Welcome to the seventh edition of Around the Horn. If you’re still new to this space, this will be a recurring op-ed that riffs on whatever’s recently noteworthy in baseball, except it will have a more satirical slant. Think of it as a stripped down Last Week Tonight or Daily Show in a column format, except all about baseball. There will be recurring segments about the good, bad, and ugly in the world of America’s pastime. Additionally, as often as possible, we’ll end with an interview as well.
There’s a lot to discuss, so let’s get right to our first segment:
Our Main Story
To juice or not to juice. That is the question. And no, I’m not talking about kale, ginger, and blenders. There is mounting evidence that the baseball is juiced:
So for the first time, Triple-A is using the MLB ball. In case you didn’t have enough evidence that they’re juiced:
2018 runs per game
2019 runs per game
Those are massive jumps and important context.
— Eddy Almaguer (@EddyAlmaguer) April 18, 2019
Granted, context is important, but it’s fair to say that context alone does not prove the ball is juiced in 2019. More evidence is needed, you say? I present to you Exhibit B:
Home Run% is WAY up this year with the juiced ball, and it looks VERY REAL. And it’s only April, so it could keep getting HIGHER!
HR per Contacted Ball
THE BAT Weather- & Sample Size-Adjusted: 5.5%
— Derek Carty (@DerekCarty) April 25, 2019
Teams are hitting the living snot out of the ball this year, and it’s hard to argue with underlying metrics that support the theory that the ball is juiced, especially with aces getting hammered seemingly every day. Just look at these numbers:
Notable SP ERAs:
— Dave Gentleman (@TeamThirstTrap) April 28, 2019
Even the gods feel the juiced ball has reduced them to mere mortals.
However, I can still understand the skepticism: Is the ball really juiced, or are guys just selling out for more power as the launch angle craze takes hold? Has increased pitcher velocity contributed to harder hit balls and more home runs? Some are blaming the weather, even producing stats to back up the argument:
My rough attempt at why HR are up: weather. Hitters are barreling a little better, but EV doesn’t support juiced ball. April 2018 well below avg temps in midwest, northeast, southeast. Slightly above elsewhere. pic.twitter.com/HhEnGNasuj
— Matt Cederholm (@TheBigHurtHQ) April 23, 2019
We are living in an era with a younger generation of hitters proliferating the game who have abandoned the “two-strike” approach in favor of smashing the baseball at 110+ mph. With the stigma of the strikeout long gone, players have no problems focusing on two things: hitting the ball in the air, and as hard as humanly possible. The average MLB fly ball percentage has gone up 3% since 2017, the last “juiced ball” year.
MLB claims nothing has been done to juice the ball, but we’re heading towards a record .332 AVG, .582 SLG on all balls in play, with a range of .343 AVG, .934 SLG to .348 AVG, .962 SLG for 2019, due in large part to 24.5% well-hit rate (100+ mph) on fly balls (8.4% over 105 and 16.1% between 100-105 mph, both up from 2017) as research by Tony Blengino of Forbes has demonstrated. More and more, players are having this reaction to the baseball:
Look, if numbers don’t sell you on the idea that the ball is juiced, then perhaps science will. Independent investigations by FiveThirtyEight.com revealed that research has shown the ball has become bouncier and less air resistant than before, and when science delves beyond the surface of the ball, as Dr. Meng Law’s team explored via CT scans, the chemical composition of the baseball’s core has changed as well. After all, less dense cores mean lighter baseballs. Research done by The Ringer further posited that a bouncier ball could add approximately three feet to the travel distance of a fly ball.
Home runs went up an astronomical 46% between 2014 and 2017. They’re going up again in 2019. The factors cannot be ignored, as the aforementioned FiveThirtyEight.com report, citing research by Alan Nathan of Fangraphs, found:
Combine all these factors together — a lighter, more compact baseball with tighter seams and more bounce — and the ball could fly as much as 8.6 feet farther. According to Nathan’s calculations, this would lead to a more than 25 percent increase in the number of home runs. Asked whether these changes in combination could have significantly affected the home run rate, MLB declined to comment.
It seems pretty clear that a lighter, denser, bouncier, and less air resistant ball, coinciding with the launch angle revolution, coupled with younger, stronger hitters … has produced the home run surge we see today.
The change in hitting philosophy and influx of a new breed of baseball athletes is simply part of the evolution of baseball, but changes to the ball itself can only be described as making chemical changes to enhance performance.
Basically, MLB appears to be fine with its ball being on steroids if it will drive up scoring and help ratings, but it will be damned if any of its players get caught doing PEDs.
