Although we don’t technically know for sure whether or not the league intentionally juiced the baseball a few years ago, that would be an understandable decision from their perspective, right?
The game – as it were 4-5 years ago – was desperate for offensive improvement, and the ball itself (like everything else from streaming rights, to replay, to roster re-alignment, to actual in-game rules) reasonably should have been on the table for possible change.
Unfortunately, however, whatever changes were actually made to the baseball (intentional or not) have ultimately produced some unwanted – or, at least, unexpected – consequences. This is the “Juiced Ball Era” after all. You don’t get a name like that for nothing.
Frustratingly, these changes occurred without any notice to fans, players, or even front offices, and that has caused some significant strife both in and out of the sport. Worse, the league initially took every opportunity to deny the mere existence of any changes to the ball in the face of near-indisputable evidence and data from external sources and studies. But even after finally admitting that the ball had, in fact, changed, they weren’t exactly willing to acknowledge or deal with the fallout until very recently, with Commissioner Manfred acknowledging it’s something the league needs to look at.
Of course, if you’ve been following this story this postseason, you wonder if the league quietly already made a correct. Maybe an overcorrection:
Updated drag chart current through yesterday's games. No real reversion. Shaded area is now the 95% confidence interval for each week (derived from bootstrapping). You can see why I said there's a one in a million chance the balls are the same–the intervals are very narrow. pic.twitter.com/Gibc4AUN49
— Rob Arthur (@No_Little_Plans) October 15, 2019
Despite the data you see above, Major League Baseball continues to suggest that whatever changes we may think we’re seeing this October are entirely unintentional and perhaps even unlikely to exist at all: “The baseballs used in Major League Baseball are manufactured in batches,” the league said. “Balls that are used in the Postseason are pulled from the same batches as balls used in the regular season. Regular season and Postseason balls are manufactured with the same materials and under the same processes. The only difference is the Postseason stamp that is placed on the ball. As has been previously acknowledged, however, the drag of the baseball can vary over different time periods.”
Vary? Sure. Vary to this degree and immediacy? When we didn’t see it at all during the regular season? I just don’t see how that’s possible, absent some serious negligence.
Let’s assume for a second, as Even Drellich does at The Athletic, that the league is being completely honest about this … Doesn’t that mean they have an entirely different problem (i.e. a total inability to control the production of their baseballs)? They can’t have it both ways, right? They either have to admit that they’ve been manipulating the baseball and explain why, or they have to address the extreme variance and its potentially enormous and negative impact on the game vis a vis expected production, roster management, and general long-term planning.
Either way, it’s not good when the baseball changes this dramatically this quickly without any public conversation.
And there are two other related concerns. First, the headline-stealing nature of this controversy:
It's a shame that the conversation about the ball — first it's juiced, now it's dead — remains a central storyline. It takes away focus from the players and games, and, more than anything, it sows seeds of questions about the game's credibility. Column: https://t.co/OQ6rw1KMSi pic.twitter.com/xl3BS6G6hW
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) October 16, 2019
Perhaps there’d still be stories to tell and headlines to steal even if the league had come out and admitted that the changes were intentional (again: perhaps they weren’t), but that would at least allow them to control the narrative, explain their decisions, and avoid the obvious salaciousness of a “hidden” agenda. But they didn’t do that – either because they couldn’t (it wasn’t true) or they didn’t want to.
In either case, many believe that to be true, and catching the league in a lie has become a story unto itself – which, as Passan points out, distracts us, the fans, from the positive stories and players that could otherwise positively promote the sport.
For a sport that’s already dealt with back-to-back terrible offseason markets for free agents (and fans), plenty of general labor strife, a potential opioid crisis, far too many domestic violence incidents, archaic streaming blackout restrictions, and an aging fan base, this isn’t a good look.
A second related and concerning issue? What if we’re on the doorstep of another deadball era? Stories at The Ringer, ESPN, and the Wall Street Journal are already bracing for that possibility, and the effects in the postseason have already been felt.
As for a specific Cubs-related impact: There’s been a prevailing theory that the Cubs had made a mistake loading up on so much power (at the expense of other skills) back in the 2012-2016 range, just before the juiced ball appeared on the scene. When elite power was no longer necessary to hit the ball out of the ballpark, the theory goes, the relative advantage of the Cubs power-laden roster didn’t outweigh the associated costs. It might’ve been a nice strategy in a different timeline, but not in ours, where juiced baseballs fly out of parks (and off the bats of lesser sluggers) at historic rates.
So how, now, do the Cubs plan their roster going forward? If the ball were to remain the same, for one example, they could comfortably move a power hitter out in trade this winter, in an attempt to diversify the roster. Then again … if the old ball (or worse!) is coming back, might they want to hang out to guys like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, etc? It’s possible. Maybe not. Who knows. It’s frustrating.
Ultimately, at this point, I doubt we’ll ever get some big revelation from the league – can you imagine the heat they’d take for the theoretical effects on this postseason, alone? – but I would like to get some clarity.
So, Dear MLB, if you’re listening, please (1) continue to acknowledge that the baseballs are significantly different, (2) note that the differences do, in fact, cause impacts on the game, and (3) promise to be open and transparent about where the ball might be a year from now. Juiced or not, the league NEEDS as much consistency out of their balls as they can get, and the teams, the players, and the fans deserve to know what’s going on.