Getty Images

Baseball is experiencing a home run spike because the balls are juiced


The home run rate in Major League Baseball spiked dramatically in the second half of the 2015 season and has remained on an upward trajectory every since. As a result, we are on pace to shatter the all-time single season home run record in 2017 by over 300 homers.

Many people have asked why the home run rate has spiked and many potential answers have been offered. Among them are explanations which credit batters who swing harder, with greater uppercut swings, pitchers who throw harder, which could correlate with farther-hit balls when contact is made as well as other factors.

But an obvious explanation is a juiced ball. There is a long and rich history of changes — even slight changes — to baseball composition leading to dramatic increases in offensive levels. The dead ball era ended, in large part, because different wool was used beginning in 1919. The National League changed balls in order to intentionally boost offense in 1930 and it worked almost too well. There was a change of baseball manufacturers in the late 1970s which led to a mini spike. 1987 was the year of the so-called “rabbit ball.” That was never fully explained, but there are strong suspicions that Major League Baseball messed with the ball that year.

Many have looked at the recent surge in home runs and have tried to determine whether the baseball had been juiced. Most notably, Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer and Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight studied the matter last year. They concluded that the ball had not been altered. Later Major League Baseball said that its own research showed no changes to the ball, though they did not release their data for outside scrutiny. The mystery remained.

Now, however, they mystery has been solved.

Today Ben Lindbergh writes about the research of baseball analyst and author Mitchel Lichtman (you may know him as MGL). Lichtman obtained several baseballs used in games between 2015 and 2016 and had them tested. The results clearly point to a new ball coming online right around the time the home runs began flying:

The testing revealed significant differences in balls used after the 2015 All-Star break in each of the components that could affect the flight of the ball, in the directions we would have expected based on the massive hike in home run rate. While none of these attributes in isolation could explain the increase in home runs that we saw in the summer of 2015, in combination, they can.

I encourage you to read the entire article, which explains the testing process and the factors which go into ball flight in general. It also contains an important argument about how it’s not wise to look at a single factor in isolation when it comes to studying this stuff. Yes, the ball appears to be different and that difference seems to account for the home run spike, but there are related factors which may have intensified it and perpetuated it separate and apart from the ball itself. It’s a complicated topic — physics always is — so the explanation is necessarily complicated too.

But complicated does not mean unclear. And it seems pretty clear based on this article that the ball was changed, it was changed intentionally and that those changes are the primary reason we are seeing a record number of homers.

Now the ball is the court of Major League Baseball. Care to comment, Mr. Manfred?

2018 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Tampa Bay Rays.

A lot of teams start one season looking very different than they did at the end of the previous season. Usually you can see those changes coming as early as August or September. What the Rays look like now, on the eve of the 2018 regular season, however, is very different than the sort of change we assumed as recently as the Winter Meetings.

We knew they’d let Alex Cobb walk in free agency and they did. But we did not expect them to trade Evan Longoria, to designate Corey Dickerson for assignment coming off an All-Star year, to trade 30-homer outfielder Steven Souza, or to trade Jake Odorizzi as spring training was getting underway as opposed to some time later when, perhaps, he could bring more value. The baseball justifications for some of these trades were better than they were for others, but the way they were done and the timing of it all cast a pall on the offseason, appearing as they did to be payroll slashing moves. The certainly didn’t impress the MLBPA, which filed a grievance against Tampa Bay last month, accusing them of pocketing revenue sharing money instead of trying to make the team better.

None of that played well, but if you take a couple of steps back, it’s possible to defend it all by realizing that even with all of those guys, the Rays were an 80-win team last year and would not have had a huge amount of upside this year if they had kept it all together. I’ll leave it to prospect experts, number crunchers to decide whether the Rays did a good job of tearing it down — and I think they could’ve done better than they did with stopgap measures until their minor league talent matures — but it’s at least understandable that they wanted to tear it down and start anew.

Until the fruits of those deals — and the fruits of a minor league system which has been pretty darn good in recent years — are ripe, though, the big league Rays are going to have a lot of question marks.

