Japanese baseball officials admit to altering the baseball to increase offense

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Home runs and batting average have increased sharply in the NPB this season, and after months of denying that the ball had been altered in any way, Japanese baseball officials are admitting that they tinkered with it in order to “make the game more exciting” and increase offense:

Players and fans had repeatedly quizzed Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) bosses after seeing a 40 percent rise in the number of balls that were slugged out of the park so far this season.

In April NPB said the specifications of their ball — each of which bears the signature of its commissioner Ryozo Kato — “have not been changed”, a statement that was repeated several times since.

But on Tuesday NPB came clean, saying they had asked manufacturer Mizuno to “adjust” the ball to give it greater bounce off the bat and demanded the company keep quiet about the switch.

Altering baseballs is not unprecedented in baseball history, of course. In 1930 offense made the so-called Steroid Era look like 1982 or something. Half the teams scored 900 runs or more and the average hitter in the American League — just the AVERAGE ones — hit .303/.360/.448. That winter baseball deadened the balls a bit, with the AL altering the stitching and the NL doing both that and adding a cover to its balls. Offense went down significantly in 1931, more so for the NL.

1987 is widely suspected to be another year in which the ball was altered. Baseball has never admitted to doing anything, but the season was an offensive aberration and unlike other eras of changing offense it was an outlier, with the next and previous years looking pretty similar and no other explanation that makes a lick of sense.

I strongly suspect that the baseballs were altered again in the 1990s. There were multiple explanations for increased offense at that time, including double expansion, much smaller parks, smaller strike zones, different hitting approaches and, of course, performance enhancing drugs, but I’ve always thought that the baseball had something to do with it too. Not that anyone ever wants to blame anything other than steroids.

But I think this NPB story shows that it doesn’t take much for offense to increase significantly. Sometimes just a change in the ball. Which league officials are inclined to deny.

Astros push ALCS to Game 7 with 7-1 stunner against Yankees

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There’s just something about playing in your home ballpark. The Astros decimated the Yankees at Minute Maid Park on Friday, riding seven scoreless innings from Justin Verlander and a pair of big runs from Jose Altuve to win 7-1 and force a Game 7 in the American League Championship Series.

Through the first four innings, however, the teams looked equally matched. Luis Severino no-hit the Astros through 3 2/3 innings, losing his bid on Carlos Correa‘s line drive single in the fourth. The Astros returned in the fifth to do some real damage, drawing two walks and plating the first run of the night with Brian McCann‘s ground-rule double off of the right field wall. Things didn’t get any easier for Severino. Jose Altuve lined a two-RBI base hit into left field, upping Houston’s advantage to three runs.

Verlander, meanwhile, muted the Yankees’ offense with seven innings of five-hit, eight-strikeout ball. While he didn’t come close to matching his complete game effort in Game 2, he was still plenty dominant against a struggling New York lineup. No player reached past first base until the sixth inning, when a pair of base hits from Chase Headley and Didi Gregorius gave the Yankees their first runner in scoring position. That didn’t last long, though, as Gary Sanchez grounded out on a 3-0 slider to end the inning.

In the seventh, Houston’s ace got into another spot of trouble. He walked Greg Bird on six pitches to start the inning, then plunked Starlin Castro on the wrist. Aaron Hicks struck out, in part thanks to a questionable call by home plate umpire Jim Reynolds, but it was Todd Frazier who presented the biggest threat after returning an 0-1 fastball for a 403-foot fly out to left field. Luckily for Verlander, George Springer was there to bail him out with a leaping catch at the wall.

The Yankees kept things exciting in the eighth, too. Aaron Judge ripped his third postseason home run off of Brad Peacock, taking a 425-footer out to the train in left field to spoil the Astros’ shutout. That was the only real break the Yankees got, however, as Altuve, Alex Bregman and Evan Gattis returned in the bottom of the inning to tack on another four runs, including Altuve’s solo shot off of David Robertson:

Ken Giles handled the ninth, expending 23 pitches and giving up a base hit and a walk before retiring Frazier and Headley to end the game. Thanks to Houston’s winning efforts, the two teams will compete in their first seven-game Championship Series since 2004 — and this time, at least one of them is guaranteed to come away with a win.

Game 7 of the ALCS is set for Saturday at 8:00 PM ET. Houston right-hander Charlie Morton (14-7, 3.62 ERA) is scheduled to face southpaw CC Sabathia (14-5, 3.69 ERA).