And that’s really where I take umbrage with this whole issue. It feels rather hypocritical for the game to suspend players trying to gain an artificial edge to help their teams win, prolong their careers, and make them more productive while simultaneously denying their own complicit involvement in allowing chemically enhanced baseballs to make the game more exciting and increase profits.
It also seems ridiculous that the Hall of Fame banishes an entire era of those players after MLB turned a blind eye while these players literally saved the game during an era of low ratings and attendance thanks to post-1994 strike doldrums.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for players to use PEDs. I’m not even suggesting players should be given impunity when they get caught cheating. What I am arguing for is more transparency and fewer double-standards.
Out of the Park
A Look Beyond the Boxscores for the Best in Baseball This Week
Vlad Guererro Jr.’s debut was arguably the most anticipated in baseball since that of Mike Trout or Bryce Harper. It’s a shame that service time manipulation threw some water on what should have already happened based on merit alone, but there are many reasons why this debut need not be dampened at all. The first reason is this:
Love, Tu padre pic.twitter.com/mIjj2EkywQ
— MLB (@MLB) April 26, 2019
The fact that MLB mic’d up Vlad Sr. was just the icing on the cake, especially when you consider how bummed Papa Vlad was that they took Jr. out in the ninth for a pinch runner after his son doubled for his first big league hit. Big Vlad seemingly sulked in the back of the suite until the crack of Brandon Drury’s bat produced a walk-off home run, and he then joined the entire stadium in celebration with his son. The entire affair was both priceless and should go down as one of the high watermark moments of the 2019 season.
You know we had to mic @VladGuerrero27 up for his son’s debut. 😎 pic.twitter.com/UTkzhWuWLd
— MLB (@MLB) April 28, 2019
Where Baseball Got Caught Looking
After getting suspended by MLB, Tim Anderson returned and proceeded to do this:
Tim Anderson doesn’t bat flip on walk off home runs.
He BAT SPIKES @Starting9 pic.twitter.com/PzFS1uFnzx
— Barstool Sports (@barstoolsports) April 27, 2019
I guarantee you, the league had this reaction:
Given this was an actual walk-off, perhaps there will be no retaliation this time. Hopefully!
Also, this might have been the most fascinating strikeout you will ever see:
He swung! pic.twitter.com/FomixLamK0
— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) April 27, 2019
Did he, Mike? Did he really? Let’s look at it from a different angle:
It’s not everyday you see a guy strikeout on accident. pic.twitter.com/DK8oJNwcXh
— Cut4 (@Cut4) April 27, 2019
To me, a “swing” is an attempt to hit the ball with the bat. There should be intent. It’s hard not to believe Trevor Story was trying to get out of the way, and in his awkward flailing to avoid getting hit by the ball, his bat crossed the plane. If you want to classify that as a swing and miss, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree. Nonetheless, the bat did indeed cross the plate, so Story was rung up.
A double-dose this week! First, Trevor Bauer proves, again, that he is absolutely one-of-a-kind:
👋🏻👋🏻 @ABREG_1 #TakeItBack #RallyTogether @astros @Indians @MLBNetwork @IntentionalTalk @barstoolsports @Starting9 pic.twitter.com/koQV8vD5ph
— Trevor Bauer (@BauerOutage) April 27, 2019
I’m sure Alex Bregman wasn’t pleased, but he had to be dying laughing inside when he saw that.
Next, here’s Kelly Saco, former Syracuse softballer and Fox Sports reporter, redefining what “you swing like a girl” means:
I play ball like a girl ⚾️👠👗 #tbt #JuntosMiami #FoxSportsFlorida pic.twitter.com/pkVGkhl6l6
— Kelly Saco (@KellySaco) April 26, 2019
Her competition for the sweetest practice swing in the game? This guy:
Hunter Pence has an ugly but effective game swing. Check out his on deck move pic.twitter.com/6V0vEUmQBf
— Coach Jeff Leach (@CoachJeffLeach) February 23, 2016
You be the judge.
And that’s the ballgame for this week!
(Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire)
Please don’t say juiced. It has been shown that the ball has less drag than it used to for reasons we do not yet understand.
Why don’t you like juiced? Does “changed so it goes farther” make you feel better?
Maybe you see it differently, but to me “juiced” implies two things that I don’t think are true. 1) There is an intentional change to the ball’s construction and 2) it’s more elastic.
The investigations indeed prove that there have been intentional changes to the ball’s construction, and since it is now “bouncier” I would argue that would imply it’s more “elastic” as well.
