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 that 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.

MLB’s Pace of Play Problem

Image result for major league baseball

It’s nice to see Major League Baseball attempting to fix its serious problems with the length and pace of their games. The operative word in that sentence: attempting.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who ascended to the office in 2014, has made pace of play his top issue as the ruler of the sport. Before his first full season as commissioner, he instituted stricter rules regarding breaks between innings and players wasting time over the course of a game. The measures worked to an extent; games were an average of about six minutes shorter than the season before and while that seems like a small progression, the average length of games went back under three hours, a major accomplishment for a sport that has recently struggled with getting younger fans to pay attention to their product. At the time, it seemed like baseball had taken the first step toward solving its burgeoning pace-of-play issue.

Unfortunately, the sport soon relapsed and has undone much of the progress it made just two years ago.

Last year, the average length of an MLB game jumped back to exactly three hours, a four-minute regression from the year before. Instead of improving or leveling off, the problem has gotten worse in 2017; as of April 17, the average game length has jumped to three hours and five minutes. This comes in spite of the sport’s attempts to continue pace-of-play efforts; the most pronounced change this season has been the no-pitch intentional walk and a 30-second limit on managers trying to decide whether or not to challenge a play. Clearly, these measures are not working, as games are actually longer than they were before they were enacted.

Baseball’s problem with pace of play is not borne from a lack of trying. However, not all of the ideas for improving the pace of baseball games are good. Among Manfred’s more terrible ideas is for teams to start each extra inning with a runner on second base. There are countless problems with this idea, but the main one is that it does nothing to stop MLB’s problem with nine-inning games. It also brings numerous issues including statistics, strategy, bullpen usage, etc., but those aren’t necessarily important for right now.

The frustrating thing for baseball fans is that the rules put in place before the 2015 season actually did work. The games were shorter, commercial breaks were tighter, and there was less dead time in between pitches. And then, on May 1 of that year, the league office made a massive mistake and reduced or even eliminated fines for offenders of the league’s new pace-of-play rules. (Back then, players were fined $500 for stepping out of the batter’s box or otherwise violating pacing regulations.) Granted, fining David Ortiz nearly half a million dollars in the span of six months might not have been the best look for the sport, but don’t you have to do something about a problem before it gets even worse?

Here’s another point that has to be made: it’s unrealistic to expect a baseball game to finish in less time than, say, a basketball game. It’s also unrealistic to expect baseball games to be as quick as they were just thirty years ago; teams are taking more pitches per game and there is no way to control that. In fact, it’s been proven to be an intelligent strategy.

However, there is something baseball can do to solve some of their pace-of-play issues. You may need to be sitting down for this one. Here it is:

Major League Baseball can (likely) shave about ten minutes off their current average game time if they simply enforced the rules they have in place right now. They could go back to fining players for taking a foot out of the batter’s box; after all, it happens all of the time now. They could make sure that their “2:25 commercial break” is actually a 2:25 commercial break and nothing more. That required far less thought than putting a runner on second base in the tenth inning, removing pitches for an intentional walk, or radically changing the strike zone.

There is one thing MLB absolutely needs to do beyond its current rules, and that is to institute a 20-second pitch clock as soon as possible. It works exactly as it would sound, and since its introduction in the minor leagues two years ago, it has subtracted about 12 minutes per game on average.

A reasonable goal for Major League Baseball would be to cut the average length of a game down to two hours and 45 minutes. Between the pitch clocks and accurate, consistent rule enforcement, I believe I just found 22 minutes that could be slashed from every single baseball game. If you subtract those 22 minutes from the current length of games, you would have an average of two hours and 43 minutes per contest. Those are two completely non-gimmick, no-nonsense, common sense solutions to what is actually a very uncomplicated problem.

Major League Baseball needs to cut down the length of their games. It actually isn’t as big of a problem for the sport as, for example, properly marketing their stars, but it needs to be addressed. Rob Manfred and the Players’ Association can solve this problem with common sense solutions that should make both sides happy.

MLB’s pace-of-play conundrum is a very simple problem. The sport’s power brokers, however, must not overthink the current state of affairs when trying to find solutions.