Everybody likes home runs. There is nothing more exciting in the game of baseball than seeing someone mash a ball deep into the night sky and watching its majestic path as it plants itself into the cheering crowd for a game-changing play.
This year during the regular MLB season that happened 6,105 times, 412 more times than ever before in a single year. To boot, the previous single-season record, 5,693 in the year 2000, also came smack dab in the middle of baseball’s steroid era.
The trend continued through the playoffs, with this year’s World Series smashing all earlier home run records. So how were Major League hitters this year able to not only beat, but demolish the previous home run records?
Perhaps the most controversial answer is the theory that this year, the MLB changed the composition of its baseballs to promote home runs.
It is no secret that home runs have been on the rise. Home run totals have steadily increased over the last few years, and not by accident.
Hitters are changing their swings and approach to hit more home runs by learning to swing with an uppercut in order to cut down on groundouts and weak hits. The result is more balls in the air, and more home runs. New data and technology is allowing hitters to fully optimize their swing potential by learning the most efficient swing path possible. It makes sense home run totals would increase, but the jump from 2016 to 2017 was statistically unprecedented.
The discussion of the baseball itself’s role in increasing home runs began at the beginning of the 2017 season, when it became clear that players were hitting home runs at a historical rate.
The Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred repeated many times throughout the year that the baseballs were the same as they had always been, but a large number of pitchers throughout the year were not satisfied. They contested that this year’s balls were slicker, making certain pitches simply harder to grip and to throw effectively.
The debate grew into the playoffs, where pitchers said they noticed a significant difference between balls used during the regular season and the playoffs.
A pitcher on the World Series champion Houston Astros, Lance McCullers, supposedly took a blindfolded test and immediately identified a World Series ball compared to one from earlier in the year.
His teammate Justin Verlander was very vocal about the baseballs in an interview with Sports Illustrated. “The World Series ball is slicker. No doubt. I’m telling you, we’re in here signing balls before the game, and it’s hard to get the ink on the ball sometimes […] that’s how slick the leather is.”
Yu Darvish, a pitcher on the Los Angeles Dodgers, reported having significant trouble getting a grip on the ball to throw his slider, a crucial pitch for him. He ended up as the losing pitcher for the Dodgers in the final game. Ver- lander claimed to have completely ditched his slider during the World Series, opting instead for an improvised cutter, a pitch less difficult to grip.
From a less biased perspective, while it is clear some pitchers struggled with their sliders, there were others who did not. Dallas Keuchel on the Astros, for example, used it very effectively in every game he pitched. Many other stats are inconclusive. Some support the theory of an altered baseball, and some do not. Ultimately, it is hard to tell with only a seven-game sample size, but with the players so adamant and the ball Dodgers’ outfielder Yasiel Puig hit out of the park with seemingly one hand, it certainly passes the eye test.
An altered baseball makes sense from the business side as well. It is no secret that baseball has been trying hard to re-sell itself to a slowly dwindling audience and break its boring to- watch stereotype. The plethora of new “pace of game” rules can attest to that. What better way to add some offense, excitement and ultimately money by changing the balls a little bit? It would appear to have worked as well, with this year’s World Series being unquestionably one of the most exciting of all time.
The unfortunate truth of the whole matter is, however, that it appears Major League Baseball decided to pull a fast one on its players and fans in search of a little thrill.
The balance of how the game is played and the necessary skill sets required to excel at it has seemingly been altered, as well. If they did in fact change such a fundamental part of the game, they have risked the career integrity of its players and the outcome of the games. Yu Darvish, Rich Hill, Clayton Kershaw and many more might be remembered as bad pitchers in the playoffs, and it might not be their fault. For that, and covering it up, at a minimum, we are owed an apology from the front office of America’s pastime.