Baseball’s open secret risks creating a new asterisk era

Rob Manfred can no longer afford to keep his head in the sand on the issue of the MLB power surge.

by Paul West

If you’re a baseball fan, you’re almost certainly aware of the increasingly widespread notion that the baseballs are–if not ‘juiced,’ per se, as opined by Justin Verlander, certainly a distinct batch from recent years. This is fueled not just by the astounding home run totals, but by almost comical examples of balls leaving the park despite being hit less than cleanly to the opposite field. Hitters are taking swings, reacting in just-missed-it frustration, and trotting in barely contained surprise as the ball floats well into the stands, sometimes the upper decks. Inside-out, front-hip-out slice shots are carrying over opposite-field fences. Seasoned outfielders are misjudging balls that, off the bat, they judged to be easily playable or well short of the warning track. This is happening too often to be dismissed as merely anecdotal or fluky; and since the upper tiers of the minor leagues have switched to the major league ball, homers have picked up there, too. Pitchers’ reactions are ranging from thinly veiled frustration to the nearly apoplectic, with John Lester opining that Dodger Stadium “used to be a pitcher’s park” and Noah Syndergaard comparing the balls to ice cubes early in the season. The aforementioned Verlander went in pointedly, as follows:

It’s a f–king joke…Major League Baseball’s turning this game into a joke. They own Rawlings, and you’ve got Manfred up here saying it might be the way they center the pill. They own the f–king company. If any other $40 billion company bought out a $400 million company and the product changed dramatically, it’s not a guess as to what happened.

The matter of the so-called juiced baseball actually didn’t start trending this year; in fact, it’s been a recurrent theme for several years now, with numerous well-known sources addressing it. Back in 2017, Five Thirty-Eight did a particularly thorough breakdown of the science behind the new breed of baseball and its plausible effects, and just within the past week, Scientific American weighed in. Taking available scholarship and observation into account, it seems apparent that there’s no simple answer to the matter of baseball’s shocking power surge. Many factors–baseballs with lower seams and less drag, the proliferation of power pitching, the trending obsession with launch angle and chasing home runs at the plate, and the simple fact that athletes of every description continue to trend toward being bigger, stronger, and faster–are contributors; and while it seems absurd to think that commissioner Rob Manfred & company know as little as he says they do about this year’s batch of balls, the search for simple answers will likely not bear viable fruit.

The problem–and this is something which Manfred should take into greater account–is that the court of public opinion is not always particularly nuanced, and once narratives are allowed to build, they take on lives of their own. A similar example is the so-called “steroid era,” during which baseball saw a similar (to scale) power surge which was declared both questionable and good for business. Once the smoke cleared, and baseball’s studiously ignored performance enhancement problem came to light, all the momentum swung drastically from ‘keep the home runs coming! It’s good for business, good for ratings, and keeps the game relevant!’  to “all those hitters are juiced, the game is hopelessly tainted and crooked, and none of those records should even count” while the league struggled to retain control of its image. The latter oversimplification persists, despite much evidence to the contrary, doing baseball and its history no favors along the way, and legitimate concern and revisionism regarding the problems of the late Bud Selig era have cast an asterisk-shaped cloud over almost a whole generational period, from the unrepentant cheaters to those tainted by reasonable and exaggerated suspicion and even the unsuspected. Similarly, the worm is already starting to turn on the current era of limited outcomes and soaring fly balls; and public discussion is transitioning toward questioning the cause and merits of home runs in general, and a potential souring on an era which has produced a lot of excitement despite Major League Baseball’s continued struggles with ratings and attendance.

Per the above, many of baseball’s evolving realities are not subject to the control of Manfred and the executives. Players will continue to get bigger and stronger, in keeping with general trends in fitness, nutrition, strength training, and legitimate factors which are raising literal and figurative bars throughout the sports world. This would likely continue, even if nobody ever took another steroid. Approaches will fall in and out of favor, sooner or later the winds will shift regarding limited-outcome hitting and pitching, I doubt we’ll ever see the day when lineups full of limited-outcome hitters will be successful. And maybe the baseballs with tighter cores and less drag are here to stay, even if they go back to seams that don’t make pitchers wary of throwing sliders or attacking the corners. But one thing is for sure: the baseballs are different, even if not deliberately ‘juiced’ to produce more offense. Rob Manfred could easily declutter the narrative, and restore credibility to blow away the gathering clouds, by telling us what he knows, committing his league making the balls more representative of what happens to them…or, if nothing else, simply tell us that this is how baseballs are made now, the MLB game will henceforth be played as such, and other adjustments might have to be made. If he continues with his head-in-sand approach–or, perhaps worse, simply does a behind-the-scenes course correction and power numbers suddenly and deflate–he might find himself the latest commissioner to preside over an era of asterisks and diminished credibility.

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