There’s been a lot of chatter around the game of baseball lately regarding the amount, distance and frequency at which baseballs are being launched out of major league ballparks.
Speculation has been flying around the game as to what could be leading to this home run surge. Could it be steroids? Juiced baseballs? Is this a random occurrence? Is there a minor manufacturing snafu? Or is it possibly a ploy by Major League Baseball? There are plenty of theories being bantered about, so what’s really going on?
Lets get rid of the pink elephant in the room, as Alex Rodriguez would like to say, in steroid usage, yes pun intended. Major League Baseball has increased their PED testing substantially over the years. For example, last season there were 8,281 drug tests conducted across all 30 clubs and their entire 40-man rosters. You can read more about the extensive testing that occurred in 2016 here. Therefore, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that all these players around the league HAVEN’T gone out and found some undetectable PED to bamboozle the MLB testing. Let’s throttle down on that idea right now.
But since we’re on the topic of things being enhanced maybe it isn’t the players, maybe it’s the baseballs?
The theory that maybe the actual baseball is being enhanced or “juiced” has been thrown around more than I can ever remember and it’s for good reason. If you check out the home runs per game totals in Major League Baseball, they’ve been on a steady incline since 2015. This season in particular, it is at an all-time high with 1.26 home runs per game! Fun fact alert: that’s the highest mark in baseball history.
So, the question remains, are the baseballs in fact being juiced up for consumer consumption? Like the name of this article suggests, chicks, and really everybody, dig the long ball.
What’s the science behind a juiced baseball you may be wondering? Well, I’m no scientist but what I’ve read up on the subject is that the major objective to juicing up a ball is to increase it’s coefficient of restitution or COR. In layman’s terms, we’re talking about the bounciness people. Basically, when the COR is increased, that means the baseball will travel further and at a quicker pace when connected with by a bat. It doesn’t matter if that bat is being held by the man-child that is Aaron Judge or the mighty might of Scooter Gennett.
Have there been tests done on baseballs over recent years? That’s a great question and yes, there actually has been some testing done on baseballs purchased and authenticated from eBay by Mitchell Lichtman. Lichtman is a former consultant to MLB teams, the creator of Ultimate Zone Rating, and the co-author the book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball.
The baseballs were sent to the Sports Science Lab at Washington State University. The baseballs that were tested were from May 2014 to July 2015, August or September 2015, and anywhere from May, June or July 2016.
How were they tested? Once again, another terrific question. At the facility, the COR (or bounciness) was tested by launching the balls at 120 mph into a steel cylinder. Each ball was fired at the cylinder six times in order to simulate in-game collisions of the balls. There actually were some significant differences in balls that were tested after the 2015 All-Star break. To get the full breakdown of the test results check out the article Lichtman co-authored with Ben Lindbergh from The Ringer.
In light of these allegations, Major League Baseball has refuted that anything has changed with the manufacturing/testing of their baseballs. However, in the same study of the baseballs not only was the COR tested but other specifics of the balls as well. For example, the circumference, the weight, the height of the seams and the hardness of the balls were tested as well.
None of those components alone are enough to drastically increase the home run rate around baseball, but just a little bit of variance in each could make a big difference.
Here’s my theory on the situation. Universally around Major League Baseball attendance is down so the league is looking for a way to get fanny’s back in the stands and excited about the game. Again, what do chicks and everybody dig? You guessed it, the long ball. Therefore, while they say everything’s testing fine and the balls aren’t juiced, I believe something’s going on. There’s an altering of the balls slightly inside the margin of error, but they’re pushing those limits to get the desired results.
Now, how do you push those limits? You slightly decrease the circumference of the balls and you lower the seams just a tid-bit. What those two tiny adjustments do is to allow the ball to travel further and faster. Specifically, by lowering the seams you allow the ball to become more aerodynamic. “A 2013 study sponsored by the NCAA found that lowering the seam height from the NCAA balls’ then-standard .048 inches to .031 inches (thereby reducing the drag effect of air resistance) made a ball with the speed and trajectory of a typical home run fly 20 feet farther on average,” (Via The Ringer article by Lindbergh and Litchtman.)
Detroit Tigers ace, Justin Verlander also seems to think the MLB is up to something fishy. He recently spoke out and said that he felt that the seams on the baseballs were noticeably lower than they have been in past years. Verlander also added that all of this chatter seems to be passing the eye test, “The old eye test is the best thing to go by,” Verlander said. “Guys that have been around this game for a long time, you see balls leaving the yard that probably shouldn’t be.” (Evan Woodbery, Detroit Free Press)
In addition to this alleged slight doctoring of the baseball, hitters are increasingly becoming more aware of their swings launch angle. Greg, what’s launch angle? I’m glad you asked, you’re still right on point with these questions by the way. Launch angle is the angle at which a hitter’s bat strikes the baseball during the swing.
There’s been a misconception that a hitter either swings down on the ball or level with the ball for far too long. That has never been the case; down to its very principal every single hitter swings the same way. Each hitter may start with a different stance, a different timing mechanism but when it’s all said and done they all have the same swing fundamentals.
I promise, I’m not making this stuff up. I’ve been coaching baseball players for the past ten years. I was also fortunate enough to learn the fundamentals from my dad. As far as the more advanced hitting mechanics go, I learned those from my baseball mentor, Joe Iannucci. The program we use is called Right View Pro, so if you don’t believe me, you can check it out for yourself here.
The home run outburst may help solve the problem of attendance but I believe it’s creating another problem that MLB has been facing in recent years: pace of game. The average time of a Major League Baseball game is up over three hours and with the microwave society we live in, that’s not good.
With the increased emphasis on homeruns and launch angle, and the patience being preached with the Moneyball approach, there’s been a slowdown in the game. Every one in three results of a hitter’s plate appearance during a game result in a home run, a strikeout or a walk. That’s 33% of the time that no defense is needed and, minus the home run, not much is happening and a lot of pitches are being thrown. Here’s another fun fact: over the past three seasons the amount of pitches per plate appearance has increased from 3.82 in 2015 to 3.90 this season.
Now, I’m not exactly suggesting that we have a “Deflate-Gate” type of situation on our hands but there seems to be something going on. Whether the baseballs are being juiced or being altered in any way, Major League Baseball has a tough task in front of them. The responsibility lies with Commissioner Rob Manfred and the league to find a happy medium here. Fans, chicks and everyone alike may dig the long ball, but if they don’t figure out pace of play, “Americas Past Time” could be in serious trouble in the future.