Juiced: Baseball’s Problem With Its Baseballs

David J. Philip/Associated Press

Look at the baseball above. Does anything seem different about it?

On the surface, the vast majority of the population would say no. It’s a baseball; how could the production of it be any different and/or affect the way the game is played?

Apparently, as we found out yesterday, it matters a great deal.

In a report published on Thursday, the league admitted to changes in the production of its baseballs, which has, in turn, led to a home run surge that has even outpaced the steroid era. The report stated that there were no changes to the ball itself, but that the new baseballs, which were put into use after the 2015 All-Star Game, have a lessened drag coefficient. Without getting too science-y (I don’t exactly get this stuff, either), this means that the behavior of the ball is no different off the bat; however, it is carrying further in the air than it used to, which would theoretically mean that more deep fly ball outs are turning into home runs. Sure enough, since these new balls have been used, that seems to be exactly what has happened.

In 2014, each team averaged 0.86 home runs per game. In 2017, that number was 1.26 per game. Of course, part of this rise has come from hitters trying to put more balls in the air, which has also led to increased strikeout rates around the league; this is a byproduct of the launch and popularity of Statcast, which was founded by MLB in 2015. However, player strategy hardly has everything to do with this, and when you watch these two “excuse-me” dingers from last year’s playoffs, you can’t help but wonder whether or not there was some tomfoolery with the baseballs. And if you did, you weren’t the first person to ask yourself that question.

Most notably, Justin Verlander, who was traded from the Tigers to the Astros last season, alleged that something strange was going on with the baseballs. He didn’t say or know what that was, exactly, but, as someone who pitches every fifth day, he saw what was happening and common sense tells you that home run rates don’t go up by more than 46% by a change in on-field strategy alone. As wild as this may seem, however, this is not the first time that those within the game and outside of it have accused the sport of giving its baseballs the juice.

Back in the early 2000s, pitcher Kenny Rogers, a man who was once suspended for 20 games after throwing a cameraman to the ground, complained that the ball’s inner core was made of rubber instead of cork, which is what it formerly consisted of. However, other than the balls being made of rubber and not cork, there were no other tangible or proven modifications to its manufacturing that led to more home runs. However, this gained traction because we were in the middle of the steroid era and during that period in baseball, it seemed as though literally everything was juiced. These allegations resurfaced after an 11-10 World Series game between the Angels and Giants in 2002. Last year, there was a 13-12 World Series game between the Astros and Dodgers. If this sounds all too familiar, it is, except this time, there is legitimate proof that something is going on.

Now, you may come to the conclusion that there is no harm being done here because everyone likes more home runs, and that is a fair conclusion to arrive at. However, imagine what would happen if the NBA changed the way its basketballs were produced so that players like Steph Curry and others could consistently make threes from 40 feet away from the basket. The game would, of course, be more fun to watch at that point, but once many players could do it consistently, it would take away from the incredible skill of a select few who can pull up from that distance and have a legitimate chance at making the shot.

That has already happened with the decreased drag coefficient; feats that were once accomplished by a select few are now being pulled off by many. In 2014, 37 players hit 20 or more home runs. Last season, that number ballooned to 89. I love the home run as much as anyone, but it used to mean something to hit that many home runs and hit for power consistently. Nowadays, everyone is doing it, and this wouldn’t be a problem if it only had to do with players making a conscious effort to hit more fly balls, which they have. That being said, the league-commissioned report shows two things:

  1. Baseballs are carrying more than they used to.
  2. The league, which steadfastly denied until this year that there was any difference in the production of the baseballs, has not done anything to curtail this trend.

Part of this equation is that, in the years prior to 2015, offense was on a steady decline throughout baseball, and more common-sense measures, such as lowering the mound, were tossed around. But what sense does it make to artificially inflate offensive numbers when part of the entertainment of baseball is the battle between the hitter and the pitcher? And why would you do this when you have a problem with pace of play? Games with more offense don’t tend to finish quicker than games with less, and what sense does it make to have an entertaining product if you can’t start and finish a game in less than three hours?

Baseball has a lot of problems on its hands, and it would appear as though the sport tried to fix its “entertainment value” issue by making it easier for the game’s power hitters to thrive. It takes a stunning amount of hubris to repeatedly deny┬áthat there are any shenanigans taking place with the production of baseballs and then have a report find out that everything you’ve stated publicly is wrong, while you think the entire time that no one will notice when a lazy fly ball turns into a home run. Frankly, commissioner Rob Manfred owes an apology to Justin Verlander and everyone else who noticed something strange going on with our National Pastime.

That’s what baseball is; it’s our National Pastime and it’s also the only sport where something this ridiculous could happen without anyone batting an eyelash. But we shouldn’t be surprised, considering that this is the same game in which two leagues play by separate sets of rules and fans can change the outcome of an entire season.