Baseball Ethics: Integrity, Records, And The “Juiced Ball”

 

The Boston Red Sox didn’t make the play-offs (and made me physically ill in the process), but that doesn’t mean I won’t find some baseball ethics to write about during October, which will cover the play-offs and World Series involving  five teams from each league. Some weeks ago commenter JutGory asked about the ethics implications of the so-called juiced baseball. and I was not in a mood to think that seriously about baseball, since the Red Sox were engaged in the final throes of an epic, inexplicable, season-long choke that, among other bad things, soured my wife on the game, undoing years of careful nurturing by me. I’m OK now, and Jut was right, the juiced ball does raise ethics issues.

Early on in the 2019 season, it was obvious that the ball was different somehow. The very first month had more home runs than is normal in the spring, and the phenomenon only got more extreme as the weather got warmer. Pitchers like Houston Astros ace (and likely Cy Young winner as the AL’s best pitcher) Justin Verlander and former Cy Young winner David Price called out MLB management directly, accusing them of messing with the ball to help the hitters. Baseball’s brass denied it initially, but eventually they had to admit that something was weird about the balls.

Researchers  confirmed  that the 2019 ball was traveling farther when hit with the same amount of force than the balls in seasons past. The change was determined to be that the balls’ seams were flatter, less raised, than they had been before. This reduced the drag when they were flying through the air, resulting in longer distances.

How and why this happened is  a mystery. Major League Baseball swears it was an accident,  but nonetheless the sport is completely in in control of the manufacturing of baseballs. It owns the company that makes them. The current theory is that this was a quality control issue or, perhaps, a quirk in which eliminating a flaw in the balls made them too uniform, too exact.

Among the ball’s many specifications, the degree to  which the stitches were raised had never been included.

The result of the change, however it happened, however, was gargantuan. The 6,776 total total home runs hit by the 30 MLB teams this season were  671 more than had been hit in any previous season, The previous record of 6,105, set in 2017, was itself more than 500 more than the previous record, and was regarded at the time as either a fluke, or the result of the fad of “launch angles,” meaning that many batters that year were upper-cutting the ball, in part to avoid the ground ball outs caused by the increasing use of extreme defensive shifts.

2019’s total is also  more a thousand homers more than the third-most homers in a single season, when there were 5,693 home runs in 2000. 1,200 more homers were  hit than last season. It was even more dramatic in the highest minor leagues, the AAA teams, that in 2019 started using the same balls as the big league clubs.  In 2018, 3,652 home runs were hit in AAA baseball. In 2019, the total was 5,749, a 64% jump.

Baseball and team home run records were falling everywhere. 14 MLB teams set franchise home run marks. 24 teams hit more than 200 home runs, a figure that not long ago defined teams with historical home run power. Consider: after the 1987 season, only 34 teams had hit that many in all of baseball history.

In 2019, the Minnesota Twins became the first team to hit 300 home runs…and the New York Yankees became the second. The Baltimore Orioles became the first to give up 300. Mets slugger Pete Alonso set a new rookie record with 53 homers. A record 256 players hit double-digit home runs this year, with 129 reaching the 20-homer mark. Before 2019, there had been only seven calendar months in baseball history with 1,000 or more home runs hit. All six of the of the 2019 season’s full months  saw 1,000 long balls, so now that total is 13. The 1,228 hit in August was a record for one month. In that month, the New York Yankees set a record for a single team with 74.

Entering this season, the most games in a single season in which five or more home runs had been was in 2016, with 60.   the 2019 season  nearly doubled the record with 114 five home run games. There are more: I’m not even going into the team home run records (The Red Sox shattered theirs, for example, and they had a mediocre season.)

So what’s going on here?

  • To begin with, this was massive incompetence by Major League Baseball. Such a huge change in basic equipment, resulting in the cheapening of home runs by making them easier to hit for the less powerful and skilled players, should never have occurred accidentally, and if it was intentional, the game miscalculated horribly.

The usual theory is that home runs mean more offense, and more offense means increased attendance. This belief is traced to the 1920s, when Babe Ruth led the transformation of baseball along with the elimination of the so-called “dead ball.”  Yet attendance declined in 2019, as it has the past three seasons.

  • The new homer-happy game is unpopular with fans, with less than 40% endorsing it. The more aerodynamically efficient ball may be causing faster pitches and more strike-outs, which also were at an all-time high in 2019.

So were walks and pitching changes, making games slower. The overall effect was fewer balls being put into play. Less base-running. Fewer fielding plays. Less action.

  • The factors increasing home runs helped lesser players more than they helped the genuine power hitters. It makes sense, when you think about it: the genuine sluggers may have been hitting their dingers farther, but they weren’t getting as much of a boost as the players whose fly balls were now getting the 20 extra feet they needed to go over the wall.

As a result, the best hitters were penalized by the home run explosion. As Don Alhambra says in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers,”  “When everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody!”

  • Just like baseball’s steroid scandal in the 1990s wrecked baseball’s records with juiced players, the batting records have been robbed of integrity again by the juiced balls. Assuming something is done to reverse the trend, 2019 is likely to end up like 1961, an anomaly in the record books, when American League hitting stats were inflated because of  eight extra games added to the schedule and the addition of two expansion teams, thinning out the pitching talent.

