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The ball is juiced, and MLB needs to take responsibility for it

The issue here is not whether they’re juiced. They are. It’s how terribly MLB has handled it.

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MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Minnesota Twins
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Pitchers are furious about it. Hitters are being coy. Home run records have been shattered this season—and it’s not just the Orioles.

As Dan Clark points out,

League-wide, home runs per plate appearance is currently 3.5%, an all-time high. At this rate, more than 6,600 homers will be hit by season’s end, shattering the prior record set in 2017 by more than 500 home runs.

Chart: The Conversation, Jul. 22, 2019

For years, people have suspected a culprit. Asked by the Washington Post about the alleged juicing of the major-league ball back in April, Orioles reliever Mychal Givens demurred. “I have no idea,” said Givens. “But for me, it’s just really interesting how many balls are going out and how easily they’re going out.”

Other Orioles hurlers were less diplomatic. “I’m amazed the question is even being asked. The ball is juiced,” said Orioles starter Alex Cobb, who, before getting shelved for the year, had given up nine homers in 12⅓ innings across three starts.

People have been muttering about juiced balls since 2015, but things really exploded this month when Astros ace Justin Verlander unleashed an expletive-filled rant on ESPN. “It’s a f—ing joke. Major League Baseball’s turning this game into a joke.” Verlander is one to know. He’s given up more long balls this year than any other pitcher.

“Come on, just tell us,” says Boston’s David Price. “We all see it. Just come clean and say it.”

The thing is, there’s no controversy about the balls.

A growing body of evidence shows that, starting around 2015, the official game balls changed.

A 2016 study by FiveThirtyEight found that, while home run rates between the MLB (which uses a ball made in Costa Rica) and Triple-A (one made in China) had been correlated for 25 years, they started to diverge around 2015. That article also reported that, after scoring dipped in 2014 to its lowest full-season level since 1976, a concerned MLB sent the Players Association a packet of ideas for bolstering scoring, one of which was “wrapping the ball tighter to make it fly farther.”

In 2018, another FiveThirtyEight study performed CT scans on baseballs from before and after 2015, finding that, in the new balls, the core was about 40 percent less dense and on average, 0.5 grams lighter. Cutting open the balls, the team also discovered that the pinkish red rubber surrounding the core contained 7% more rubber and 10% less silicon, making it more porous and less dense.

Then, in a 2018 series for The Athletic, sports data scientist Dr. Meredith Wills took apart twenty-six baseballs and found that laces in the newer ones were 9% thicker than those from 2014. Thicker laces cause less bulging at the seams, meaning these balls were more spherically symmetric, had lower drag, and traveled farther.

All these factors together, guessed the FiveThirtyEight researchers—a lighter, more compact baseball with tighter seams and more bounce—could add as much as 8.6 feet to a ball’s trajectory.

A final data point: in 2019, Triple-A clubs finally started using the same type of ball, and home runs jumped from 0.94 per game in 2018 to 1.38 per game in the Pacific Coast League, and from 0.80 to 1.18 in the International League.

In all this, what’s really sucked is how MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred (already much beloved in this city for his stance on the MASN TV rights dispute) has handled the issue. Prior to the All-Star Game, Manfred called ball juicing a “great conspiracy theory.” “How you manipulate a human-dominated handmade manufacturing process in any consistent way, it’s a smarter human being than I.”

Sounds like grade-A bullshit to me.

After a 2017 World Series where the Astros and the Dodgers combined to hit 24 homers, including eight in one game, Manfred commissioned a task force of scientists and statisticians to investigate whether the ball was juiced. The 84-page report that followed found that the balls were smoother and had less drag, but claimed this was likely due to natural variations in the materials used by Rawlings (from the tanning process used on the leather, for instance), along with the way the balls were being stored—blaming it, in other words, on factors outside of the League’s control.

Which raises the question, as Verlander rightly did: if any other $40 billion company bought out a $400 million company and the product changed dramatically, what do you think would happen? (That MLB purchased Rawlings in 2018 might appear to help their case, but it’s far from crazy to think MLB could have influenced the design specs of game balls before the sale.)

Whatever MLB knows or doesn’t, there’s no running around one of two conclusions: either they have failed to exercise quality control over a product that is the literal core of a $10 billion a year industry, or they’re deliberately concealing changes they’ve made to production in an effort to boost scoring.

Either way, Verlander is right—the way it’s been handled is embarrassing. You don’t take guys who have spent their lifetimes honing a craft, change their tools under their noses, and then hide it from them. It’s not just condescending, it’s unfair to pitchers, who are getting judged based on performance.

This year, very little has gone right for Orioles starter Alex Cobb, shelved for the season with a hip injury. But when he was asked about the balls in April, Cobb hit the nail on the head: “We’re in the entertainment industry, and if fans really do enjoy watching [home runs], then that’s what’s going to be done. And that’s fine. It’s just frustrating to have to [go out there], as if it’s performance-based, when I’ve been working on my craft with a certain type of ball my entire big-league career, and then all of a sudden it’s changed.”