The ball is juiced.
Evidence has reached a point where any holdouts just seem foolish. Baseball Prospectus’ Rob Arthur noticed the difference very early in the season. Run scoring is up nearly half a run per game from last year, matching the frenetic level of 2017. Home runs are flying out of ballparks at a record pace, even though April is usually a bad month for dingers!
MLB actually acknowledged the difference in the baseball before the 2018 season. That year, scoring went back down a little. Now, it’s way up again.
There could be other explanations for the power surge, though. The Athletic’s Eno Sarris posits that batters are getting better at making hard contact, while also acknowledging that the ball is different, too.
Then there’s anecdotal evidence. As reported by Mike Puma of the New York Post, Noah Syndergaard claims, “You felt those baseballs, they felt like ice cubes.” Even to the untrained eye, this year’s ball looks visibly different than last year’s:
Clear seam difference pic.twitter.com/SqkMQ65Auy— Wheelz Up! (Eric Abneri) (@thefrownyface) April 28, 2019
Clearly, the question is not whether the ball is juiced. It is.
We’re unlikely to get an admission from commissioner Rob Manfred or anyone official at MLB. That’s okay, we don’t really need one. The evidence speaks for itself. However, this begets many more questions.
1. Who juiced the ball?
Unless you believe this is an accident of the manufacturing process, someone gave the order for a different baseball. Was it Manfred himself? Does the commissioner involve himself in such matters? Maybe it was one of his lieutenants— a veritable stable of mostly anonymous white dudes. Maybe the order came from the R&D department. In any case, Manfred is ultimately responsible for the actions of those underneath him.
Perhaps the manufacturer made the call. Rawlings could have some executive who decided to enliven the ball for whatever reason. In fact, it doesn’t have to be an executive. Whoever manages the plant in Costa Rica could theoretically put their thumb on the scale, as long as the quality control folks are in on the fix (assuming they have quality control).
Even if Rawlings is to blame... it’s still MLB’s fault! In June of last year, MLB and partners purchased Rawlings for $395 million. It looks like it all comes back to Manfred in the end, wittingly or otherwise.
2. Why is the ball juiced?
It’s worth pointing out that there’s nothing inherently sinister about juicing the ball. More home runs, less home runs, it’s all subjective. Some folks are happier with a more lively baseball, like Tommy La Stella. Others, such as Noah Syndergaard the rest of the pitchers, are less than pleased. There’s no way to appease everyone.
If such a profound change is not an accident, there has to be a reason. (Could something as important as changing the structure of the baseball be an accident?) Does MLB have internal data that informs how the ball should be manufactured? If so, who conducted that research? What are they trying to accomplish? Apart from more runs scored, obviously, what is the intent of juicing the ball?
Really, there’s no good reason why MLB can’t release a statement saying, “Yes, the ball is more lively this year. We specifically commissioned the baseball with this intent for (x) reason.” That would be fine! It’s their prerogative to use whatever kind of baseballs they want. The needless cloak-and-dagger denial— or at least lack of acknowledgement— just makes MLB seem guilty, even if there has been no crime.
3. How is the ball juiced?
There are three fundamental ways to change the baseball in the manufacturing process. One is by altering the seams. Each baseball has 108 bright red stitches, and pitchers rely on these seams for grip and movement. Even a fraction of a millimeter can have a big impact on a pitcher’s ability to generate spin, and probably command as well. If the seams are lower, the pitches won’t break as dramatically, making them easier to hit.
Another way would be to lessen drag. Rob Arthur explores the aerodynamics of the baseball in his article linked at the top of this page. Naturally, a more aerodynamic ball will fly further when struck with similar force. Seam height has a lot to do with drag, as pointed out by The Athletic’s Dr. Meredith Wills, but the surface of the rawhide also creates friction. (CORRECTION: The subject of the linked article is lace thickness, which impacts the ball differently than seam height. Dr. Wills was kind enough to provide a correction, shown below.) The sheen is taken off every baseball with Lena Blackburn Rubbing Mud, but MLB is experimenting with mud-free baseballs. This confirms that they are at least researching baseball aerodynamics.
Altering the outside of the ball impacts seam height and drag, but the ball’s density is also a major factor. When the ball was juiced in 2017, Tim Dix and Rob Arthur, then at FiveThirtyEight.com, took CT scans of baseballs from different seasons. The differences were apparent even to a layperson. Perhaps it’s time to conduct a scan of the 2019 baseballs as well.
4. How much do baseballs vary?
We often take for granted the consistency of the baseball. It appears there are clear year-to-year differences, but what about month-to-month, game-to-game, or pitch-to-pitch? In the picture above, two game-used MLB baseballs are visibly different. Is this normal, or could it be an aberration? If a pitcher throws a ball that is fouled off, is the next baseball structurally consistent with the prior one?
By comparison, hitters receive bats in batches that are manufactured with extreme precision, then reject about half of them. Are pitchers afforded the same level of consistency with the ball?
For that matter, how many of the 2019 MLB baseballs have been produced already? Surely, not all of them. If MLB wanted to lessen the home run onslaught (or, conversely, fan the flames), how quickly could they make a change?
A conspiracy theory
Let’s assume for a moment that MLB is intentionally jacking up the offense. This isn’t necessarily true; Manfred and associates could have been caught by surprise. Regardless, if this is all on purpose, that seems contrary to their very public pace-of-play initiative.
More offense means longer baseball games. Every batter who reaches base safely adds one more batter to the total length of the game (double plays and TOOTBLANs notwithstanding).
Let’s compare runs per game...
...to game length.
Those charts look quite similar. If reducing the length of games matters to MLB as much as they claim, this offensive explosion can’t be good. Cranking up more home runs is antithetical to their stated mission.
Following our assumption of intentional baseball manipulation, something is amiss. How can MLB benefit from increasing game length, in spite of their outspoken desire for shorter games?
This is the part where Shaggy and Scooby rip off Manfed’s mask to reveal, uh, someone worse than Manfred. Negotiations with the MLBPA regarding pace-of-play bleed into larger economic issues. According to an Associated Press article from February 8:
“Management presented its latest proposal Jan. 14, one that included a requirement that pitchers face at least three batters or finish an inning. Players responded Feb. 1 with a broader plan, renewing their push for the D.H. in all games, an earlier trade deadline aimed at discouraging teams with losing records from trading stars, increasing service time for top young stars called up early in the season, and rewarding and penalizing teams in the draft based on their records.”
It appears pace-of-play and economics are closely connected, at least with regards to collective bargaining negotiations. We’ve already seen MLB go to extreme lengths to squeeze every possible dollar. It seems plausible that MLB could be increasing offense to make the pace-of-play “problem” worse, just for better negotiating leverage against the MLBPA.
...Wait, what?! No.
That idea is preposterously far-fetched. It’s reckless and irresponsible even to publish it. The problem is, MLB opens itself up for conspiracy theories because of its failure to address what we’re all watching. There are just so many (needlessly) unanswered questions about the baseball. If MLB wants to end speculation and ridiculous hypotheses such as this one, all they need to do is make a statement. Until then, we all have to make our own assumptions.
Interesting, tho the discussion of aerodynamics is a bit muddled. Lace thickness ≠ seam height; seam height relates to the fit of the leather covers, which always varies, since the leather is stretched.— Meredith Wills (@Bbl_Astrophyscs) May 3, 2019
(Thank you for referencing @No_Little_Plans and me, btw. ) https://t.co/kfhwHgYhff
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983