The Yankees set a home run record that year too, and Roger Maris broke Ruth’s single season homer mark.

  • If baseball un-juices the ball, however, it is likely to cause chaos across the sport. Teams will be basing talent assessments on performance levels boosted by conditions that no longer exist.

In short, it’s a mess with no obvious remedy.

Good job, everybody!

_________________________________________

Pointer: JutGory

16 thoughts on “Baseball Ethics: Integrity, Records, And The “Juiced Ball”

  1. No obvious remedy, indeed.
    Pretty sure the younger generations want a faster pace, more action, more scoring. But, baseball needs to keep to their standards so stats from year to year are comparable. Thus, the initial claim that the baseball is still the same. Both strikeouts and homers are fan winners (although, note: flatter seams = more speed = more strikeouts, but flatter seams = less movement = fewer strikeouts).
    For purists, any tweaking is abhorrent. For financial bean counters, losing fans is abhorrent.
    For MLB, denying the tweaks is dishonest and unethical; implementing them is not.

    • Having been a hitter, though not the scientist on hitting that, say, Ted Williams was, more speed generally did not mean I would strike out more. I was ready for the heat, and my hands were quick enough to get the bat out into the zone in time. But then, I did not play past an advanced amateur or semi-pro level, so I didn’t see many change-ups; the few that I did see, did fool me badly, and caused me to swing and miss. So in my case, more variations in speed = more strikeouts. Although I could see and hit curveballs and other breaking stuff fairly well (even screwballs and sinkers), in my personal experience and memory, I struck out more often on breaking pitches than on fastballs. So for me, more movement = more strikeouts (like you implied). Again, being a hitter, striking out was the kind of total failure I worked hardest to avoid. Making contact – putting the ball into play, and, when I “felt the groove,” making contact with a “full-power” swing – was my preoccupation.

      I think homers are much more fan-winning than strikeouts. But I don’t claim to be in touch with the average fan. I’m not even sure what about the game would be the most tweak-able for the sake of increasing attendance – except maybe drastically bigger discounts on ticket prices for the younger attendees.

  2. Beyond the aerodynamics of the ball once it’s hit, the flatter seams must also affect pitchers’ grips on the ball. We’ll never know how many homers came from curve balls that didn’t curve or breaking balls that didn’t break but would have with raised seams.

    • I appreciate your comment. It makes me scratch my head even harder, wondering about the impacts of those flatter seams.

      My intuition (which is often “180 out”) tells me that flatter seams would make it harder for a pitcher to apply the desired spin rate consistently. But, perhaps the seams are not so flat that a competent pitcher will more likely fail to apply the desired spin rate…and the lowered drag would result in a spun pitch spinning faster, and longer, during its flight from pitcher to batter, which (again, intuitively) would give the ball a bigger break on its trajectory…but then (counter to my intuition), would the lessened drag also make the spin less effectual in making the ball break, thus perhaps easier for a competent batter to see and make solid contact?

      I’ll have to go back and study baseball physics…

      • Back in the day (okay, way back) I did a fair amount of pitching with baseballs that were not pristine. Seams become more pronounced when a ball gets very wet and then dries out. You can definitely get more movement with raised seams. Same with scuffed balls, one reason a pitch in the dirt calls for a new ball in MLB. More traction in the grip lets you put more rotation on the throw. And, both scuffs and raised seams ‘grip’ the air more increasing the aerodynamic effect. Pitching into the wind increases the movement as well. But, as you pointed out in another post, variation in speed can wreak even more havoc on a batter.

  3. Shortly before the 2019 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, Manfred acknowledged the difference in the balls, saying, “Our scientists that have been now studying the baseball more regularly have told us that this year the baseball has a little less drag. […] We are trying to understand exactly why that happened and build out a manufacturing process that gives us a little more control over what’s going on. But you have to remember that our baseball is a handmade product and there’s gonna be variation year to year.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juiced_ball_theory

    I cannot find the source, but Manfred’s pleading unfounded ignorance. Sports research departments across the country have been studying the issue, and found very little variation between authenticated balls bought on eBay from various years before mid-season 2015 (when statisticians started noticing the uptick), and balls manufactured afterward.

    It is more than the stitching. The cores are smaller and have different bounce properties, and the mantle under the outer leather is thicker to compensate. The variation in overall weight is not statistically significant between the old and new balls, but the difference in core size is significant enough to be unlikely the result of chance. So, this is not a case of simply using thinner thread. There was a deliberate change in how the balls were made, and the quality control is just fine at keeping the balls consistent year to year.

    Each design tweak adds to the probable length traveled by a standard home run hit. The thread thinness adds something like 10 feet to the drive length, the core size another 5 feet, the bounciness another 4 feet (all estimates based on recollection of the original source). Changing swing styles also increase the average drive length. Interestingly, the new balls still fall exactly within the manufacturing tolerances allowed by the rules. These standards, however, are very broad; engineers have designed “super balls” that also meet the exact tolerances, but ridiculously increase ball’s flight length (Baseball rejected these balls).

