(CBS DFW)- Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander made waves prior to his start in Tuesday night’s All-Star game when he said the the league was “juicing” baseballs leading to the dramatic rise in home runs that we have seen this season. His comments led to a reprimand from some of the members of the league’s office prior to Tuesday night’s game according to The Athletic’s Jayson Stark.
But, the Astros pitcher may be onto something that deserves an explanation. While insinuating that the league is purposefully changing the composition of the balls may be a bit too far down the conspiratorial path, there are some significant differences to the balls this year that are causing the higher home run rates.
Dr. Meredith Wills, who has a Ph.D in astrophysics, conducted an investigation into baseballs from this season compared with previous years and found several key differences.
“What people had already found was that it looked like there was less drag on this ball than last year, which basically just means it is more aerodynamic. It slows down less quickly as it is traveling through the air. It takes longer to slow down, hence it can travel farther,” Dr. Wills told CBS Local via phone interview. “So I started out by looking for those kind of things and what pitchers were saying, things like that. What I then found was the balls were rounder, the seams were lower and the leather was smoother. Any one of those could contribute to the way the ball travels through the air. If you combine them, it makes for a much bigger difference because they end up compounding on each other. That is basically what I think is going on.”
Dr. Wills wrote about the entirety of her findings in The Athletic, a piece that is worth checking out in full to gain a full understanding of the difference in the ball. But, basically, those changes have seemingly caused a lower drag co-efficient, meaning that the ball is more aerodynamic and capable of being hit further than previous balls.
Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN in the wake of Verlander’s comments that the league did not direct Rawlings, the manufacturer of the balls, to alter them in any way.
“Baseball has done nothing, given no direction for an alteration in the baseball,” Manfred told reporters Tuesday. “The flaw in logic is that baseball wants more home runs. If you sat in owners meetings and listen to people on how the game is played, that is not a sentiment among the owners for whom I work.”
This would seem to be a matter of semantics as, judging by the results of Dr. Wills’ study and Manfred’s own admission that the balls have “less drag,” it’s pretty clear that the balls themselves are different. The reason this has aroused the suspicions of players and analysts alike is because MLB bought Rawlings last year for nearly $400 million.
Chris Marinak, the Executive Vice President for strategy, technology and innovation, stated at the time that the league’s interest was “providing even more input and direction on the production of the official ball of Major League Baseball, one of the most important on-field products to the play of our great game.”
With that stated intent, drawing from the 2017 MLB Home Run Committee findings of wanting a more “uniform” baseball, it would seem unlikely that the league was not aware of the changes. Particularly because one of the first findings laid out in the report is the following:
“StatCast data show that the increases in home runs are primarily due to better “carry” for given launch conditions (exit velocity, launch angle,spray angle) as opposed to a change in launch conditions. The better carry results in longer fly ball distances for given launch conditions and therefore more home runs. Analysis shows that the better carry is not due to changes in temperature but rather to changes in the aerodynamic properties of the baseball itself, specifically to those properties affecting the drag.”
And, one of the seven recommendations made by the committee was that MLB should “continue to study the drag properties of baseballs, with the goal of elucidating the reasons for the large variation of these properties among baseballs.” That recommendation combined with the findings of the report and the league’s stated intention of providing more input on the production process makes the commissioner’s denial of giving any direction or not understanding why there is such a big variation in the drag on this year’s ball look implausible, to say the least.
“What we’re seeing is absolutely in line with MLB’s stated goals,” said Dr. Wills. “If MLB didn’t know what was going on, it speaks very poorly to the level of oversight they originally promised to implement. Both in them not knowing and…they promised this years ago. If the commissioner genuinely still does not know, there is a major problem with how this is taking place.”
Rob Arthur a journalist who has been covering the changes in baseballs for multiple outlets over the past several years, agrees with that sentiment. “If they really were accepting the recommendations of the report, then they should have known if they were actually doing that, that this year’s air resistance was lower, and they should have been able to figure out why that is,” he told CBS Local. “I can’t narrow it down to say they directed the changes, but at minimum, they are being studiously ignorant, is perhaps the best way to put it. They are very carefully blinding themselves to the things that they know they should be looking at and acting like it is all an accident when it is very clear what they could do to manage home run rates if they wanted to.”
As for how the league moves forward from here, the question is a complicated one. At this point in time, it would appear that Rawlings has closed in on making nearly a “perfect” ball from an aerodynamic standpoint with this year’s ball being found to have lower seam height, be more spherical and have a smoother outside surface. In that case, Dr. Wills wonders, can you really approach the company and say that we need to go back to when the balls weren’t as well made?
“What you have to realize is it looks like Rawlings has maybe not entirely perfected the ball, but this looks very much like the ball that they have been trying to make for insert however long they have been in business here,” said Dr. Wills. “So, they have made pretty much the perfect baseball. Do you want to go back to them and say, ‘Yeah, you have made the perfect ball but could you make it worse again please?’ Maybe that is what you do. But, this is a conversation that needs to be had and a conversation that needs to take place,” said Dr. Wills.
She continues: “Rawlings, MLB and the players need to be involved. If the home run rates don’t go down that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We have had different eras in baseball before. We had the dead ball to live ball era. It’s okay for that to happen, but we have to understand the implications of that.”
For Arthur, the question of whether the league can make the changes necessary in order to return the home run rates to a level that we are more used to is settled. Based on the data the league already has, they certainly know the factors that play into balls carrying further. Instead, it’s — to Dr. Wills’ point — a question of how the league would handle the discussions with the player’s association.
“That is a fraught question because my understanding of the collective bargaining agreement (and I’m not a lawyer) is that if they aren’t allowed to make changes to the baseball without getting approval from the player’s union,” said Arthur. “That is part of this argument about plausible deniability. They don’t want to get caught saying that they made knowing changes to the baseball because that might open themselves up to some problematic legal issues.”
With the players already upset about how free agency has been handled over the last few offseasons, Arthur believes that the issues brought up by Verlander this week could be a sticking point in the next round of negotiations.
“I think we are at that moment. The players are already really upset because of the economic changes that have occurred in the last few years where free agents are not getting paid the way they used to except for the very top tier. They already have a lot of anger,” he said. “This gives them a reasonable bone of contention and issue that they can bring up where they say, ‘You did something that is clearly against the rules in changing the ball and you didn’t admit to it and it has caused all of these issues.’ There are all of these issues that are brought up with changing the fundamental equipment that baseball players use to play the game of baseball. I think when the CBA is up, I think the changes in the baseball are going to come up in the next round of negotiations whenever that may be.”