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April 13, 2021

“Juiced” baseballs may be just what MLB needs

By ALEX FORLENZA | October 17, 2019

There’s been a significantly large number of home runs over the past couple of years. The five teams with the most home runs are: 2019 Twins, 2019 Yankees, 2019 Astros, 2019 Dodgers and the 2018 Yankees. Even accounting for the newer Yankee Stadium’s shorter field, this list is very obviously skewed toward today’s teams, especially considering the record before the 2018 Yankees was set in 1997. 

During the 2019 season there were 6,776 home runs in Major League Baseball (MLB) — which broke the record set in 2017. The record before 2017 was set in 2000. So the only time where home runs were being hit at the rate they are today was peak steroid-era baseball.

Obviously the balls have seen a steady change in how they’re manufactured over the years, and Rawlings, the MLB’s baseball producer, has said they’ve tweaked the balls over time. Other manufacturers have done similar things to golf balls in modifying their core to give them greater distance when hit, and generally people have assumed the changes are in line with the changes to golf balls and have been with the core of the baseball.

A year ago the MLB bought Rawlings. Since then, it seems the balls have changed even further, and noteworthy players like eight-time All-Star and Astros pitcher Justin Verlander have complained. There was even a study that shows that the drag coefficient (for those of you who have taken physics, it’s more or less the same as a friction coefficient but for objects traveling through fluid) of the baseballs has changed dramatically, although the MLB currently has no official answer to why this has happened. However, making the seams of a baseball tighter makes the ball more circular, which lowers the drag coefficient. 

But for the playoffs the baseballs have completely changed. Using the MLB’s own baseball-tracking stats, you can actually see how the drag coefficient of these baseballs has changed during the postseason based on the velocity off the bat and the trajectory of the ball. 

Essentially, if the balls go far, they have a low drag and are “juiced,” but if they go less far, they are “normal” balls. And during the playoffs, balls that would definitely be home runs in the regular season have been pop fly-outs. Absolutely wild. For instance, the Yankees and Twins averaged 19 runs a contest in their last series during the regular season but during the American League Division Series they averaged 10.

Baseballs going yard should be something that is earned, particularly in the postseason. So it’s a good thing that October baseball has been played without “juiced” balls. 

However, it is utterly chaotic for the MLB to change the ball between the regular and postseason. Imagine the NBA moving the three-point arc three feet back for the playoffs or the NFL not calling pass interference in the postseason. And, on top of the switch in balls, the MLB has denied having a hand in juicing the balls in the first place, so they couldn’t announce to the world that the balls were going to be harder to hit in the postseason.

There are two big conflicting ideas I have about this juiced-balls situation. The first one is baseball is an extremely historic sport, so records and stats have been around forever. Thus, juicing the balls puts an asterisk on players from this era just like steroids put an asterisk on Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez. The players who hit today will always have a caveat on their greatness because of this.

On the other hand, the nature of making the game objectively more exciting for passive fans during the regular season by inflating the home-run totals is smart of the MLB. And, by playing with un-juiced balls during the postseason, the game is still fairer to defenses when it matters most. Of course, this would require the MLB to admit what they’ve done with juicing (which they won’t do), and it would explicitly change the record books, which is not something that most people (like me) would want.

MLB may oddly be implementing the optimal solution. They aren’t outright admitting the balls are juiced, even though everyone who watches the game can tell. So officially, the long history of baseball is not going to harshly judge this era. 

At the same time, if they continue this pattern of great offense in the regular season and improved defense in the postseason, they’ll be able to get marginal fans and non-fans into the sport and keep the more hardcore fans satisfied with the end results come November. 

By doing so, the MLB will be mimicking what the National Basketball Association and National Football League do during their respective postseasons when they ease up on the defensive fouls. For a sport that is desperately looking to expand its audience, trying to mimic the other two major sports leagues is a good idea.

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