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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.

Dodgers sign Rich Hill to a three-year, $48 million deal

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 18:  Rich Hill #44 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in the first inning against the Chicago Cubs in game three of the National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium on October 18, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The Dodgers have signed lefty Rich Hill to a three-year, $48 million contract.The deal was reported to be imminent over the weekend, but was finalized today following Hill’s physical.

Hill missed a good deal of time in 2016 with blister issues — and he’ll be 37-years-old on Opening Day — but when he was healthy he was fantastic, posting the best season in his 12-year career. He had a a 2.12 ERA and 129 strikeouts in 110.1 innings between the Athletics and Dodgers.

Along with a healthy Clayton Kershaw a maturing Julio Urias and Kenta Maeda, the Dodgers rotation looks to be a strength in 2017.

UPDATE: Giants agree to a deal with Mark Melancon

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 10:  Mark Melancon #43 of the Washington Nationals reacts after the final out as the Nationals defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers 8-3 in game three of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium on October 10, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
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UPDATE: Buster Olney reports that a deal is in place pending a physical. The financial terms are not yet known. UPDATE: Joel Sherman of the New York Post hears it’s in the four-year, $62 million range. That will make him, temporarily at least, the highest-paid closer in baseball history.

12:15 PMKen Rosenthal reports that the San Francisco Giants are close to a deal with closer Mark Melancon.

Melancon had an outstanding 2016, posting a 1.64 ERA, 2.42 FIP and a 5.42 K/BB rate in 71.1 innings while saving 47 games for the Pirates and Nationals. You may recall that the Giants had a strong interest in Melancon last summer. It was a well-founded interest given the bullpen woes which waylaid San Francisco in the second half of last season and continued on into the playoffs.

The terms of the apparently impeding deal will be known soon enough, but Rosenthal reported yesterday that Melancon was fielding offers in the four-years, $60 million range. That’s a lot for a closer, but it’ll probably look like a bargain compared to the deals signed with the other two top closers on the market, Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. Some have speculated that Chapman could get a deal closer to $100 million than $50 million, though that seems optimistic.

What the past couple of seasons have shown, however, is that having a top bullpen will get you very, very far in Major League Baseball. Champan may have been gassed at the end of Game 7, but he was essential to the Cubs’ World Series title. Powerful bullpens gave the Royals a title in 2015 and the Indians an AL pennant this past year. A weak one was, obviously, the Giants’ achilles heel.

Their great need at the back end of the pen, according to Rosenthal’s report, is apparently about to be filled.