On offense the biggest question mark is health and durability. Here’s a pretty plausible Opening Day lineup Kevin Cash may send out there:

DH Denard Span
3B Matt Duffy
CF Kevin Kiermaier
RF Carlos Gomez
2B Brad Miller
C Wilson Ramos
1B C.J. Cron
SS Adeiny Hechavarria
LF Mallex Smith

Not terrible, but not durable or, in some cases, consistent. Kiermaier has had some freak injuries, but the nature of his play — hard, fast and diving for stuff — makes that a hazard and, as such, he’s really only played in one full season. Matt Duffy missed all of last year and, let’s face it, has never struck fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers. Wilson Ramos knows the disabled list like few others. Meanwhile, Carlos Gomez, C.J. Cron and Brad Miller have had fairly substantial swings in production across recent and within recent seasons. Adeiny Hechavarria and Mallex Smith are not serious offensive threats.

It’s easy to squint and to imagine Span, Kiermaier, Ramos, Gomez and maybe Cron forming the nucleus of a respectable attack, but it’s also easy to see half of that lineup playing in only, like, 107 games, Cash penciling in dudes like Jesus Sucre and Daniel Robertson a lot or putting Denard Span out in the outfield more than he should to cover for whoever. The Rays featured the 14th-best offense in the AL in 2017. I can see a case for it improving a tad, but not by much, and if the injury fairy flies through the window, this could be really bad.

On the upside, most of these guys can pick it pretty well, so the defense should be pretty decent and potentially even superior. The pitching is good on paper too, but there is gonna be some weirdness afoot if Cash sticks with the plan he outlined earlier this month.

Even with the departure of Cobb and Odorizzi — and even with the season-ending surgery to top prospect Brent Honeywell — the Rays have five good starters in Chris Archer, Nate Eovaldi, Blake Snell, Jake Faria and Matt Andriese. Except they’re not going to use all five starters in their rotation. They’re going to go with a four-man rotation and a bullpen game every fifth day. At present it appears that Andriese, who started 17 games last year, is the odd man out and will be part of the all-hands-on-deck crew on day 5, whenever that comes up.

Early on this should not make a difference. There are a lot of off days in the first month of the season, so the need for that bullpen day will be pretty limited. One wonders, though, what this will do to their effectiveness and durability as the temperature rises and the season wears on. Yes, “bullpenning” got a lot of press in the postseason, but the idea that a bullpen can stay fresh with such a high-level of use for 5-6 months with few days off is a questionable one. That’s especially the case when three of the Rays’ four starters — Eovaldi, Faria and Snell — pitched limited innings last year and can’t be expected to go six or seven innings per start in 2018 (who can anymore?). Maybe Archer is a horse, but the rest of your games you’re going to need three relievers to finish things up based on how life works these days. Maybe more.

In light of that, is the bullpen going to be able to handle nine innings once every five days? Color me dubious. I think they’ll be fried by July. At least if they truly do use that fifth day as a true bullpen day and don’t, say, just call up a new fifth starter every week and a half and use that slot to audition organizational depth before ultimately just handing it over to Andriese. Indeed, now that I’m thinking about it, I’d wager that the fifth day plan morphs into that pretty quickly and that we’ll be smiling at the notion of a true bullpen day by the All-Star break.

As for the arms in that bullpen, Alex Colome is the closer, mostly because the Rays couldn’t find anyone to deal him to this past offseason. In support are old hands Daniel Hudson and Sergio Romo, neither of whom have been relief aces in recent years, even if Romo did do well for the Rays after coming over late last season. Dan Jennings, Jose Alvarado, Ryne Stanek and a cast of similarly anonymous guys will take the ball a lot. Even Johnny Venters, who had three Tommy John surgeries, could be in the mix at some point. The cast will be as big as “Love Actually.” Whether they are as annoying depends on who you’re rooting for.

Where does that leave the Rays? It leaves them with some serious dice rolling in the lineup, some good defense, some respectable pitching but a potentially odd and possibly detrimental approach to its deployment. It leaves them with a still very good farm system and a roster that looks really nice for 2020. I think it leaves them in some pretty serious trouble for 2018, though, especially in a division as top heavy as the AL East.

As far as on-the-fly rebuilds go, it’s not a bad one, but it’s still one that’s gonna leave the Rays in the low-80s win-wise at best, with some pretty serious potential downside.

Prediction: Fourth Place, AL East.