Open letter to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred on juiced balls

Aaron Sanchez’ agent Scott Boras joins the Jeff Blair show to discuss how the blister epidemic has affected his client’s psyche, and the fact that more of his clients have abrasions from these new baseballs.

To: Commissioner Rob Manfred
From: Jonah Keri
Re: Juiced Balls

Mr. Commissioner —

First off, thank you for all the nice things you’ve said about Montreal and its worthiness as a future home for a Major League Baseball team. Whatever happens or doesn’t happen on that front in the future, your acknowledgment that a metro market of four million people with a rich history of supporting baseball (before horrible ownership torpedoed everything) will always be appreciated.

That said, we need to talk about Major League Baseball’s baseballs. The evidence is there: they are juiced.

Ben Lindbergh and Mitchel Lichtman studied this for The Ringer. They found that the baseballs being used in today’s game have a higher coefficient of restitution than they did in the past. In layman’s terms, that means they’re livelier. They also have lower circumferences and seam heights. Combine those factors, and today’s baseballs travel faster and farther when hit. Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight published a study of his own that confirms the juiced-ball theory. As Lindbergh writes:

The newer balls have higher CORs and lower circumferences and seam heights, which would be estimated to add an average of 7.1 feet to their distance, equivalent to the effect we would expect to stem from a 1.43 mph difference in exit speed. Although those differences don’t sound enormous, Nathan has noted that “a tiny change in exit speed can lead to much larger changes in the number of home runs.” Last July, he calculated that an exit-speed increase of 1.5 mph would be sufficient to explain the rise in home runs to that point, which means that the 1.43 mph effective difference that Lichtman’s analysis uncovered could comport almost exactly with the initial increase in home runs. Lichtman calculates that a COR increase of this size, in this sample, falls 2.6 standard deviations from the mean, which means that it’s extremely unlikely to have happened by chance.

Your office has denied that the balls are juiced, arguing that they’re within the normal range. This is, technically, true. But as the Lindbergh/Lichtman study shows, the range which defines what is normal is unnecessarily wide. MLB could thus, if it were so inclined, make the baseballs more or less lively, depending on whether it wanted to fuel or tamp down home runs, and offence in general. If the league denies that any manipulation was done intentionally … the data suggest that’s unlikely, but I won’t belabour the point either way. What’s done is done, no matter how it happened.

When it comes to the game’s future, here’s the more salient point: holding baseballs to one consistent standard, so that we don’t see wild swings in results, is a worthy goal.

First, there’s the surge in home runs. MLB hitters are on pace to smash about 6,100 of them, which would blow away the previous record of 5,693, set during the height of the PED era in 2000.

One can reasonably ask if a surge in home runs actually constitutes a problem. Homers are fun! When Aaron Judge took the baseball world by storm in the first half, he became the kind of breakout star that MLB’s been searching desperately to find, someone who could raise the sport’s profile beyond hardcore seam-heads with his historically huge size and video-game power. The Home Run Derby at this year’s All-Star Game became more compelling than it had been in years, with Judge the upstart rookie and Giancarlo Stanton the hometown hero the marquee attractions.

About Stanton: he’s incredible! With 54 homers in 145 games, he’s on pace to crack 60 for the season, which would make him just the sixth player in baseball history to pull that off. With multiple division races having been decided weeks ago, and the Marlins themselves scuffling in another unremarkable season, fans can still tune into Miami’s games and watch a run for the ages.

That’s the good news. The bad news is this: baseball is at its best when it’s a game of balance and competition. That balance, that competition, is now out of whack. As Lindbergh wrote, it’s not normal when players start launching one-handed home runs, or hitting balls they’re sure are outs that instead fly over the fence. When Logan Morrison and Yonder Alonso go from years of punchless offence to slugging stars, the game’s balance has shifted. When Scooter Gennett (?!?!?!?) becomes just the 17th player ever to whack four long balls in a game, the battles between pitchers and hitters have shifted too far in favour of hitters.

Ballpark outfield dimensions, the size of the strike zone, even the distance from the mound to home plate have been carefully calibrated over the past 150 years to encourage drama and tension every time a hitter steps into the box. Significantly change any one element of that pitcher versus hitter matchup — like, say, how the baseballs fly — and you risk eroding the single biggest generator of baseball’s drama.

That’s not all. With home runs getting easier to hit, batters have little incentive to do anything other than swing from their heels every time. That’s led to a steady climb in strikeouts, one that keeps gaining steam every year. Granted, we’re veering into more subjective than objective territory here; there are surely some people who’ll accept historic whiff levels if it means more Gennettian power displays.

But I would argue that baseball is at its best when anything can happen at a given moment. More balls in play heightens those possibilities. Think of a line drive to the gap, and a speedy outfielder dashing toward it, about to attempt a diving catch in a do-or-die play. Either he makes a spectacular grab, or the ball rolls all the way to the wall for a triple, maybe even an inside-the-park home run. Putting all of those variables in play — power and speed, defence and daring — is baseball at its most exhilarating.

There’s one more unintended consequence of the new baseballs that’s wreaking havoc on the game: blisters. Those finger scourges have been hell for multiple gifted and exciting pitchers, depriving us of opportunities to watch maestros like Aaron Sanchez do their thing. When Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Marcus Stroman left a July game early due to blister problems, he didn’t mince words. After a lifetime of pitching at every level blister-free, Stroman suddenly struggling with that problem was, he said, proof that the lower seams on the new baseballs was causing a troubling epidemic that should have never happened in the first place.

“I feel like it’s an epidemic that’s happening across the big leagues now, a bunch of pitchers getting blisters, guys who have never had blisters before. So for MLB to turn their back to it, I think that’s kind of crazy,” the Blue Jays right-hander said. “I have no theory. But obviously, I mean, it’s not a coincidence that it’s happening to so many guys all of a sudden. It’s not a coincidence.”

Asked if he was implying all the blisters have something to do with an altered baseball, he would only repeat: “It’s not a coincidence.”

The evidence of higher blister rates and their potential connection to altered baseballs isn’t as clear as it is with livelier baseball triggering today’s home-run surge — or at least we’ve yet to see a definitive study like the Lindbergh and Arthur ones to prove it one way or another. But the anecdotal evidence is troubling. Pitchers are already risking whiplash every time they watch one of their pitches get walloped into the bleachers. If the new baseballs are messing with their grip, and even their ability to stay off the disabled list, that’s a bad outcome for everyone.

Baseball prides itself on its traditions, its constancy. Four balls and three strikes, 90 feet between bases, 60 feet and six inches from the mound to home. These are immutable features that allow us to watch Mike Trout and stack him up against Willie Mays, to see Clayton Kershaw and make the inevitable comparison to Sandy Koufax.

Within that framework of tradition, many of the changes made to the game have been beneficial, like lowering the mound from its sky-high perch in the 60s to give hitters a shot. Others have been essential and invaluable, like the struggle started by Curt Flood and Marvin Miller that eventually gave players the right to choose their employers, correcting a labour problem that had cast a pall on the game for decades.

But sometimes, changes can go too far. That’s where we’re at with today’s baseballs. We know they’re driving historic home-run rates, and a plague of strikeouts that offers little benefit except for providing cool breezes to field-level fans. It’s possible they’re also causing blister problems that are knocking out some of the game’s brightest pitching stars.

Return the baseballs to their previous state, and you’ll restore the balance, and the drama, that make this game so great. Then the next time a utility infielder hammers four over the fence, we can feel like we are truly watching history.

Your fellow Montreal supporter,
Jonah Keri