Astrophysicist Meredith Wills studied hundreds of baseballs used during the 2021 Major League Baseball season and discovered that MLB used two distinct baseballs during the season: the new, expected baseball with a lighter center and an older ball with a heavier center. When asked, MLB confirmed that they had been forced to turn to old baseballs due to supply chain issues with manufacturing. However, this did not match up with the dates of production, as MLB began manufacturing the old balls again after starting to manufacture the new ones, disputing the league’s claim that they were using excess baseballs.
This news is a major story in itself and one that will surely harm negotiations between the players union and the owners on a new collective bargaining agreement. It is also just another example of Major League Baseball lying, manipulating, and changing the league’s baseballs, a controversy that spans back to 2015.
History of Manipulating Baseballs
In the second half of the 2015 season, players started to notice changes with the baseball. Following a 2014 season that produced the lowest-scoring season since 1981, home runs began skyrocketing. Then, it happened again in 2016, and again in 2017, shattering the record of home runs hit in a single season set in the peak of the Steroid Era.
While it was possible that some of this increase was due to a new home-run-centric approach, there was no doubt that the ball was being manipulated. Researchers determined that “MLB baseballs used after the 2015 All-Star Game were subtly but consistently different than older baseballs.” They had newer cores that allowed the ball to fly farther and were creating an increase in home runs. Of course, Major League Baseball denied that anything had been done to the baseball. But in hopes of addressing concerns around the ball, MLB bought out Rawlings, the exclusive manufacturer of its baseballs in 2018.
At first, it appeared that MLB having control over production would prevent the rapid rise in homers, as home run rates dropped in 2018. But, in 2019 baseballs started flying out of stadiums at crazy rates. The league average slugging percentage was .435, and 6,776 home runs were hit, shattering the previous record of 6,105. This time, the players could notice the changes to the ball themselves. The seams on baseballs were flatter, creating less drag and allowing the ball to fly farther. Major League Baseball claimed that this change was unintentional, caused by Rawlings getting better at manufacturing the ball.
In the 2019 postseason, the ball suddenly started to die at the warning track. A study of the new balls revealed that the postseason balls were a mix of balls from the 2019 regular season and other seasons, explaining the difference in performance. 2020 only brought more questions, as homers flew out at the second-highest rate ever. Another Wills study revealed, “a significant percentage of the 2020 balls were constructed in a way that would likely make them fly farther—and that the changes could have only been deliberate.”
Entering 2021, MLB announced they planned to make changes to the baseball to deaden it, and hopefully prevent year-to-year fluctuations. On the surface, home run rates were down, and it seemed like the changes we’re working as intended. So, the finding by Wills that MLB went back on their promise and started manufacturing old baseballs introduced many questions. Did MLB react to the record-low offensive numbers in April by switching to juiced baseballs? How did these different baseballs affect the ‘sticky substance’ ban?
“The game is being made to play differently because they’re tampering with the ball.”
Constant changes to the baseball with no transparency surrounding these changes create trust issues in the game: If the conditions under which the sport is being played are constantly changing, how are we supposed to accept the results as legitimate?
You do not have to look far to see the drastic impact changes to the ball have. Consider this deep flyout by Didi Gregorius in Game 3 of the 2019 ALCS:
It is impossible to say whether that would have been a home run with the normal ball from the 2019 season. And even if it was, the Astros had plenty of flyouts to the warning track in the series. But because MLB is not open about the changes to the ball, fans and players were left wondering about what would happen.
The uncertainty has produced many player-driven headlines about the true purpose of MLB manipulating the ball. Pete Alonso pushed the theory that MLB changes the ball on a yearly basis in order to suppress the earnings of players hitting free-agency or arbitration. One anonymous National League pitcher suggested that the two balls used during the 2021 MLB season were distributed according to how marquee the matchup was: “‘You know, send a bouncier baseball, lighter baseball — whichever flies more — to a primetime series,’ listing off marquee matchups like Yankees-Red Sox and Mets-Phillies. ‘Then,’ send more dead baseballs to ‘Texas versus Seattle. Or, you know, Detroit versus Kansas City. No one’s going to bat an eye.'”
There is no good reason to believe that either of these theories are true. But they provide a glimpse into the broken relationship between those working in the game and the league.
An American League scout:“Yeah, that’s a big breach, for me, of competitive integrity. It is a situation where the game plays differently, and there’s a reason that’s not random or aleatory. The game is being made to play differently because they’re tampering with the ball.”
Andrew Miller, MLB players association leader:“There’s a fair amount of distrust between players in the league on certain topics, and this is one of them”
Early in the 2021 season, when Major League Baseball found out that a large percentage of pitchers were using foreign substances, the league quickly put a stop to it, requiring pitchers to undergo ‘substance checks’ as they left the mound. While that rule change did produce some dismay, the players knew exactly what rules they had to operate under, and the controversy eventually faded. Unlike the substance issue, there is no transparency from the league on the constant changes being made to the ball. It seems hypocritical to suggest that players should not be allowed to do anything to improve their grip on the ball when the league is constantly changing that same ball.
The crisis surrounding the ball transcends the relationship between players and the league: solving it is essential to growing the game. When fans feel like they have been robbed out of a fair game (especially in playoff situations like the ALCS), they stop watching. It has been suggested that Major League Baseball adjusts the baseball in order to maximize viewer engagement, but their changes may ultimately drive existing fans away from the game.
So, where does the league go from here? It all comes down to transparency and player feedback. If the league is serious about growing the game, they will take the steps during the lockout to guarantee certain regulations surrounding the ball. Here are three changes that would improve player-league relations and end the uncertainty around the baseball:
- Using prototypes from the Japanese NPB, create a new less-slick baseball that allows for pitchers to have a better grip without the need for substances
- Including the new baseball, allow for player-testing of each new prototype
- Before any changes to the baseball are made, ensure that they are approved by the players union before starting manufacturing
The recent Wills report is yet another example of the lack of transparency that the league has displayed in recent years. The lockout represents a new opportunity to change that trend. It absolutely could end with no agreement on the baseball and more negativity about the future. But, it also could produce a future where the ball is not a topic of conversation, because it remains the same nearly every year. That’s enough reason to remain hopeful this winter.
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Main image credit Embed from Getty Images