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On the role of the ball and The Wall in the Orioles’ recent offensive woes

The Wall’s homer-hungry tendencies are combining with a newly deadened ball whose effects we’re just starting to understand.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Baltimore Orioles
“Hello Mike? This is Brandon. About this Wall...”
Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, the Orioles scored nine runs on a wonky-looking Dylan Bundy. Good! On Thursday night’s MASN broadcast we learned that this effort represented 10% of the teams’ runs on the season. Not good! Over two nights this week, the team literally doubled the total home runs seen at Camden Yards this season, from eight to 17.

Earlier this week, Tyler Young broke down some of the main reasons for the O’s puny offensive output thus far. His conclusions: bad hitters (we’re looking at you, Chirinos, Bemboom, Owings and Odor), bad luck on batted balls (especially Urias, Mancini, and Mountcastle), too many strikeouts, and finally, says Tyler, a “worrying lack of power.”

Here, I want to talk about the power drought and how much two non-Oriole-specific factors are worsening the problem.

The first is The Wall, which everybody knows has been pushed back 30 feet and raised up from 7 to 12 feet. The new left field dimensions are 360’ in the corner, 378’ to left and 398’ to deep center. Some are fretting that, in their haste to avoid a humiliating repeat of 2019, when the team broke the all-time major league record for home runs allowed by a team in a season, the Orioles have overcorrected.

Batted-ball data from 2021 suggests that it was plausible to expect that the new Wall would eat up just the cheapies, not the tanks. According to Mark Brown, in 2021 Orioles pitchers only gave up four home runs with a Statcast-measured distance of 360 feet or shorter to left field and just nine 370 feet or shorter to left or left-center field. Considering the pitching staff allowed 258 home runs in 2021, this didn’t seem too threatening. Plus, the average MLB home run in 2019 traveled 400 feet.

For now, though, it seems like the Wall’s effect as a home run buzzkill is greater than anticipated. Until last night, the Orioles were second-to-last in MLB in team homers (now they’re “just” 24th). Oriole Park is in the bottom-six in homers allowed, behind just Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Oakland. Through thirteen home games last season, Oriole Park saw 39 total home runs. On Thursday, Ryan Mountcastle’s second-inning homer marked just the twelfth (by the end of the night that would be 17, still low).

Until the season ends, we’ll still be playing out whether the Wall is a friend or foe to Baltimore based on whom it screws over. The Sun’s Nathan Ruiz is helpfully keeping score on this. For now, the Orioles are down five home runs and visitors are down two.

Granted, it’s still April and the ball isn’t traveling as far, but five home runs lost out of 17 successfully launched is pretty significant.

The problem is—and here is Factor No. 2—the Wall may be hilariously ill-timed, in that it was built to deal with a juiced ball and instead arrived just in time to find a deadened one. Last month, Atlanta Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud complained, “It is frustrating that we haven’t had the same ball since I’ve been a big leaguer, every year. I think even month by month it’s different. Week by week, day by day.”

D’Arnaud has a point. In 2017, after MLB teams combined to smash the season-long home run record set at the height of the steroid era in 2000, MLB sent a memo to all 30 clubs denying any change to the balls. Independent studies disproved MLB’s claim, and in March 2018, MLB admitted that the 2017 balls traveled farther because they had better carry and less drag. Then this past offseason another bombshell: MLB admitted to having used two different baseballs during the 2021 season, one of which travels farther than the other, though they blamed this on COVID-related production shortages.

It’s not clear what the deal is now. But there are tons of stories popping up of players dumbstruck at how little the ball is traveling. On April 27, a ball off the bat of Washingon’s Yadiel Hernández with a 107.3 exit velocity and expected slugging of 3.774 sank ahead of the warning track. Asked about it, his teammate Nelson Cruz said, “I don’t know. Ask MLB.” On Tuesday, Cody Bellinger crushed a ball at Dodger Stadium to deep center off SF’s John Brebbia only to watch it die on the warning track. Dodgers broadcaster Joe Davis spat out, “Gimme a break.” Even Giants announcer Duane Kuiper (who’s been vocal about the issue) admitted on air, “It’s the ball.” The Orioles have their own version of this story: Ryan Mountcastle described his first homer of the year on April 29th as “one of the best balls I’ve ever hit. And it went about three rows deep.”

Evidence proves the tale of the tape. Home runs are down, way down, this year. Teams are averaging 0.90 homers per game in 2021, down from 1.22 per game in 2021 and 1.39 in 2019, when the ball was certainly juiced. According to a study by Bleacher Report there is “definitely” evidence of a deadened ball. The average distance on barreled balls (defined as those with an exit velocity of 98 mph or better) is only 378 feet, down from a peak of 389 feet in 2017, marking a new low for the eight-year Statcast era. For a while, the introduction of humidors in 20 parks this offseason was suggested as the culprit, but evidence suggests there’s more to it. The ball itself is different. Baseball Prospectus’s Rob Arthur has confirmed an increase in drag on the baseball, writing that “We may be dealing with multiple baseballs, or just one deadened one.” Pitchers themselves claim there are two different balls in play currently, some of which feel noticeably smoother. (Which could explain why Travis Lakins Sr. was so earnestly examining the Jorge Mateo home run ball in the bullpen last night.)

What could MLB possibly want by deadening offense? One idea is that, by deadening the ball and making home runs harder to hit, batters will instead focus on contact. Nice idea, but if hitting coaches and hitters haven’t been informed of the change, all you’ll get are outfield flyouts. Predictably, an offensive lull has been the obvious consequence, with teams averaging 4.04 runs per game in 2022, the lowest it’s been in a full season since 1980.

I can’t imagine the Orioles front office could be pleased with this. Home runs sell tickets. (So does good pitching, but still...) And it’s not clear the Orioles wanted their new Wall to be a home run killer, as opposed to just weeding out the cheapies. Would the O’s have moved the Wall out 30 feet if they’d known it would coincide with a 2022 ball that travels around 8 feet less? We might never know. What seems certain is that, eventually, the ball will shift back and the great MLB game of cat-and-mouse will continue. In the meantime, though, I hope you like doubles!