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!