Back in the distant past that is 2017, I wrote an article for The Miscellany News detailing rumors that Major League Baseball had changed the composition of its baseballs before that year’s World Series. Rumors of alterations to the baseballs had already circulated over the course of the 2017 regular season, as all teams combined hit a whopping 6,105 home runs, surpassing the old record by 412 dingers (USA Today, “Major League Baseball finishes with 6,776 homers, 11% above previous record,” 09.29.2019). However, the controversy really heated up when the Dodgers and Astros faced off for the championship—the two powerhouse lineups slugged 25 homers over their seven-game series, setting multiple World Series long-ball records in the process. Not only did the numbers indicate that something might be different about the balls, but the players thought so too.
Astros pitchers claimed to be able to instantly differentiate between postseason and regular season baseballs while blindfolded, with ace Justin Verlander claiming he completely abandoned throwing his slider—a pitch difficult to grip—due to the slickness of the baseball (Sports Illustrated, “Historic World Series Home Run Rate may be Result of Slicker Baseballs,” 10.29.2017). Either way, the results were enthralling, with that World Series already known as one of the most exciting of all time—something baseball desperately needed with its waning audience. But the year is now 2019, and once again, talk of altered baseballs has entered into this year’s October Classic. But with a new twist.
2019 has been the year of the home run. Teams hit a record 6,776 home runs this year, smashing the old 2017 record by 11 percent, and 2018’s total by a ridiculous 21 percent. Six different teams beat the previous single-season team record of 257 held by the 2017 Yankees, with the Twins leading the way at 307. Home run totals have been steadily increasing over the last few years due to the evolution of hitter’s approaches, but 2019 was quite obviously a statistical anomaly, and people were once again quick to point to the baseballs for an explanation. It is no secret that baseball has been struggling to stay popular, and the league is considering a number of rule changes to try and rectify its boring stereotype. Juicing the baseballs—as they might have for the electrifying 2017 World Series—would logically be something the MLB might consider.
However, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and the league firmly denied knowingly altering the baseballs, although they had no choice but to concede that something was different, and launched an investigation into the baseballs. In the meantime, the major leagues kept launching home runs. That is, until this year’s playoffs.
Unsurprisingly, pundits predicted unprecedented home run totals for the 2019 postseason, a continuation of the year’s trend. But they didn’t come. Teams hit about 1.2 home runs per game through the first 50 games of the postseason, down from 1.39 during the regular season (SBNation, “These 8 MLB postseason outs were home runs in the regular season and it’s weird,” 10.15.2019). The Cardinals’ analytics department decided to do their own research, and concluded that the baseballs traveled on average 4.5 feet less than similarly hit balls from the regular season (ESPN, “St. Louis Cardinals claim baseballs are traveling less in postseason,” 10.12.2019). By that logic, approximately eight balls hit so far this postseason that were recorded outs would have resulted in home runs. So what is the difference? Why is Major League Baseball struggling so much to retain the consistency of their ball?
Major League Baseball once again was forced to issue a statement claiming they had absolutely no knowledge of anything different about the baseballs, saying that the balls being used in the postseason were pulled from the same batches used during the normal season, the only difference coming in the form of the postseason stickers on the baseballs.
One would imagine that if the MLB had an influence on which baseballs were used during the postseason, they would decide to stay with the juiced balls for the regular season, promoting explosive action to the biggest audiences. Therefore, I would be inclined to actually believe Rob Manfred and his admission of ignorance from earlier in the year, although I doubt the ball of the 2017 World Series went unplanned.
Either way, an inconsistent baseball means inconsistent games, and in a sport where millions are spent analyzing every little detail for an advantage, teams and fans will likely put pressure on the MLB to sort out the problem of its balls. In the meantime, opposite to that 2017 World Series, this one will play out with only a traditional quantity of home runs.