As Joe Girardi took stock Wednesday night of another Phillies loss — No. 14 in 25 games so far this season — the manager said the quiet part out loud.
“We all know the ball’s changed a little bit,” he said. “We know that. The ball’s not carrying the same as it did at times last year.”
OK, let’s talk facts.
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Fact: In February, each team received a memo from MLB that detailed modifications to the official Rawlings baseball. According to reporting at the time from the Associated Press and The Athletic, three wool windings within the balls were loosened, essentially to make them less bouncy. The idea was to slightly deaden the balls after a surge in home runs that peaked in 2019. Citing an independent lab, MLB estimated the new balls would fly 1 to 2 feet shorter on drives of over 375 feet.
(MLB also divulged that more teams would keep the balls in a humidor. By opening day, all 30 ballparks had a humidor for storage.)
Fact: In April, teams averaged 4.03 runs per game, a decrease of 0.26 runs per team per game since last season. The league-wide batting average was almost identical to last year — .231 compared to .232 in 2021. But home runs were way down, from 1.14 homers per team per game last year to 0.91. Based on ESPN research, it marked the first time since 2015 that teams averaged less than one homer per game for the first month of a season.
Fact: The Phillies in April were actually better than league average in most offensive categories, including batting average (.244), runs per game (4.54), and homers per game (0.95). But the latter was down from last year, when they averaged one homer per game in April despite not having a designated hitter — or Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber, for that matter — in the lineup.
So, yes, there’s evidence beyond the Phillies’ frustration from Wednesday night’s 2-1, 10-inning loss to the Texas Rangers that balls aren’t carrying as they once did. Maybe it’s the cool spring air, as Rhys Hoskins suggested after his bid for a walkoff homer — 105.1 mph off the bat, 27-degree launch angle, ideal home-run metrics — landed in Texas center fielder Adolis García’s glove on the warning track in the ninth inning. Or maybe it really is the ball.
Either way, if the league-wide trend continues, a larger question will need to be asked as it pertains to the Phillies: Did they pick the wrong year to go all-in on offense and build a roster for which success is predicated on outslugging everyone and everything?
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Put a pin in that. Let’s come back to it in another few weeks, when there’s even more data.
Hoskins’ long drive, which had an expected batting average of .930, was the Phillies’ most glaring example of a surefire homer that didn’t leave the park. There have been others. Girardi thought Didi Gregorius’ seventh-inning fly to right-center field — 100.9 mph off the bat, 35-degree launch angle — also had a chance. But everything about Hoskins’ shot, in particular, screamed home run.
“It sounded really good,” Castellanos said. “It’s hard for me to say [if the ball isn’t carrying] because I’ve only played here a handful of games. But I do know when a ball sounds like it’s clicked and when it’s not, and it sounded good. But it came up short.”
Asked if he thought the ball would have been out of Citizens Bank Park on, say, a humid night in June or July, Hoskins said, “I would hope. I don’t know.”
“It’s hard to say really anything about the baseballs,” Hoskins added. “Everyone’s playing with the same balls. We’ve just got to do what we can to try to continue to have good at-bats and hit the barrel of the bat as many times as we can throughout the game.”
One way to mitigate a potentially homer-depressed environment is to be less dependent on the long ball for offense. To the Phillies’ credit, only 32.4% of their runs through Wednesday came via homers. The league average in April was 36%, down from 43.5% in April 2019.
There’s no question, though, that the Phillies are powered by their power. They ranked second in the National League in slugging (.403), third in OPS (.718), fourth in homers (26), and fifth in runs (111) entering Thursday night’s series opener against the division-leading New York Mets. But they also scored less than two runs in 28% of their games, likely because they were eighth in the NL in on-base percentage (.314) and 11th in walks (79).
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Maybe it’s a product of how the offense was built.
The Phillies can match anyone’s middle-of-the-order boppers, with Bryce Harper, Castellanos, Schwarber, Hoskins, and JT Realmuto. But they lack an obvious leadoff hitter, a problem since at least César Hernández and probably Jimmy Rollins. Girardi has cycled through five leadoff men, and Schwarber, Realmuto, Jean Segura, Odubel Herrera, and Alec Bohm have combined to bat .143 with a .202 on-base percentage from atop the order.
“I think if you talk to us as a group we feel like our process is pretty good,” Hoskins said. “I know that our work in the cage and our work during [batting practice] is where it needs to be. Sometimes the game can be cruel.”
Never more than it is right now, especially for power hitters.
“Hitting’s a difficult thing today,” Girardi said. “And it’s always been difficult, but it’s really difficult and we have some guys going through tough times. But it’s the same for every team, right? So you’ve got to find ways to win games.”