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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.

Evan Longoria: ‘I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base’

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The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.

Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.

Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”

Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.

The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.