‘The balls are juiced’

Is this the rea­son for base­ball’s home-run surge?

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - STEPHEN J. NES­BITT

ST. LOUIS — Re­cently, two base­balls cir­cu­lated the Pi­rates club­house. They were pro­cured by a pitcher, the anony­mous chief in­spec­tor in this un­der­cover in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and were passed from player to player, each of­fer­ing his opin­ion on whether the balls dif­fered. One was from 2014, the year run pro­duc­tion in the ma­jors hit its low­est point since 1976. The other was from 2017.

Ma­jor League Base­ball’s pop­u­lar­ity has re­bounded in re­cent years, and so has the long ball. At the cur­rent rate, 1.27 homers per game, the league’s pre­vi­ous home­run record, set in 2000 at the peak of the steroid era, will be bro­ken in mid-Septem­ber and shat­tered by sea­son’s end. The has piqued cu­rios­ity across the club­house, and not only Pitts­burgh’s.

“Juiced,” An­drew McCutchen said this week. “The balls are juiced.”

McCutchen laughed, joking, for the most part. He thinks a num­ber of fac­tors have contributed to the power surge, but the juiced-ball the­ory is one he’s heard of­ten. The balls feel es­pe­cially firm nowa­days, McCutchen said, so it’s pos­si­ble the recipe changed.

“No one has come out and said it’s sci­en­tif­i­cally proven that these balls are harder com­pared to years past. It’s just a the­ory,” McCutchen said. He re­called in 2013, his MVP sea­son, Na­tional League home-run lead­ers Paul Gold­schmidt and Pe­dro Al­varez had just 36. McCutchen plucked a bat from his locker and cracked a smile. “I’m not com­plain­ing. I’m the one hit­ting.”

The home-run rise, tracked by The Ringer’s Ben Lind­bergh and a cadre of co-au­thors, started in the sec­ond half of the 2015 sea­son and has not slowed. The com­mis­sioner’s of­fice main­tains the base­balls’ specs have not changed, but an in­de­pen­dent study pub­lished by Lind­bergh and saber­me­tri­cian Mitchel Licht­man showed post-Au­gust 2015 balls were bouncier — hav­ing a higher co­ef­fi­cient of resti­tu­tion — and had lower seams and smaller cir­cum­fer­ences.

A league spokesper­son told the Pitts­burgh Post-Gazette this week “all re­cent test re­sults have been within the spec­i­fi­ca­tions,” and said a third-party con­sul­tant de­ter­mined there was “no ev­i­dence” the ball has had an im­pact on of­fence in re­cent years. Com­mis­sioner Rob Man­fred told Ya­hoo Sports the no­tion he im­ple­mented a mid­sea­son ball swap “strains credulity.”

If pitch­ers have no­ticed a dif­fer­ence, most pub­licly play coy.

“I can just give you a po­lit­i­cal an­swer,” Ger­rit Cole said, his words tinged with sar­casm. “Yes, these balls are dif­fer­ent be­cause they have Rob Man­fred’s sig­na­ture and not Bud Selig’s.”

Wade LeBlanc pro­vides an in­ter­est­ing per­spec­tive. Af­ter spend­ing parts of seven seasons in the ma­jors, he played in Ja­pan in 2015. There, play­ers told him balls tended to change ev­ery year de­pend­ing on run pro­duc­tion the pre­vi­ous sea­son. Change was the norm. Back in the ma­jors in 2016, he was stunned by the way balls flew off the bat.

“I started to no­tice balls go­ing out like golf balls. Dif­fer­ent flight paths. I didn’t re­mem­ber see­ing those be­fore I left. It’s dan­ger­ous to as­sume things; it’s an eye test thing.”

The in­crease in homers con­cerns pitch­ers be­cause it even­tu­ally af­fects their pay­cheques. If warn­ing­track shots sud­denly get legs and reach the sec­ond row, it’s costly. LeBlanc in­sisted he didn’t mind if the league had al­tered as­pects of the game to boost of­fence and fan en­gage­ment. But in that case, he said, “fig­ure out a dif­fer­ent way to judge a pitcher, I guess.”

Most ex­pla­na­tions for the home­run rate fail to pass muster. Pitch­ers’ ve­loc­i­ties con­tinue to climb, but that’s not new. There has been an in­fu­sion of power-hit­ting play­ers — Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger and Corey Sea­ger, for ex­am­ple — but even aging vet­er­ans Car­los Bel­tran, Adrian Bel­tre and David Or­tiz saw their slug­ging num­bers bounce back in 2015 and be­yond. In the 2014-16 seasons, the num­ber of play­ers with 20-plus homers vaulted from 57 to 64 to 111.

A com­mon con­jec­ture cen­tres on hit­ters’ shift­ing ap­proaches. On MLB Net­work last year, slug­ger Josh Donaldson said: “If you’re 10 years old and your coach tells you to get on top of the ball, tell them, ‘No!’ Be­cause in the big leagues these things they call ground balls are outs. They don’t pay you for ground balls. They pay you for dou­bles, for homers.”

Donaldson’s com­ment was a red flag for pitch­ers.

“Every­one kind of laughed at it at the time,” Tony Wat­son said. “But is he wrong?” Hit­ters are in­creas­ingly aware of how saber­met­rics align with their swings. In the Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers’ bat­ting cage, screens show launch an­gle, exit ve­loc­ity and a flight path of where the ball would have landed at Miller Park.

It also has be­come rare for play­ers to em­ploy two-strike ap­proaches. In­stead of com­pact swings, many sell out for the home run. Two-strike bat­ting av­er­ages steadily de­cline, but there are more twostrike homers now than ever. In two-strike sce­nar­ios in 2014, hit­ters av­er­aged a home run ev­ery 71 plate ap­pear­ances. In 2017, it’s one for ev­ery 52 plate ap­pear­ances.

The strike­out rate has reached a new high each sea­son since 2008. Pi­rates man­ager Clint Hurdle said, “There’s def­i­nitely a school of thought that a strike­out is no big deal any­more.”

But if a boom-or-bust phi­los­o­phy were preva­lent, wouldn’t one ex­pect to see more fly balls? The cur­rent fly-ball rate is one point higher than in 2014 but lower than 2007-11. The num­ber of fly balls go­ing for home runs, how­ever, has in­creased by 44 per cent since 2014.

An­other fac­tor of­fered by a num­ber of play­ers is a stark im­prove­ment in bats. As man­u­fac­tur­ers at­tempted to avoid twigs shat­ter­ing on con­tact, the re­sult was a bet­ter prod­uct. No con­spir­acy there. Just a more lethal weapon.

One Pi­rates rookie re­called hear­ing from a vet­eran in the mi­nors that “big league balls” and “big league wood” add 25 feet to the av­er­age fly ball.

“They’re swing­ing bats no­body has swung be­fore in their lives,” Cole said. “You don’t find that stick any­where else in the world.”

“It’s the best tree in the for­est,” Wat­son added.

ST. LOUIS POST-DIS­PATCH FILE PHOTO

Pitts­burgh Pi­rates’ John Jaso hits a home run in the top of the ninth in­ning against the St. Louis Car­di­nals on June 23.

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