We are years into a journalist-led investigation into Major League Baseball’s, well, baseballs. The league-wide home run rate skyrocketed in 2017, dipped the next season, and rose to untold heights last year as the league obliterated the single-season home run record at 6,776. The previous record was 6,105 hit in 2017, which bested the 5,693 hit in 2000.
Studies by Dr. Meredith Wills and Rob Arthur, as well as reporting by Katie Strang, Molly Knight, and others have helped piece together what exactly contributed to the “juiced ball.” Until 2018, commissioner Rob Manfred maintained that nothing changed in Rawlings’ manufacturing process. (Rawlings, it should be noted, was bought by MLB in June 2018.) MLB’s own investigation found that the drag coefficient on baseballs had been decreasing since 2015, confirming what Arthur found in his analysis.
Meanwhile, Wills began deconstructing baseballs. Among her findings were that the seams in newer baseballs were thicker, which likely had the effect of reducing the ball’s drag as well as contributing to the rise in pitchers suffering blisters. Even more interestingly, Wills found that the balls used in the 2019 postseason were not consistent with the balls used during the 2019 regular season. As many were quick to point out, hitters weren’t as home run-happy in the playoffs compared to the regular season beyond being explained by weather or better pitching. Furthermore, Rawlings was selling memorabilia baseballs marketed as 2019 postseason balls that had “batch designation codes” consistent with 2018 balls, potentially hinting at deceptive marketing practices.
Wills published another update at The Athletic today. She received 10 baseballs, three from the 2019 postseason and seven from the 2019 World Series. She deconstructed five of the World Series balls, finding they had matching batch designation codes, consistent with those intended for use during the 2018 regular season. Previous statements from MLB and Rawlings were seemingly at odds about whether it was standard practice for the league to dip into leftover inventory from the previous year — MLB said it wasn’t, and Rawlings said it was. At any rate, using balls from previous seasons would explain why the 2019 postseason balls had a lower drag coefficient and thus hitters weren’t able to hit home runs at the historic rate they had been during the regular season.
Wills attributes this to a supply-and-demand issue. As Knight found last year, MLB was setting another record in a rather odd category: total baseballs used. On average, 370 balls were used per game but it jumped to 469 last year, an increase of 25 percent or 240,000 baseballs in total. Some of it had to do with pitchers requesting more balls because they were more easily irreparably scuffed, but the larger reason was MLB’s authentication process. Any ball that returned to the dugout received a hologram sticker and details about the ball were recorded, then sold on MLB’s auction website.
Furthermore, the MLB ball was adopted by Triple-A last year. As Wills notes, minor league balls have a different manufacturing process — they’re made in China as opposed to Costa Rica and have differing manufacturing standards. Rawlings had an additional production quota to meet, somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000. The usage of Triple-A balls, then, also skyrocketed as a result of scuffing. As a result, Rawlings fell into a production deficit, including on balls for the International League. The domino effect could have caused Rawlings to use its pre-2019 inventory to fill orders for Triple-A and MLB.
Generally, this is not really a scandal. Sometimes a business runs into unanticipated problems and steps need to be taken to account for them. MLB was cryptic about the baseball, however. As mentioned, Manfred consistently denied anything had changed until so much evidence had mounted that it became undeniable. Further, the inconsistency in MLB’s messaging with Rawlings’, as well as with the available evidence, has led to decreased credibility on the subject. The players just want to know what they’re dealing with, as do the fans watching the sport and the journalists covering it. In a way, MLB’s bumbling response to the matter has had a “Streisand Effect” of sorts, drawing attention to an otherwise innocuous matter by trying to deny or deflect. No one would have batted an eye if MLB had simply told the truth from the beginning.