There are currently so many excellent narrative arcs coursing through the MLB postseason, from the Yankees and Astros’ rematch, to the Nationals finally making it past the divisional series (and now just one game from the Fall Classic), one would think that that would be enough to occupy our minds. Yet there is, instead, a scandal gripping the sport, and it once again puts the baseball itself under the microscope.
As has been known since the 2015 All Star Game, the ball has definitively changed. From then until just two weeks ago, the sport has seen a home run frenzy never seen in its history, making the dead ball-to-live ball era jump look merely pedestrian. Home run output was just 61% of this year in 2014, and run scoring has followed in its own way; runs have increased across the league by about 4000 runs, good for about 0.82 more runs per team per game.
That all changed starting October 1st, and the implications are currently changing the very fabric of the sport overnight. The ball, in a word, has been dejuiced. Ben Lindbergh wrote an exhaustive report of the scandal as of three days ago, highlighting the unbelievable work from Baseball Prospectus’ Rob Arthur, who showed in once-again-definitive-fashion that this was no fluke with the change in the ball. Seemingly overnight, the drag coefficient, essentially the air resistance against the ball, had changed so much that even after controlling for all of the usual variables like weather, park, and atmospheric factors, it would be a one-in-one-million chance that this batch was selected randomly.
The result, at least before the LCS, meant that there was a 50% difference in expected home run output, meaning about 24 fell just shy of the fence. For the Dodgers, they’re probably shaking their heads that the tables had turned against them at the last moment. In Sunday night’s thriller between the Yankees and Astros, two of the best offensive clubs in the league, the change in the ball was apparent.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, Tommy Kahnle was in the middle of cruising through his spotless performance, at a time when the leverage was still a solid 0.99, and Carlos Correa hit a fly ball to dead center, flying out to the warning track. Statcast had this ball as an expected batting average of .900.
Considering George Springer’s game-tying shot was worth about .15 WPA, you could expect the same here; this could have preserved a similar result while saving both bullpens, which would certainly change the tenor the series. There were similarly other balls, like a fly ball by Aaron Judge and a deep fly to center by Gio Urshela, that seemingly died on the track, still getting a small reaction out of Justin Verlander despite going a shorter distance than expected.
In Game One, there were similar shenanigans. Springer hit a ball off of Adam Ottavino that had an xBA of .870, and “only” went 392 feet. Judge had a similar flyout against Zack Greinke, hitting the ball “only” 382, with an xBA of .740.
Just by using back-of-the-napkin probability math, the odds of having three independent events of .900, .870, and .740 turn out no hits is 0.00338, so nearly impossible. Arthur agreed with Mitchel Lichtman that this is affecting the run environment by, on average, about 1.5 runs per game, in line with our original number of an increase of .82 per team per game from the non-juiced ball to the juiced ball.
Teams have taken note of this, and the Cardinals’ front office openly said they calculated that it costs fly balls about four-and-a-half feet. The league, on the other hand, has gone into full-scale denial mode, claiming that the balls are “pulled from the same batches as balls used in the regular season.”
Conspiracy theories have had a profound impact on post-9/11 society, and really just the neoliberal order. As our institutions have failed to improve our daily lives, and fail to provide accountability for wrongdoing, it is more easily convenient to believe simple narratives instead of the cold reality that our institutions are either just wholly incompetent, or are misaligned with our material interests.
Juiced ball trutherism isn’t on the same plane as QAnon or Epstein Brain, but when explanations from the same league that owns the ball manufacturing company fail to comply with basic physics and probability, you begin to wonder what lurks around the corner. As Adam Curtis wisely put it in his landmark documentary Hypernormalisation, we enter what is considered “hyper-real”: we know that this is not a simulation and that is reality, but something feels off about in a way that feels uneasy or unsettling, in a way you know things are off but can’t explain how. It’s our permanent state in our economic and political life, so naturally it’s our permanent state in baseball, too.
This makes decisions in the macro-sense, for teams, pretty hyper-real. We know there will be a ball in spring training, but what will it look like? Does the ball get juiced again; is there some other affect like pitcher blisters, or do we get the postseason ball again? Do teams plan for the current ball or the previous one? Do teams just get an excuse to wait altogether until they find out? Whatever the outcome, the skills that the league inherently values changes, and suddenly someone like, say, Franmil Reyes looks even more unfavorable when the power is hampered.
Whether it’s in-game decision making or transactions, the over-one-hundred-year precedent for consistent rules have been flipped overnight. When the rules changed the first time, the league was run by Kennesaw Mountain Landis and it made gambling and the undermining of the legitimacy of the sport, with all of the parochial nonsense that comes along with that, embedded in the sport. When steroids changed the run environment, a litany of players, coaches, and trainers were caught in the crossfire. Yet when there is the largest year-over-year home run increase since 1920, and then an immediate evaporation, the hyper-reality in 2019 means that we have to accept that’s it wrong, and come to accept and ignore its wrongness.