We know, for certain, that Major League Baseball has worked on the baseball over the past few years. Sometimes they did it openly and with explicit intentions – the desire to deaden the baseball this year, for example – and sometimes it seemed to be happening behind the scenes with non-credible denials (the juiced ball era, for example).
So, against that backdrop, I don’t want to be TOO dismissive of any player theories about how and why the baseball is changing. You never say never!
But I’m pretty close to saying nahhhh on this one. From ESPN:
“The biggest concern is MLB manipulates the baseball year in and year out depending on free-agency class, or guys being in an advanced part of their arbitration,” [Pete] Alonso said during a videoconference with reporters.
Asked in a follow-up question if the idea of MLB manipulating baseballs based on free-agent class is something players “talk about and believe in,” Alonso replied, “Oh no, that’s a fact.”
He continued: “In 2019, there was a huge class of free-agent pitchers and then that’s quote-unquote ‘the juiced balls,’ and then 2020 was a strange year with the COVID season. But now that we’re back to playing in a regular season with a ton of shortstops or position players that are going to be paid a lot of money like high-caliber players — I mean, yeah, that’s not a coincidence. It’s definitely something that they do.”
What matters most here is that Alonso clearly believes this big-time conspiracy theory, and if he believes it, you can presume several players do. What’s tricky – as with a lot of conspiracy theories in other fields – is that there’s a kernel of believable accuracy here (i.e., that MLB manipulates the baseball to various ends, and hasn’t always been forthcoming about the scope or intention of those changes). But I just can’t quite cross the bridge where I believe MLB is trying to project not only what the changes would be if they did X and Y to the baseball, but then is also pairing those projections, annually, with expectations for only one portion of the free agent market, while also having confidence that it wouldn’t impact other parts of the roster in a negative financial way.
To actually pull this kind of conspiracy off, you’d have to know – with some high level of precision – how to alter the baseball to guarantee certain outcomes … and yet this season’s deadening of the baseball has already shown unintended consequences related to pitch movement and exit velocity.
Moreover, you’d have to know in advance which players stood to benefit most from the changes you were making, and know that you wouldn’t be losing all your “gain” by making the other players in the market more valuable. Sure, you can definitely make some aggregate-level guesses on when the free agent market figured to be strong on the pitching side or the positional side, but you’re often just flat out wrong when a year later rolls around. Then you’ve got arbitration raises and FUTURE free agent classes to consider (it’s not like the only stats that count are that year’s!). Alonso, himself, mentions free agency AND guys advanced in arbitration … well, I mean, that’s both types of player every year.
You ALSO have to consider that not all owners would agree on which types of players they wanted to “drive down” that year. So which cabal of owners is actually making the decisions on what type of ball to create? Or is it just a couple MLB execs? Or Rob Manfred? Do you think the powerful owners in the league would stand for that when a move to help some other owners could cost them tens of millions? Or do all 30 teams get together in secret to vote, and majority rules? “By a vote of 16-12, with two abstentions, this year’s baseballs will favor … pitchers!”
It all just kinda starts to fall apart for me when I think about how you would pull this off. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I’m certainly not saying it’s a better explanation for the ball changes than some combination of other explanations (not all of which are charitable to MLB).
Again, though, what really matters is there’s a player out here saying this stuff. The players – some of them, anyway – are THAT distrustful of ownership, the Commissioner, and the other collective non-player institutions in the game. And these groups are supposed to come together on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement later this year. Great sign.