Jim Mone/Associated Press
As Jose Martinez walked toward his position in right field during batting practice one day earlier this summer, he casually bounced a ball into the infield dirt.
The scene was striking: The baseball hit the dirt with a thud, bounced up waist-high, and Martinez caught it with his right hand. He then did it again. And again.
The 6’6″ St. Louis outfielder could have been dribbling a regulation Spalding NBA basketball while crossing the half-court line at Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks.
Instead, the little Rawlings baseball yo-yoed from Martinez’s hand to the dirt and up again in Atlanta’s Sun Trust Park. Bounce, bounce, bounce….
It’s been a crazy, corky summer across the game. Through June’s end, MLB hitters were on pace to smash 6,624 homers for the season. That would demolish the record of 6,105 set in 2017 and go well beyond the 5,585 that landed for souvenirs last year.
This isn’t to say the baseballs are juiced, but at the rate balls are flying out of parks, you could poke straws through the exteriors and sip the nectar under a palm tree at your favorite beach. Just add ice.
Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon says they should just stamp “Titleist” on the balls and be done with it.
Yes, while it can be argued that a host of factors have contributed to home runs flying out of ballparks as if yanked by magnetic force, one of the most basic pieces of equipment dominates the conversation.
“I don’t know about the evolution of the ball, but it’s a lot different now,” New York Yankees veteran CC Sabathia says. “I don’t know what it is exactly. The seams are a little different. Every ball is different..”
Oakland A’s All-Star Liam Hendriks adds: “There’s a different feel to them. I’ve gone through boxes and, in some of them, the ball will cut my fingers because [the seams] are sharp and they’re raised. And the next box will be, like, low seams, softer seams.
“I’ve pitched well and they’re working for me. But at the end of the day, they seem to be going a little bit further.”
Or a lot further. And more frequently.
Through the beginning of this week, this season’s average of 2.76 home runs per game is on pace to destroy the old record of 2.52 set in 2017.
Already, 59 players have socked 20 or more homers, 21 of whom are at 25 or more. Last year, only 27 players slugged 30 for the entire season.
“I believe the ball has changed, and I don’t know why,” Tony Clark, executive director of the MLB Players Association, said while speaking at a Baseball Writers Association of America lunch in Cleveland on the day of the All-Star Game.
On July 26, the Minnesota Twins became the fastest team in MLB history to club 200 home runs. They did so in their 103rd game, blowing past the 2005 Texas Rangers team that took 122 games to do it.
Part of what’s powered the Twins to the top of the AL Central is that they’ve already produced an MLB-record nine games with five or more homers, surpassing the 1977 Boston Red Sox’s record of eight. Nelson Cruz became the first player in the majors at 39 years or older to homer in five consecutive games since Barry Bonds in 2004.
Across baseball, home run records are falling like weeds to a John Deere. MLB hitters combined to set a single-month home run record in June (1,142), breaking a record that they had just set in May (1,135). Through the end of June, there were an average of 2.73 homers per game in the majors, up 19 percent from the 2.28 per game through June in 2018.
Verlander’s comments at the All-Star Game were not exactly new. During the 2017 World Series, he called out the baseballs for being too slick. And in 2018, he tweeted that what bothered him more than juiced baseballs is MLB’s alleged lack of transparency about it.
Justin Verlander @JustinVerlander
All I’m saying is I don’t care if balls are juiced (seriously). We’re all using the same ball so it’s a fair field. My issue is I don’t like being lied to. I knew something was different. Century old records are being broken and numbers are skewed.
As each home run lands in the seats, MLB finds itself more and more on the defensive. Commissioner Rob Manfred, who flatly denies any MLB manipulation of the balls, cites a study that suggests improved manufacturing ensuring the “pill” is centered inside the ball more consistently, which creates less “drag” in its flight. However, players are also well-aware that MLB purchased Rawlings last year.
Manfred has little tolerance for this, and baseball officials seize every opportunity they can to debunk any and all conspiracy theories.
“The biggest flaw in that logic is that baseball somehow wants more home runs,” Manfred says. “If you sat in an owners meeting and listened to people talk about how our game is being played, that is not the sentiment among the owners for whom I work.
“There is no desire on the part of ownership to increase the number of home runs in the game. To the contrary, there is concern about how many we have.”
A contingent of MLB officials visited Verlander on the day of the All-Star Game in Cleveland—the day after his inflammatory comments—and sternly asked him to stop popping off about the problems and work with them to become part of the solution. No good comes from ranting, they told him, adding that they instead would prefer his input in a constructive manner. He said he would be open to participating in an advisory board or oversight committee.
Many of the game’s pitchers, who have felt battered for years given how seemingly every change in the game seems to benefit the hitter instead of them—the lowering of the mound in 1969, the addition of the designated hitter in 1973, the emphasis toward smaller, more intimate yards during the ballpark construction boom of the 1990s and 2000s and so on—were thrilled when Verlander spoke up because he carries clout few others do.
“For sure,” Cleveland Indians closer Brad Hand says. “We all talk about it: Is there something going on? What’s going on? Do you feel the difference? Everybody talks about it, but nobody speaks out about it.”
Marcus Stroman, the Toronto Blue Jays All-Star who was dealt to the New York Mets this week, adds: “I agree with what Justin’s saying overall. It’s apparent. Everybody sees it. That’s all I’m going to say. I’m not going to go into depth, but it’s obvious.”