I think the science behind why and how the ball is different constitutes reasons we can absolutely understand. I’ve provided links in the article for the research that has been done if you’d like to review and reach your own conclusions.
Where are those links?
Do you think it cheapens their accomplishments? It sure as hell does. Juiced is the correct term. They might find a progressive, nice sounding term at some point, but what is happening is a lot like the other kind of juice in regards to history and records. So far, people have used it to pawn off the idea that preparation/analytics is the reason for positive change, but at some point they will have to continue to juice the balls further to keep that narrative going or asterisk everything. Sending those balls to AAA signals that they want to create a new era and just bury all of the history. If people ever just accept that history is done and this is a new chapter of baseball, then they can continue to juice balls as much as the public will tolerate. Personally, I would prefer my players juiced, but this is a juiced ball. They changed the manufacturing plant for the balls – that is why they are juiced. Anyone who has much experience with baseballs knows that some are better than others. In softball they very clearly classify balls as have harder or softer cores – some manufacturers make harder balls and they come in different grades. It would be very easy to manipulate if it was desired. Juiced balls were implemented at a time when HR were way down. It’s not rocket science. I am not 100% certain that it was intentional, but it very well could have been and it is certainly convenient timing. Everything is different when manufactured at a different plant. When you go buy a guitar, you ask where it was made – the brand is only half the story.
This is the point where I realize I could talk about this all day. MLB’s best course of action would be to acknowledge the change but say it was an accident that just happened in the new manufacturing plant. That would be easy… the tougher pill to swallow would be the next step. They would probably need to “fix” the manufacturing process and then many of the progressive ideals from the past few years just evaporate. It would likely be a huge blow, possibly critical, to the sabermetrics revolution. I have a feeling that LA doesn’t hold up without juiced balls – just like forever. To think that hitters couldn’t figure out how to hit HR without StatCast data is pretty laughable and insulting IMO. Does that have anything to do with all of the FanGraphs writers leaving? How would AWS feel about it? It is a house of cards… like every lie, every day that MLB doesn’t address it the situation gets a bit worse.
Mounting evidence? I thought we all knew already that the balls were juiced. Nate Silver covered this pretty much as soon as it happened. Fangraphs even stopped dispelling the evidence more than a year ago.
MLB continues to deny that the balls are “juiced” and refused to comment when asked for a response to the independent investigations (linked in the article) that were done recently. While you may have no doubt that the balls have been chemically altered, not everyone is convinced, and the historic HR pace going on right now has led to a lot of debate and discussion on the matter. I posted a tweet from Matt Cederholm in the article where he tries to use data to dispel the notion. In fact, even in the comments of this article there are already differing opinions on whether the ball is “juiced” or not. So, while I agree with you that it is, the reality is that “we all knew already” is not yet true, and it may never be true so long as some people do not subscribe to the conclusions reached by the independent investigations and continue to attribute the surge in HRs to weather, the launch angle revolution, etc.
Thanks for the reply. I think we are on the same page here more or less. I have been pushing this as hard as almost anyone for several years now, so I often overreact to the doubt. There are a lot of people that have a lot of interest in dispelling juiced balls with tons of power and money to support them. There really is not a lot to be gained from telling the truth here. From my perspective, I think it was the pitcher blisters that forced people to accept it. No amount of data was going to convince people who had so much to gain, but the blisters that started almost immediately and all of the pitchers talking about the different feel couldn’t be ignored. You are right in that some people will probably never accept it.
I’d like to read that. The study I am familiar with shows that the ball’s drag was lower but no one can figure out why
The moment HRs start to increase is when the manufacturing process changed. I don’t think it is a science experiment.
That’s not very convincing. Can you show me anything that points to a manufacturing process change? Have you read the study that clearly shows that COR is not very different by that drag is smaller on the balls that lead to more home runs?
You know all this stuff about the baseball being juiced might actually be a result of climate change — the drag coefficient of the air is different — or the current manufacturing process reduces the ability of the seams to resistant the air flow. That’s not the same thing as “juiced” which gives people the impression that the balls are being injected with homer-roids. Cold air absorbs energy when the bat hits the ball, which is why the ball starts to fly when the weather heats up, it enables the momentum build up during the microseconds when ball impacts with the swinging bat and then ejects onto it’s parabolic flight path.
Nope. Nice idea, but that ain’t it. Not even close to being able to explain this increase.
Thanks for the Rundown Paul. I enjoyed it. I guess we’re going to have to put color-coded dots on the balls and drink lots of beer during the games.