Are the Baseballs Actually Juiced?

Over the MLB All Star break, Justin Verlander claimed that the balls had been altered to allow more home runs. I thought it would be beneficial to take a look at some other factors.

As of July 19th, Major League Baseball is on track to shatter the amount of home runs hit in 2018. With such a huge change in a sport that’s constantly mired in scandal and controversy, many, including some of the game’s top players, jumped to the conclusion that MLB had juiced the balls.

At the All Star break, Justin Verlander led the league in home runs against with 26. When asked about it, he claimed that the balls had been juiced, or altered in some way to allow more offense. While Verlander may be on to something, I was hesitant to immediately blame the ball itself.

MLB could certainly have changed the internal makeup of the ball. However, fans and analysts would never be told that. Although the increase in home runs overall could be chalked up to a huge amount of factors, I believe the biggest change has been the approach by batters.

*All statistics are via baseballreference.com and MLB’s Statcast. All stats are to date as of July 19th, 2019*

What’s changed?

Firstly, the total number of home runs has risen drastically. In 2018, players hit 5,855 total home runs. Just through about half of the 2019 season, players have hit 4,023, just 1,832 fewer. Last season, 1.15 home runs were hit per game. This year, that number has jumped to 1.38 homers per game. At that pace, MLB teams will absolutely destroy the number set last season.

There is a distinct change in the way in which batters have approached the plate this season. Some players are going up with what seems to be a “bomb or bust” mentality. This new mentality has provided a change in two major statistic points used to define hitting.

*Author’s Note: I calculated these numbers using the top 50 players according to MLB’s Statcast. I was unable to find a source that used every player and I thought that 50 individual points would suffice as a small scale case study.*

The Numbers

The first major stat that I focused on is average exit velocity, which tracks the average speed at which a player hits the ball. In the 2018 season, the mean average exit velocity clocked in at 93.07 mph. So far, the mean average exit velocity this season is 95.28 mph. Based on that, players this year are hitting the ball an average of 2.15 mph faster than they were last season. Using only this data would leave the case unfinished. If the balls are juiced, they should come off of the bat hotter. Luckily, there is another way to tell that batters are swinging differently.

The second major stat I looked into is average launch angle, which tracks the average angle at which a player hits the ball. Last season, the mean average launch angle was 11.12 degrees. This season, the mean average launch angle is at 12.15 degrees, a full degree higher. This specific change shows that batters are driving the ball upwards, towards the stands, with more frequency, coinciding with the increase in total home runs.

So, what does all this mean?

One can draw a ton of conclusions from this. I can’t rule out juiced balls, but I can certainly say that batters are changing the way that they’re playing. And that’s where changes to baseball as a whole come from.

Just as batters have been hitting the ball harder and further, pitchers have been throwing the ball harder. With the change in how batters are moving the ball, we very well could see a shift in the way pitchers throw. Instead of seeing flamethrowers like Aroldis Chapman succeed, we may see a movement of pitchers who use overwhelming stuff, creating a situation where batters have less of an opportunity to hit the ball at all. This could also change how organizations put their rosters together.

Home run hitters have always gotten the big paydays. However, with a shift towards that being the norm, the better hitters will likely make even more money. That changes how rosters are filled out. Batters will make even more money, and pitchers, especially starters, may have to take a cut.

Organizations may look to fill out their pitching staffs in less traditional ways. Instead of having separate groups of starters and relievers, teams may begin to lean more heavily on the bullpen. Bullpen arms typically have better stuff in their short stints on the field, make less money, and are more easily replaced.

The focus on pure power and home run hitting ability has already started it’s youth movement. Take the home run derby, for example; both finalists, Pete Alonso and Vlad Guerrero Jr, are both rookies. Other youngsters, like Austin Riley, Cody Bellinger, and Ronald Acuña Jr, across MLB are making their names on their power.

This shift towards the long ball isn’t just a blip on the radar. This change has been going on for years now. This fundamental change in the way that the game is played will continue to grow and shift even the most basic aspects of the game. Is it for better or for worse? Only time will tell.

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