Whatever the cause, it’s become a threat to major league livelihoods.
Three years ago, Cody Allen was closing games in the World Series. Last winter, he signed a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels only to give up 3.5 homers per nine innings this season, triple his career average of 1.1.
The Angels released him in mid-June. Now he finds himself trying to get back into the bigs while pitching in Rochester for the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate, working to get his groove back instead of grooving cookies to opposing hitters.
During conversations with his Red Wings teammates, Allen beseeches the oft-bewildered minor leaguers not to diminish their self-worth as the homers fly because “it’s all relative, everyone’s using the same ball. If it’s true that the ball is juiced, then everyone’s home run rates are going up, and you’ve just got to be better than the next guy.”
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images
Nationals ace Max Scherzer says the “elephant in the room” is that the ball is different, but he also points out the complexity of an issue that involves launch angle, hitters “crafting their swings to be able to hit these low pitches,” hitters being more informed than ever and pitchers throwing harder than ever. Beware the hard thrower who misses a location—power swings vs. power pitching can launch a moon shot to Mars or beyond.
“I don’t care what the ball is,” Scherzer says. “I’ll go out there and compete because the hitters on my team, they get to hit the same ball as I pitch with. So I’m not going to cry about it. But at the end of the day, the ball is different and needs to be addressed from MLB’s side. What they plan to do about it and how they foresee the future of the baseball in its role in the home run.”
While Manfred always has maintained that the baseballs fall within MLB specifications, he says those specifications may soon be tightened (“Topic under discussion,” Manfred says) and promises “if we make a decision to change the baseball, you’re going to know about it before we change the baseball.”
MLB needs to take ownership of the rabbit balls, Scherzer says, “because at the end of the day, the fans drive this game. And if the fans don’t agree with how the game is being played and they have a problem with the baseball, and it’s a fan issue, then it’s MLB’s issue.
“We’re going to go out and compete no matter what the ball does. Whether it’s dead or live as can be, we’re going to go out and compete.”
Though there is no evidence that it is directly tied to the plethora of long balls, MLB’s attendance is down for a second consecutive season. Following a decrease of more than 3 million fans in 2018—the first time in 15 years that MLB attendance fell below 70 million—16 of 30 MLB clubs are currently experiencing a per-game attendance drop in 2019 from 2018.
That this year’s ball has more hop than Bugs Bunny is especially evident in the minor leagues. For the first time this season, the three Triple-A leagues started using MLB balls.
The result? A 159 percent increase in homers from 2018:
JJ Cooper @jjcoop36
1. Yep, I’m Tweeting about the AAA ball again.
In AAA right now, players are hitting HRs at 159 percent of the rate they hit them in 2018. Already, AAA hitters have hit 788 more HRs than AAA hit in all of 2018.
Here’s what’s amazing. At AA/HiA/LoA, HR rates are actually down.
As the beatings continue, pitchers work together to improve morale. One MLB pitching coach who requested anonymity because the subject is a no-win for the hurlers says he doesn’t even talk about the topic of juiced balls to his staff because “I don’t want our pitchers to know.”
But as balls leave parks in record numbers, they can no longer find bliss by staying ignorant.
“I don’t know the rule book, the manufacturing process, but when guys back-leg it and you don’t get a good piece of the ball, that’s acceptable,” the pitching coach says. “But out front, one-handed swing, one hand on the bat and that goes out…that kind of makes you scratch your head.”
Many did just that when Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor launched this massive, one-handed blast several days ago:
Cleveland Sports Talk @CLEsportsTalk
*How not to swing and still hit a massive home run
With Professor Lindor https://t.co/KAarJsakFZ
There isn’t much left for pitchers to do except to play Dr. Phil for each other while looking for cover.
Reliever Craig Stammen, for example, has spent the past few seasons in San Diego’s bullpen as a veteran charged with helping teach a flock of young hopefuls. Like most of the pitchers spending this summer under fire, Stammen is reluctant to go off on the baseballs because they’re the same for everybody and there is a fine line between that and whining.
“We’re major league pitchers, and we’ve gotten to this place by handling adversity and being able to fight through it,” says Stammen, whose rate of 1.7 home runs allowed per nine innings this year is easily a career high. “So we’ve talked about a few things, and those guys have helped me, too. They’ve talked me off the ledge when I’ve given up a few home runs, too.
“So we collectively pick each other up. That’s what’s so great about being in the bullpen, it’s like being our own part of the team. We band together.”
No small part of that is being better at putting the long balls behind you than the next guy is. Because if you make your living 60 feet and six inches from home plate, you’re going to be in for some rough sledding. Like the poor hurlers in Philadelphia on June 10, when the Phillies and Diamondbacks set an MLB record with 13 home runs in one game. The D-backs surrendered five of those long balls but hit eight, and they got a 13-8 win out of it.
The running joke at the Home Run Derby in Cleveland last month was that the entire thing was superfluous because we’re watching a Home Run Derby nightly this season.
We should note, of course, that there is always another side to a story. To some, believe it or not, the ball still isn’t hard enough.
“Harder,” quips Boston slugger J.D. Martinez, grinning while salivating like a lion after a kill. “It should be harder.”
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.