It sure would be nice to watch some baseball without having to worry about the actual baseball.
That hasn’t been possible in recent seasons because of how Major League Baseball’s record-setting home run rates have seemingly been fueled by a juiced ball. And it’s not possible now during the 2019 postseason because the ball has seemingly been de-juiced.
There’s been a surge of fly balls that look like sure goners until they suddenly die at the warning track. For example, take when New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius just missed a three-run homer off Houston Astros ace Gerrit Cole in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series:
Granted, that fly ball is a potential home run at Yankee Stadium and nowhere else.
But after a regular season that contained 671 more homers than any other season in MLB history, Gregorius’ fly ball nonetheless fit the bill of a knock that’s supposed to be high, far and eventually gone. The same can be said of loud yet futile whacks by Max Muncy, Carlos Correa, Ronald Acuna Jr., Marcell Ozuna, George Springer and so on.
The 64 home runs that have been hit this October prove the long ball hasn’t gone totally extinct. The rate of 1.19 per game, however, is down from a regular-season rate of 1.39 per game.
What’s going on? Has MLB deliberately chosen the sport’s biggest stage to test a cure for its alleged juiced-ball epidemic? Or is this just one of those things?
According to Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had his suspicions about the ball. So did St. Louis Cardinals skipper Mike Shildt. Per Craig Edwards of FanGraphs, Shildt said before Game 2 of the National League Championship Series that the club’s analytics department found “the ball’s not traveling at about a four-and-a-half foot difference.”
The league itself has issued an obligatory denial, which was obtained by Maury Brown of Forbes:
However, the part that notes “the drag of the baseball can vary over different time periods” at least raises questions about the quality control at MLB’s official ball supplier, Rawlings. And since Rawlings is owned by MLB, the league itself isn’t exempt from such questions.
Then there’s the possibility that the allegedly de-juiced ball isn’t rooted in something so benign as quality control.
Take it from Rob Arthur of Baseball Prospectus, who tweeted there’s a “one in a million chance the balls are the same” because of how the drag on them—i.e., the aerodynamic force that opposes their motion through air—has drastically changed in recent weeks:
Rob Arthur @No_Little_Plans
Updated drag chart current through yesterday’s games. No real reversion. Shaded area is now the 95% confidence interval for each week (derived from bootstrapping). You can see why I said there’s a one in a million chance the balls are the same–the intervals are very narrow. https://t.co/Gibc4AUN49
Arthur noted in a separate tweet that a similar trend didn’t occur in 2015, 2016 or 2017. He also presented a model on October 10 that calculated the postseason’s home run total should have been 50 percent higher than it was at the time.
This is compelling evidence that the postseason balls are just as lead-like as they appear. In light of the timing and the severity of the shift from how the ball was behaving during the regular season, it would be negligent not to suspect some nefariousness on the part of MLB.
Tim Warner/Getty Images
Because juiced balls equal more home runs and more home runs hypothetically equal greater fan interest, de-juicing the ball at a time when the most eyes are on the sport is indeed counter-intuitive.
Yet with the right tinfoil hat, a certain line of logic becomes apparent.
You see, attendance at MLB games hasn’t risen along with the home run rate. The opposite has happened. Lowering ticket prices and concession costs would probably be the easiest fix for that, but Commissioner Rob Manfred is committed to his belief that pace of play is baseball’s definitive “fan issue.”
To this end, the seasons with the longest average game times also happen to be the seasons with the two highest home run rates: 2017 and 2019. A man with Manfred’s inclinations and influence might see that and ponder an experiment for speeding up games by reducing home runs.
Lo and behold, games are suddenly progressing in tangibly different ways. Frequent pitching changes have been negated by starting pitchers going deeper into games, and the average time of game is down 14 minutes from the 2018 postseason to the 2019 postseason.
Then again, we’re also seeing fly balls more frequently in October (26.8 percent of batted balls) than in the regular season (23.8 percent). And Gregorius’ ill-fated fly ball aside, a higher percentage (37.7 to 41.8) of fly balls are also going up the middle to the big part of the yard. That’s a good recipe for a surge of fly balls that have plenty yet not quite enough.
And while barreled balls—i.e., balls hit with an ideal combination of launch angle and exit velocity—aren’t turning into homers as often in October as they did during the regular season, that’s not necessarily news:
Barreled balls went for homers more often in the 2017 postseason than they did in that year’s regular season. Otherwise, there typically is a drop from the regular season to the postseason. This year’s drop is certainly large, but not too dissimilar from what happened in 2016.
Possible explanations for this include the obvious: The postseason is when the weather is cooler and generally less conducive to carrying balls great distances.
The possibility of a de-juiced ball still can’t be dismissed completely, but what’s happening is more like a rumor of a scandal than an actual scandal. The real tell will be if the power outage of the 2019 playoffs carries over into 2020 and beyond.
If MLB has indeed de-juiced the ball, it would do well to heed The Ringer’s Michael Baumann’s warning of another dead-ball era. The league would be risking resetting its offensive output to the levels of 2014, when home runs and runs in general were so scarce so as to be problematic.
If, on the other hand, MLB has done nothing to the ball, it doesn’t have to do anything. Save for maybe hear the extra buzz about the goings-on in baseball and remember the wise words of Oscar Wilde.
There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.