Sometime about five years ago, Major League Baseball changed its baseball. The very core of the sport, the most basic level of action, was drastically transformed and – MLB said nothing.
This change is all but confirmed at this point by every single stat in existence, just missing the actual acknowledgment from commissioner Robert Manfred. Though the exact cause remains in question, the baseball is believed to be more perfectly spherical than before, using smoother leather and lower seams. That means the ball travels further, bounces higher and is less affected by wind resistance, all directly leading to an increase in long balls.
This story is nothing new, so I’ll save the advanced metrics and speculation. In fact, I wrote a column about it way back in April 2018. My stance on the subject has not changed since then: I still believe juiced baseballs are not good for the game, but more importantly, that the MLB must be transparent in their adjustments, to the baseball or elsewhere. Just because the core of the baseball is hidden from the naked eye doesn’t mean the MLB can hide its internal decisions from the fans.
This season saw more home runs than ever before, a sign that the tweaks to the baseball arguably went too far. I don’t believe that this season’s balls were necessarily different from those of past seasons, but rather that hitters have adjusted. All major league batters nowadays are taught to use the optimal launch angle to hit the ball out of the park, and contact swings have all but disappeared in favor of swinging for the fences every time.
In an attempt to make the home run the centerpiece of the game, Major League Baseball has only succeeded in taking the spectacle and energy out of it. But again, this conversation has been ongoing for years. What’s new is what has transpired so far this postseason: MLB has ‘dejuiced’ the baseballs.
Home runs in the playoffs are way down, and not just in number, but in predictive stats. A series of articles, including from FanGraphs’ Jay Jaffe, detail these disturbing trends. Home runs are down 8% compared to the regular season, a seemingly minor drop, but it’s perhaps more interesting to look at the balls that aren’t going out than the ones that are.
In Game 4 of the NLDS, for example, Max Muncy crushed a ball with a launch velocity of 107.1 miles per hour and a launch angle of 31.9 degrees. In the regular season, that combination produces a home run 95% of the time. This time, it settled harmlessly in the center fielder’s glove.
Rob Arthur of Baseball Prospectus wrote a similarly enlightening article in which he showed that postseason baseballs are experiencing far more drag than in the regular season, suggesting that the ball has been returned to its original, less aerodynamic state. In the Divisional Round, based on stadium, launch angle and exit velocity, there should’ve been 67 home runs. There were 43.
Of course, there are other explanations as to why home runs may be down in October. Pitching gets better, the weather gets colder. However, even stats aside, there are qualitative causes for concern.
In Tuesday’s Game 3 of the ALCS alone, I can think of at least four balls—Didi’s hit to right in the fifth especially–that, off the bat, I was certain were going out, especially in the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium. In every case, the ball died on the warning track. I’m far from the only one who noticed the trend.
“There were a couple that were hit well that you kind of scratch your head at that you’d think would have left the ballpark maybe during the season,” Yankees reliever Chad Green said on Tuesday.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone, Twins’ catcher Mitch Garver and Cardinals’ manager Mike Shildt among others have all commented on the ball dying much earlier than in the regular season. In fact, there was enough discussion that Major League Baseball released an official statement last week denying the allegations that they had “switched back” to the old ball.
But no one is more familiar with how the baseball should behave than the players and managers on the field, and no one is better qualified to raise questions about the nature of the baseball.
After all, for the last five seasons, teams have been conditioned to expect certain results when the bat leaves the ball. Do me a favor: In tonight’s game, just watch the outfielders. Record how many times an outfielder retreats to the wall, initially wearing that “this is definitely gone” face, only to end up making a few steps inwards to make the grab.
In short, Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball are playing God. It’s bad enough to switch the baseball five years ago without telling anyone and repeatedly deny it. It’s worse to think you then have the power to suddenly switch back in the postseason. The more MLB tinkers with the game, the more credibility they lose, and the worse the product on the field becomes.
Juiced baseballs hurt the game, but inconsistency is worse. Yes, both teams are playing with the same ball, but forcing teams to adjust their entire approach in October based on a secretive behind-the-scenes change is simply corrupt and indefensible. Do better, MLB.
Andrew Morrison is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. He tweets @asmor24.