The baseball that is being used by Major League Baseball has changed over the last few seasons. We started seeing it react differently a few years ago. Pitchers could feel it when they picked it up. Some noted that it was slicker. Some noted the seams were different. The baseball reacted differently when thrown. It reacted differently when hit. Guys would come up from the minor leagues and note how the ball in the Majors just jumped off of the bat. Everyone knew it. There was tons of evidence in both the numbers, and in the actual comparison of the baseballs. But Major League Baseball denied, denied, denied.
And then 2019 happened. The ball went from “this is different the last few years” to “holy crap, what is going on?!” – baseball SHATTERED the record for home runs hit in a season. The league saw it’s isolated power (SLG-AVG) jump from 161 to 183 in just one season. That’s easily the highest rate it’s ever been at in Major League history. 2017 is the only season within 15 points of that mark.
But in the postseason the ball isn’t doing what it did in the regular season. There’s all kinds of evidence that it’s different. The statistical evidence shows that it’s not traveling as far based on the exit velocity. There’s also physical evidence that shows that it’s different, too.
Whether Major League Baseball changed the baseball on purpose, either before the season, or for the playoffs can and will be debated for a long time. There are some pretty good theories out there on why they would, and why they couldn’t have. But the fact is simple – the ball is different in the playoffs than it was in the regular season. Jeff Passan reported at ESPN that the Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said his team believed the baseball in the playoff was traveling 4.5 feet less than they did during the regular season. Two other teams analysts confirmed that they believed the ball was not acting the same way as it did in the regular season.
This is a problem with many layers to it. Let’s first start by noting that Rawlings is the official supplier of the Major League baseball. Rawlings is now owned by Major League Baseball. That means that Major League Baseball is in charge of exactly what the manufacturing process is for the ball. They control it. Or, well, they should be able to. One theory that actually makes a lot of sense, though, is that they have little to no quality control over the production of the baseball.
Yep, doesn't have to be nefarious for it to be a scandal. https://t.co/mwiGRbeRSs
— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) October 14, 2019
That is one of the larger issues at play here. Even if this isn’t an intentional thing, it’s a very big problem. Ideally, it should be “fixable”. Maybe they don’t care enough to fix it, given that we are now nearly two years in to Major League Baseball owning Rawlings and the ball seems to still be very different than what it used to be. Or maybe they are moving at a snails pace to things like they always do in nearly everything.
Teams are built based around trends in the game. With more and more defensive shifting because of the amount of precise data there is on hitters and where they hit the ball, elite fielders are being outed a little bit for solid fielders who can hit a lot better because the range required is generally less of a factor today than it was a decade ago (or even five years ago). Teams looking at “fly ball hitters” because the baseball is going a little bit further than it used to, are doing so because that’s what the equipment is allowing. To see it completely change once the postseason begins is a very big problem. The Minnesota Twins set a Major League record for home runs hit in a season in 2019. Then the playoffs begin and the baseball is different and home runs are harder to come by simply because of the nature of the ball. That’s a real big problem.
Where it’s also a rather big problem is that right now we have no idea which baseball is going to show up in 2020. Will it remain the “juiced” baseball or are we going to see more of a “deadened” baseball like we are seeing in the playoffs right now? The difference could be huge. As I was writing this article, The Ringer’s Michael Bauman published a similar article and had this within, noting what the difference in the 2019 regular season baseball and 2019 playoff baseball could lead to:
Changing those 2,428 home runs to a proportionate variety of outs and hits, while keeping everything else the same—plate appearances, walks, strikeouts—drops the leaguewide triple slash line from .252/.323/.435 to .239/.312/.380.
Right now offense seems to rely on home runs because it’s pretty much the only way hitters seem to be able to have an advantage in the game. If they can’t catch it…. well, then it works. But everything else works to the pitchers and defenses advantage. All of the data we are now getting thanks to pitch tracking, ball tracking, defensive player tracking – all of that puts the hitter at a disadvantage. Toss in that pitchers are also getting better because they throw harder than ever before, too – and there’s certainly something to the idea that if you want more action on the field, there’s going to need to be massive changes in the game somehow. And it’s going to have to start with the pitchers being placed at a disadvantage in some way.
Juicing the baseball helps offense. Intentional or not, it’s happened. And right now it’s the only thing that keeps putting teams on the board. Strikeouts are up to all-time highs, and no, it’s not mostly due to guys swinging for the fences rather than simply trying to make contact. It’s due to the fact that everyone can knock the bat out of your hands if you aren’t trying to swing hard and drive the ball. The days are gone of the 86 MPH fastball and they aren’t coming back. The “make contact and run” swing doesn’t work anymore. And it’s never going to work again so long as pitchers throw as hard as they do now (and they will).
There’s not exactly an easy answer. The idea of moving the mound back, for me, is a non-starter. That just screams arm injuries for pitchers who have trained their entire lives to pitch at that distance. Perhaps the mound could be lowered, much like what happened in 1969 after pitching just ruined the hitting in 1968.
As we looked at yesterday, nearly all of the players saw the benefits of the 2019 baseball. Michael Bauman noted the difference in what the league would look like if things went back to the “pre-juiced” baseball, and certainly that would apply to the Reds, too. Some players are going to be affected more by the changes than others. Giancarlo Stanton probably won’t see the same effects as a guy like Jose Iglesias. One guy hits the baseball 10 rows deep, while the other guy hits wall-scrapers. Losing 5-10 feet still means Stanton’s hitting homers. For a guy like Iglesias it means he’s flying out to the edge of the warning track.
The offseason certainly could be interesting to see how players who fall into the “could strongly be affected by the change in baseball” group are approached both in free agency or the trade market. The uncertainty of what could happen can dramatically alter the value, or impact that a player could make.