Yesterday commissioner Manfred was asked about the home run spike that began in the middle of the 2015 season. Specifically, he was asked about the reports — based on studies by Mitchel Lichtman and Ben Lindbergh at The Ringer and by Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight — that variations in the baseball are the likely reason for so many balls flying out of the park.
The studies aside — and the sentiment of players, many of whom suspect the ball has been altered aside — Manfred blew off the notion that the ball could be different, falling back on the silly talking point that the balls are within the “established guidelines” of variance under MLB regulations. It’s a silly talking point because, as Lichtman, Lindbergh and Arthur demonstrated, the range is extraordinarily large and can account for vast differences in how far a ball flies. The ball, in fact, could be altered to create a massive spike in homers and still remain within baseball’s broad parameters.
So where is Manfred going with this? Here:
“One thing that we’re thinking about is bats. We’ve kind of taken for granted that bats aren’t different. We’re starting to look at the issue of bats.”
This makes little sense. As the studies have demonstrated, the spike in homers began more or less uniformly across baseball in the second half of the 2015 season. Balls are provided by a single source. Bats come from multiple manufacturers, built to customized and widely varying specifications based on the preference of players. What’s more, they are replaced at far more staggered intervals than baseballs are. If alterations in the bat, rather than the ball, were to lead to more homers, the homers would increase in a far more gradual and staggered manner as players talk to one another and share information about their “new bats,” and instruct their bat manufacturer to make them just so.
So, if the bats are not the most likely explanation — and if Manfred can cite no basis beyond his personal suspicion that the bats have changed — why would he suggest the bats as a culprit?
I suspect he’s doing so in order to deflect any blame thrown at Major League Baseball for altering the ball. Or for some unintentional variation in its manufacture which had the same effect (whether it’s intentional or a matter of poor quality control, the ball is ultimately Major League Baseball’s responsibility). Manfred, I suspect, is well aware that fans and the press react hostility to changes in the competitive context of baseball and he wants to head off any accusation that the league put its finger on the scale in favor of hitters. After all, that very situation caused his counterpart in Japan to lose his job.
If he blames the bats, however, he blames the players and the bat manufacturers, over which the league has far less supervision and responsibility. If the home run surge is seen as artificial and it doesn’t play well with the public, it’s those darn players, once again trying to gain an advantage! Manfred, of course, was at the forefront of Major League Baseball’s efforts to cast the players as the sole villains of the PED era. It’s territory with which he is quite familiar.
The dumbest thing about all of this? It probably shouldn’t matter. People get bent out of shape about changes in baseball’s competitive environment, but the only constant in baseball is such contextual change. We had the Deadball Era, the crazy offensive-heavy era of the 20s and 30s, boring station-to-station baseball of the so-called Golden Age, the new deadball era of the 1960s which led to an increase in the running game, the PED era, the low offensive era of the early 2010s and now today’s home run happy era. Some of those changes were more . . . artificial than others. Some intentional, some not. The game still went on and likely always will.
Whatever good and bad all of that entailed, Manfred, seems determined to establish that today’s era is not the work of anyone at Major League Baseball. If there will be blame, it will fall on the players. Or, at the very least, will be deflected from MLB in some way. If he has the evidence for that and can be bothered to make it public, wonderful. Until then: his comments on this should be basically ignored.