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New Year, new ball?

After years of ball fluctuation, what will the new year bring?

2019 World Series Game 7 - Washington Nationals v. Houston Astros Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

I’m usually pretty torn on New Year’s Resolutions. For one thing that’s good about them, it’s a good way of setting an intention. Intentions are really good, especially when your heart is in the right place, but those can give way to feelings of failure or guilt if that intention becomes something more like an obsession or fixation.

Really, setting an intention is about getting your brain thinking about ways you can improve as a person, and if it fails, you’re still a person that can wake up the next day and decide to think the same thing. It’s the first step, but it’s a step, and it’s why I tend to assign myself a resolution in a cautiously optimistic way.

The good thing about saying you’ll run more often, or read those books or magazines stacked on the shelf, is that ultimately the consequences are pretty light. The New Yorker pile or your reading list isn’t going to manifest itself as a monster and kill you; the only bad thing about is the slight side-eye you give it from the couch.

Corporations, though as they’d like to define themselves as such, are definitely not people. When they set intentions for a new year the idea is there is a mandate attached to it, usually centered around money and profit. While some see that as incentive, the downside is that the failure to meet that obligation means that jobs are lost and lives are hurt.

The difference I suppose with a monopoly like Major League Baseball is that as long as the money keeps flowing, and record revenues seem to suggest just that, then jobs are not lost despite the product actually weakening. Shawn Brody summed that up pretty nicely in his latest piece by showing that a captive market of upper-middle-class to upper class patrons in smaller numbers is actually more profitable then creating widespread appeal if that smaller population spends more per ticket.

That’s not great when you look at things like tanking or competitive balance, but my focus right now is really the ball. A lot of blood and ink has been spilled about the ball in our time but mostly in a former one, one where a new era in baseball was created—literally called the live-ball era—to fix offense in the sport by changing a simple rule: balls are discarded at the first sign of wear.

That instantly solved a problem that basically made baseball from the 1880s until that time impossible to predict, and that was the constant defacing of the ball throughout the game. Lumps and grooves in the ball could be ruthlessly exploited by pitchers for movement, and batters had basically no good way to either predict that (because they couldn’t necessarily feel it out themselves) and it harmed their ability to generate consistent contact with good backspin.

Essentially, the battle over the ball today is about the same thing. Rob Arthur’s most recent research on the subject found that it wasn’t necessarily that the ball was juiced—I mean, certainly home runs are up anyway in general—but the playoff ball in particular was more inconsistent than batches of balls that preceded them. The result was a ball that essentially fluctuated 2.5 percentage points of HR/FB rate every single game.

That’s not great! Think about that for a second. In 2014, for example, the top HR/FB% was courtesy of José Abreu at 26.9%. In 2019 it belonged to Christian Yelich, at a whopping 32.8%. Part of that is launch angle, for sure, but that’s basically players already leaning into the already-inflated HR/FB% rates. In 2016, for another example, before this was well-known, the top rate was something closer to 29%, which means that this is the difference between Abreu hitting 36 home runs in 2014, or hitting 40 home runs in the imagined year with a juiced ball.

The other factor is that if the ball is inconsistent and players don’t actually know whether it’s juiced or not, they may bail on the launch angle strategy entirely, basically de facto lowering home run rates to 2014-ish levels.

The unpredictability bleeds into player evaluation and roster construction, too. If you’re the Reds and you bank on Shigo Akiyama having a rebound year in terms of power with the juiced ball, those plans could be foiled by the ball itself.

The ball under-girds basically every baseball conversation we have, thus the name. This standard of having a consistent ball is the one thing that has tied the sport together for exactly a century now, and if that is undermined, we may find ourselves in maybe not the dead ball era, but the unpredictable ball era, whose results by its own nature will be hard to expect, and based on what we saw in the playoffs, only sets fans up for a series of “what if’s” instead of enjoying the game itself. While Rob Manfred says he is “prepared to live with that variability,” I can’t say his customers agree.