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Rob Manfred thinks bats are to blame for home run spike

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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.

Bruce Maxwell is the first MLB player to take a knee during the National Anthem

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Athletics’ rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell did not stand for the National Anthem on Saturday night. He’s the first MLB player to do so and, like other professional athletes before him, used the moment to send a message — not just to shed light on the lack of racial equality in the United States, but to specifically protest President Donald Trump’s suggestion that NFL owners fire any of their players who elect to protest the anthem by sitting or kneeling.

“Bruce’s father is a proud military lifer. Anyone who knows Bruce or his parents is well aware that the Maxwells’ love and appreciation for our country is indisputable,” Maxwell’s agent, Matt Sosnick, relayed to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser on Friday. He continued:

Bruce has made it clear that he is taking a stand about what he perceives as racial injustices in this country, and his personal disappointment with President Trump’s response to a number of professional athletes’ totally peaceful, non-violent protests.

Bruce has shared with both me and his teammates that his feelings have nothing to do with a lack of patriotism or a hatred of any man, but rather everything to do with equality for men, women and children regardless of race or religion.

While Maxwell didn’t make his own statement to the media, he took to Instagram earlier in the day to express his frustration against the recent opposition to the protests, criticizing the President for endorsing “division of man and rights.”

Despite Trump’s profanity-laced directive to NFL owners on Friday, however, it’s clear the Athletics don’t share his sentiments. “The Oakland A’s pride ourselves on being inclusive,” the team said in a statement released after Maxwell’s demonstration. “We respect and support all of our players’ constitutional rights and freedom of expression.”

Whatever the fallout, kudos to Maxwell for taking a stand. He may be the first to do so in this particular arena, but he likely won’t be the last.

Alex Wilson broke his leg on a 103-MPH comebacker

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This one is brutal. Tigers’ right-handed reliever Alex Wilson was diagnosed with a broken leg after taking a blistering 103.8-MPH line drive off of his right leg during Saturday’s game against the Twins. According to the Detroit News’ Chris McCosky, it’s a non-displaced fibular fracture, but will still warrant an extended recovery period and signal the end of Wilson’s season.

Wilson replaced Drew VerHagen to start the eighth inning and worked a full count against Joe Mauer. Mauer roped an 93.3-MPH fastball back up the middle, where it struck the pitcher on his right calf. While Mauer took first base, Wilson got to his feet and tried to toss a warm-up pitch, but was in too much pain to continue and had to be helped off the field.

Even in a season that isn’t going anywhere in particular, this isn’t how you want it to end. The Tigers have yet to announce a recovery timetable for the 30-year-old reliever, but he won’t return to the mound until 2018. He exited Saturday’s outing with a 4.35 ERA, 2.3 BB/9 and 6.3 SO/9 over 60 innings.

The Tigers currently trail the Twins 10-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning.