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Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 11: Baseball goes from dead ball to juiced ball

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We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 11: Baseball Goes From Deadball to Juiced Ball 

In baseball offense has, historically, been cyclical.

Poor defense, poor equipment and rules which would now seem crazy to modern baseball fans made for an often erratic scoring environment in the 19th century. In the latter part of that century until the 1920s baseball experienced the Deadball Era. Babe Ruth and a bevy of sluggers who followed in his wake brought baseball into an offense-heavy so-called Golden Era in the 1920s while various factors — including altered baseballs and talent variations due to both segregation and a World War — caused offense to ebb and flow through the 30s and 40s.

By the 1960s a high pitchers mound, a huge strike zone and teams’ adoption of small ball strategies led to a second grand era for pitchers. Expansion, rules changes, changes in the field, the size of ballparks and, finally, the proliferation of performance-enhancing drugs caused things to continue to see-saw for the next few decades, with the offensive explosion of the 1990s and early 2000s being the most notable development.

Sometime between the advent of drug testing and the dawn of the 2010s, offense took another historic dip. Around 2009 a precipitous decrease in run scoring, accompanied by a precipitous increase in strikeouts began to take hold in baseball. While many credited a greatly diminished use of PEDs due to drug testing, people who actually studied the matter noted that the real culprit was the expansion of the strike zone and rise of the low strike. The reason for that, most believed, was the advent of the PITCHf/x system, which tracked balls and strikes and was used to evaluate umpires. Whereas before PITCHf/x umps tended to give pitchers wider strike zones, forcing them to work up in the zone, the new system squeezed the zone more narrowly and encouraged pitchers to work low. Batters, in turn, were forced to chase lower pitches which are harder to hit and harder to damage with.

There were other factors at play too. When working the outside corners is less important, velocity, as opposed to finesse, is also rewarded, advantaging a huge number of power pitchers who may not have fared as well a few years before. This led to an increased emphasis on velocity. The increased use of bullpens also played a part, as harder-throwing and fresher pitchers put downward pressure on offensive numbers as well.

The result: by 2014 major league teams scored around 5,000 fewer runs and hit roughly 1,500 fewer homers than they had in 2000. Runs per team had decreased from 5.14 per game in 2000 to 4.07 runs per game in 2014. Most notably, pitchers struck out around 6,000 more batters in 2014 than they had in 2000. Shutouts were on the upswing and it felt like pitchers were flirting with near-no-hitters every other night. As the 2015 season dawned, one of the most common questions put to new commissioner Rob Manfred was what he planned to do to increase offense. While there was a lot of talk early in the 2015 season — which, again, began with record-low offense — about possible rules changes ranging from raising the strike zone to reducing the amount of defensive shifting to limiting bullpen usage in some way, nothing was formally adopted.

Then something funny happened. Just as Manfred was feeling the pressure about the New Deadball Era, offensive levels began to rise in the middle of the 2015 season, basically spontaneously. Practically magically. Specifically, home run rates began to spike.

Entering the 2015 season, league-wide home run totals had been dropping, from 4,934 in 2012 to a 20-year low of 4,186 in 2014. Then in 2015 the home run total jumped by 723, or 17.3 percent, a spike not seen since 1996 in the so-called steroid era. This was even more remarkable when one takes into account that the first half of 2015 featured a continuation of the low offense which had characterized the previous several seasons. The ball just started flying out of the park in the middle of the year.

And things were just getting started. In 2017 the previously-existing home run record of 5,693, set in 2000, was obliterated, with 6,105 home runs hit. The previous high was 5,693 (2000). In 2019 that record was smashed easily, with 6,776 home runs hit, which was 11% above the previous record. Almost every night featured a highlight of some guy not known for hitting homers jacking one 420 feet with an off-balance swing. The postseasons of 2016-18 seemed like a Home Run Derby. Pitchers began openly accusing Major League Baseball of juicing the ball.

The thing about it all: the strikeouts kept coming too. The 2018 season was the first season in major league history to feature more strikeouts than hits. Indeed, hitters were sent back to the dugout 41,207 times and recorded only 41,019 safeties that year. It happened again in 2019. As recently as the 1980s there would be more than 10,000 more hits than strikeouts in a season. As late as 2017 there were around 2,000 more hits than Ks. Now this. As overall swings and misses went up 34% — while homers continued to fly out of the park — baseball has become a boom or bust game, turning on home runs and strikeouts and featuring far fewer balls in play than ever before.

As this all transpired people began to wonder why. While those affiliated with Major League Baseball initially claimed it was all a function of coaching and analytics and batters increasingly adopting uppercut swings, it was clear that something else was going on: the ball was juiced. At first this was just a suspicion but independent study after independent study has confirmed that, beginning in mid-2015, the balls which began to be used in games were fundamentally different. At first Major League Baseball deflected these studies by claiming that the ball was “within design parameters,” but it was clear that the design parameters were such that even slight variation within them meant for massive differences in ball flight.

Finally, earlier this month, Major League Baseball released its own study of the ball confirming that, yep, the ball had changed. Specifically, seam height was reduced which meant there was less drag leading farther flight, accounting for the massive home run spike. The Juiced Ball Era was officially confirmed, even if Major League Baseball took pains to deny that the juicing was intentional. That it began spontaneously soon after Rob Manfred was getting asked all kinds of uncomfortable questions about it back in early 2015 must’ve just been a coincidence. If it suddenly subsides right after Major League Baseball’s study, well, we’ll call that a coincidence too, I suppose.

Whatever caused it, however, first the dead ball and then the juiced ball gave us the most radically contrasting decade of baseball in the game’s history.

PREVIOUS ENTRIES:

No. 12: Baseball Begins Rewriting the Rulebook
No. 13: Baseball Adds a Second Wild Card
No, 14: Albert Pujols Signs With the Angels
No. 15: Baseball Continues a Remarkable Run of Labor Peace
No. 16: Baseball implements a domestic violence policy
No. 17: Cardinals Employee Hacks Astros’ Database
No. 18: Frank and Jamie McCourt Bankrupt the Dodgers
No. 19: Baseball Embraces Gambling
No. 20: The Hall of Fame Logjam
No. 21: The Bat-flippers Win the Battle Over the Unwritten Rules
No. 22: Astros switch leagues
No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal

Japanese Baseball to begin June 19

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Japanese League commissioner Atsushi Saito announced that Japan’s professional baseball season will open on June 19. Teams can being practice games on June 2. There will be no fans. Indeed, the league has not yet even begun to seriously discuss a plan for fans to begin attending games, though that may happen eventually.

The season will begin three months after its originally scheduled opening day of March 20. It will be 120 games long. Teams in each six-team league — the Central League and Pacific League — will play 24 games against each league opponent. There will be no interleague play and no all-star game.

The announcement came in the wake of a national state of emergency being lifted for both Tokyo and the island of Hokkaido. The rest of the country emerged from the state of emergency earlier this month. This will allow the Japanese leagues to follow leagues in South Korea and Taiwan which have been playing for several weeks.

In the United States, Major League Baseball is hoping to resume spring training in mid June before launching a shortened regular season in early July. That plan is contingent on the league and the players’ union coming to an agreement on both financial arrangements and safety protocols for a 2020 season. Negotiations on both are ongoing. Major League Baseball will, reportedly, make a formal proposal about player compensation tomorrow.