    My conclusion is that 2019 is the result of players having practiced and played with the new balls for 3 years now, thus become fully acquainted with their new properties and have adjusted their play style (both consciously and unconsciously) accordingly. Baseball has sufficient control over the manufacturing process that they could restore pre-2015-style balls immediately. More properly, they should analyze balls from as many decades as possible, to emulate a multi-era average ball.

    Still, players would have to relearn the ball, and baseball would look awkward for another 3 years.

  4. I am of a few different minds on this.

    Of course, being a fan of your Minnesota Twins, I was happy with their performance.

    Juicing rumors cheapened that, as they might not have surpassed the previous record without the change.

    At the same time, with the level playing field across the league, they still came a half-inning away (roughly) from tying a season best record that dates back to the ‘60’s.

    They still won over 100 games after being mediocre for a long time.

    So, juiced balls is one thing; on an even playing field, they still got the job done. Not all of their success comes down to juiced balls.

    And, if this is the “new normal,” so be it. It throws the records and stats into a bit of disarray, but, if this is the norm, then fine. It may not be an anomaly. It is like every other change that shifts the records (perhaps the most prominent being Maris’s Asterisked home run record).

    But, perhaps most importantly, they hit one more home run than the Yankees did. (Which, again shows that, even if this is a fluke year, the success of the Twins is not JUST a fluke.)

    So, if your Minnesota Twins go down to the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs, at least they held them off on the home run record.

    You’re welcome!

    -Jut

    • The incredible thing was that the Yankees hit their 300 without Judge for half a season and Stanton for all of it.

      I think the Twins were the perhaps biggest beneficiary of the “juicing,” It not only made the team an offensive force that nobody predicted, but it I think it reduced the standard deviation between pitching staffs, unless the staff was truly horrible and stuck in a homer haven, like the poor Orioles.,

      • Fair point. But why did they come out of nowhere. No surprise the Yankees were in contention.

        The Twins did improve their line-up, but also had enough strong hitters that the difference in balls made a bigger difference.

        How else to explain their anomalously better improvement over last year? Why was their improvement so dramatic in comparison to other teams? It can’t JUST be the balls

        -Jut

  5. I think the BJays had a MLB record number of rookies with 10+ homeruns this year. Many of them did not play full seasons. In the end, its not really anything to cheer about because only if you flipped their win/loss record could you consider the season successful. 97 losses is an ugly year.

    I have not looked deeply at the stats but juiced balls should help power hitters get those fly balls that die on the track over the wall just as often as they help non-power hitters. Did their numbers go up on average? I’m thinking yes. I can’t imagine the numbers that NYY would have had with healthy players this year.

    In baseball, where there is a stat for everything to the point nothing is a stat anymore, I am sure the analytics guys and gals have weighting factors to apply to numbers from each particular season when calculating what they really use to judge the players. It just makes it harder for the average fan and the broadcasters comparing figures in any year to another becomes an apples to oranges thing, without the nuances being laid out.

    Baseball has a demographic challenge and unless there is love of the sport, it will continue to wither. Each year it seems MLB is not doing the professional game of baseball any favours. This is the first year in awhile I have not attended a MLB game, though I am still a fairly loyal TV viewer and radio listener. But I don’t watch many US nationally televised games as the announcing crews just kill it for me. The NYTimes says about A-Rod: “But three years after his last game, Rodriguez, newly engaged to Jennifer Lopez, is a respected baseball broadcaster, …” WHAT?

  6. Most disheartening about MLB baseball is its declining attendance. The games do become rather long and tedious to sit through, when there are so many changes of pitchers.

    Most remarkable about the 2019 MLB season, I think, is that the Houston Astros did not even once issue an intentional base on balls to an opposing batter. I wonder if that might change, during the upcoming playoffs.

    I do think the game might be more interesting and suspenseful if the probability of a home run being hit by any given batter was significantly diminished. On the other hand, such a change could backfire, and make any given game’s outcome too predictable, thus not as extra-suspenseful as I would hope or expect.

    I guess I’m old-school about my appreciation for baseball, having more respect for teams that score (or stop) each run by a “90-feet-at-a-time” style of play, instead of by a “load-’em-up-and-clear-’em-off” style with reliance on home runs. But, I dunno…when more guys can hit more homers, that adds a different suspense to each turn at bat. I do hate to see the MLB batters striking out so much, though.

    • I must add that it seems there have been a greater number of “circus” catches (and put-out throws) by MLB outfielders in recent times, compared to previous seasons. That “circus” defense is one aspect of the current game that is especially entertaining to me. I wonder if a “deader” ball would “drive the circus out of town.”

      • Being old school, I tend to favor the psychology of baseball: knowing why a player did what they did adds an ineffable* element to watching a game (and knowing why what they did was wrong makes it exquisite torture)

        *Ed: the use of the term ‘ineffable’ by the author uses the traditional definition of ‘too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words.’ Despite certain snide remarks by sports critics, baseball deriders, and other lower forms of life, it does not translate to ‘unable to be eff’ed up.’**

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