Sometime during the 2015 MLB season, something changed. All of a sudden, baseballs started to leave the park at a higher rate than ever before and no one could explain why.
This trend has persisted. In the 2016 season, 5,610 home runs were hit, the most since the record-setting 2000 season, when 5,693 balls cleared the fence. Last season, that record was shattered by a considerable margin, with 6,105 homers in the season.
Back in 2000, no one could explain the surge of long balls. Now, however, we have a simple—if saddening—explanation. It was the peak of the steroid era and performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) were to blame.
But before the widespread use of steroids was exposed, a fascinating theory emerged attempting to explain the inexplicable rise in home runs: that the MLB had changed the composition of the baseball itself, creating a “juiced” ball that sails farther than balls in the past.
In hindsight, we know it was the players, not the baseballs, that were juiced. But perhaps that theory was just ahead of its time. There’s considerable evidence to show that the baseball has, in fact, changed since the 2015 All-Star Break.
If this sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, I don’t blame you. Sure, eight home runs were clobbered in a single game of the World Series last year, a game in which Houston starter Dallas Keuchel insisted the balls were juiced, but that could always be attributed to stronger batters or an emphasis on hitting flyballs. Let me try to change your mind.
In March, FiveThirtyEight published an extensive look at the interior of the baseballs in play now versus ones from just five years ago. They found that the rubber cores had significantly changed: the “new” baseballs had a consistently less dense core. This means that they bounce higher, fly off the bat at a greater velocity and experience less air resistance.
Even if the interior of the baseballs remains unchanged, pitchers across the league have recently observed the balls are noticeably “slicker,” making some pitches tougher to throw, giving hitters flatter pitches to swing at.
The FiveThirtyEight study, along with the widespread comments by professional baseball players who have been around baseballs their entire lives, showed that the juiced ball is not just a wild theory—it’s likely very real.
And it makes a lot of sense. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, despite repeatedly denying the juiced ball claims, seems obsessed with tweaking the game to appeal to a larger casual audience. What gets the casual baseball fan more excited than a good ole’ fashioned home run?
So if the baseball is changed, has baseball changed with it? Do we need to put an asterisk next to Aaron Judge’s rookie home run record last season? Is Giancarlo Stanton not the all-time slugger we think he is? Should Clayton Kershaw’s dominance be appreciated even more?
First and foremost, Manfred and Co. have to come clean. It seems all but a definite that the ball has changed and continuing to deny it is not only incredibly dishonest, but also will lead to further complaints from players.
The much tougher question is this: is the juiced ball good for the sport? It would certainly require a refocusing of how we view modern sluggers in comparison to hitters using the old baseballs, but perhaps the increase in homers is a positive change for everyone (besides pitchers’ ERAs).
Call me a purist, but I’m not so sure if juiced balls have done more good than bad. Baseball continues to trend in the direction of the “three true outcomes” monotony of walk, strikeout, and home run. Home runs are great and all, but the real beauty and excitement of baseball comes from small ball: getting a single to lead off the inning, stealing second, bunting him to third, and scoring on an RBI double. It’s rallies like this which prove a team’s offensive chemistry, not just crushing the ball over the fence with one swing.
It also diminishes the thrill of the home run in the first place. By the time the ball sailed into the seats at Dodger Stadium for the eighth time, it just felt tiresome. The juiced ball devalues the home run to the point of it being mundane.
There are better ways to encourage offense. I wrote last year that restricting the shift—and this was before we had even seen a four-man outfield—would be an interesting place to start.
At the very least, Major League Baseball needs to be transparent. If we’re watching the beginning—or the end—of the juiced ball era, we deserve to know. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy Stanton, Sanchez and Judge adding to this year’s home run total.
Andrew Morrison is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets at @asmor24