—swept in the divisional series by the Royals in 2014. This is the best running joke in baseball, and it’s funny because it is, uh, barely a joke:

You know what, though? I think the Angels will play October baseball this year, and it’s only partly because the postseason now features 12 teams. The Angels were 19–11 through play on Sunday, and their FanGraphs playoff odds have gone from 25.6 percent on Opening Day to 69.9 percent. Staying a few games better than .500 the rest of the season would probably do it. Plus, looking deeper, there are more reasons to feel pretty good about the LAA.

First, Trout is in fine form. An injury robbed him of a typical 2021 season, but he’s tearing the cover off the ball so far this season. His batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage is a torrid .307/.440/.625, and even some standard regression to the mean should still have Trout as one of the best players in the world, because that’s who he is. His 1.7 FanGraphs wins above replacement put him fifth in MLB. He tends to finish higher, not lower.

Better yet, some reinforcements are probably coming. So far, the only other Angel to make much noise with the bat is journeyman outfielder Taylor Ward, who’s come out of nowhere to produce 1.9 WAR, even better than Trout, with a .675 slugging percentage. Ohtani has essentially been a league-average hitter so far, rather than the stud you’d expect him to be. (He has pitched well, especially lately, and has a 3.08 ERA.) Third baseman Anthony Rendon has been fine but hasn’t hit for anything like his usual power. The Angels are in a good position and still have a lot of room to grow. They’d better, because it’s a crime against baseball to keep wasting Trout and Ohtani.

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2. The Padres look good again, and I am ready to get hurt one more time.

San Diego was the darling of the early MLB season in 2021. On May 29 last year, the Padres were 34–19 and had a 1.5-game lead on the Dodgers in the National League West. While they ascended, I wrote that they were an example other smaller-market MLB teams could follow: They spent big money on free agents like Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer. They developed great young players on their own, then gave them contract extensions, like the one for shortstop and franchise cornerstone Fernando Tatís Jr. They played with a boisterous personality. Mostly on the fly, they cobbled together what appeared to be a solid pitching staff.

Things fell apart after that. The Padres finished 79–83 and well out of the postseason picture. Their offense fell off a cliff in the last two months of the season. The pitching staff posted a combined 3.58 ERA in the first half of the season and 4.66 in the back half. The entire roster seemed to run out of steam right around the same time, and a great season imploded.

This year, the Padres started 19–10. Hosmer, the first baseman whose contract has looked like an albatross in recent years, is now rejuvenated. Machado has been the most valuable hitter in the league so far by WAR, at 2.8. Pitcher MacKenzie Gore, a 23-year-old longtime top prospect, has a 1.71 ERA and is striking out more than a batter per inning.

And, like the Angels, more cavalry should be on the way. Tatís probably won’t play until some time in June or July after undergoing wrist surgery in the spring. A reasonable plan would’ve been for the Padres to keep their heads above water until his return. So far, they’re doing a lot more than that. Their playoff odds are a convincing 84.4 percent, and I’m optimistic that we’ll get to see Machado, Tatís, and company playing important games deep into the fall.

3. Offense is pitiful league-wide, and there’s reason to be suspicious.

Teams are scoring an average of 4.04 runs per game. If that continues for the full season, it would mark the lowest offensive output across Major League Baseball since 1976.

Batters have finally put a stop to an astonishingly consistent trend of striking out more every year—an uninterrupted upward line that spanned from 2005 to 2019 and barely ticked down in 2020 and ‘21. But home runs are down to 0.91 per team per game, the lowest number since 1993. The kicker is the league-wide batting average, which sits at .232. In no season in MLB history has it finished lower than .237.

It’s fair to wonder if everything is entirely on the level, or if the league has made fundamental changes to the baseball without telling the public or the players. A lot of players think the league is quietly using two different sets of balls. That would be easier to dismiss out of hand if MLB hadn’t done exactly the same thing in 2021.

I don’t really care what kind of ball MLB puts into play. But it would be good to know what’s going on, and it would also be good if the best batters in the world could actually get a hit.

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