As we noted over the weekend, Major League Baseball saw its single-month home run record fall in June, shattering a 17-year-old mark. As we’ve noted elsewhere recently, there were two studies released in the month of June which strongly suggest that the reason for the significant spike in home runs since the middle of the 2015 season was due to alterations in the construction of the baseball. The ball, to put it colloquially, is “juiced,” with lower seams leading to less air resistance, allowing it to fly farther.
Major League Baseball took issue with this notion over the weekend by sending a memo to clubs ostensibly refuting the idea of juiced balls, but actually not really refuting anything at all. In fact, it was downright disingenuous. Bob Nightengale wrote about it at USA Today. You can see a photo of the actual memo here. The upshot:
“The baseball in use today tests well within the established guidelines on every key performance metric. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the composition of the ball has changed in any way that would lead to a meaningful impact on on-field play.”
Except . . . the memo compares the balls used now, in 2017, vs. the balls used in 2016. Which is beside the point, as we’re seeing the same home run spike now that we saw in 2016. The studies conducted by Mitchel Lichtman, Ben Lindbergh and Rob Arthur, in contrast, compare the balls used before the middle of 2015 — when the home run rate spiked immediately and dramatically — and the balls used since. Those studies show a significant difference. In light of that, MLB’s study, if you can even call it that, is an Orwellian P.R. document. It’s practically an attempted con job.
For his part, one of the men who discovered the changes in the ball replied to me on Twitter yesterday, responding to MLB’s so-called study. Mitchel Lichtman:
“Had they contacted me for a comment about this story, I would have said, ‘Yes I am aware that the 2017 ball appears to be no different than the 2016 ball. No one ever said, certainly not I, that it was. MLB is responding to a claim (that the 2017 ball is “juiced” COMPARED TO THE 2016 BALL) that was never made. The claim, supported by solid evidence from my testing AND MLB’S OWN TESTING is that the 2016 ball (and presumably the 2017 ball as well) is different than the 2014 ball, and that those differences are in large part responsible for the surge.’ Then the writer [Nightengale] should have gone back to MLB to respond to that. I suspect they would say, ‘Oh…’ They couldn’t come back and cite their 2014 testing compared to the 2016 or 2017 testing, because that would give away the ruse.”
Lichtman went on to note that neither he, his co-author Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer nor Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight, working independently, have suggested that MLB intentionally juiced the ball. Lichtman believes it was quite possibly inadvertent. Moreover, all of them conclude that the changes in the ball still fall within MLB’s manufacturing parameters — a claim MLB makes as well. The problem is that those parameters are so broad as to be meaningless, with a huge variation in ball flight possible within them. As such, to say, as MLB insists on saying, that the ball is within the league’s guidelines is to say nothing at all.
Why is MLB being so dishonest about this? I have two ideas.
One possibility is that they’re just overly sensitive about public perception regarding the game’s competitive landscape. As we saw during the Steroid Era, even the suggestion that baseball performance was inauthentic sends players, fans and the press into a tizzy. While some of us were content to view the Steroid Era as just one of many eras in baseball history in which the circumstances of the game changed and thus the stats changed too, most people — MLB included — characterized it as nefarious and wrong. While there was rule breaking going on then and there is not now, if the stats are once again changing due to an outside factor, the league will still catch hell for it like they did with PEDs.
Another possibility — which is sheer speculation, obviously — is that MLB did, in fact, instruct Rawlings to lower the seams in an effort to goose home run totals and MLB is trying to muddy the waters. I’m skeptical of this simply because I tend not to put stock in conspiracy theories and, frankly, it’d be really hard to keep such a thing a secret. This happened in Japan and it was a huge scandal, leading to the resignation of the NPB commissioner, so doing it here would be pretty dumb. MLB is a lot of things, but they’re rarely if ever dumb.
So what gives? Why is MLB responding to two studies about baseball alterations between 2014 and 2015 with information about baseballs between 2016 and 2017? Why are they releasing memos to the press that are, essentially, non-sequiturs?
I don’t know, but I suspect this is not the last we’ll hear about all of this.