When Major League Baseball returns, it will be a glorious day. A day when spectators and die-hard fans rejoice. There will be tears shed as the winter snow melts and the dust from the infield stirs with every routine play. But there will be changes – changes to the game that you might just miss if you aren’t paying close attention. And for home run hitters such as Mike Trout, Pete Alonso, and Cody Bellinger, the race to become the 2021 home run leader might not be as easy as it has been.
The Dead Ball Era of the 2020s
According to Eno Sarris and Ken Rosenthal’s piece for The Athletic, Major League Baseball sent a memo to general managers, assistant general managers, and even equipment managers on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. The memo outlined minor changes that might reduce offense slightly in the upcoming season.
So what does that mean?
Major League Baseball will be attempting to reduce the home run derby-esque style of play that we have seen in recent years. The construction of the baseball is set to change and five-plus teams are adding humidors for ball storage. Previously only the New York Mets, Seattle Mariners, Colorado Rockies, Boston Red Sox, and Arizona Diamondbacks used the humidors. MLB has not identified the other five teams to install humidors. Per the article in The Athletic, public analyst Derek Carty stated home run rates dropped by nearly 20 percent once the baseballs were stored in humidors – or in a way that retained humidity more proficient.
Per Sarris and Rosenthal’s article, the memo from the office of the commissioner stated: “In an effort to center the ball with the specification range for COR and CCOR, Rawlings produced a number of baseballs from late 2019 through early 2020 that loosened the tension of the first wool winding.”
If you are like me and need to understand this with easier terms, it’s simple. COR is the relationship of the incoming speed to the outgoing speed. This change will reduce the weight of the ball by less than one-tenth of an ounce. There will also be a slight decrease in the ball’s bounce. Less bouncy, thus lessening the chance of a home run spectacular in the fifth inning. When the KBO deadened balls, it cut down the slugging percentage by 14 percent. Which also cut home runs down by a third. According to Sung Min Kim’s article on FanGraphs from 2019, as the weather shifted into more humid and hotter temperatures, the overall offensive production dropped.
Historically, Baseball Has Been Here Before
This won’t be the first time that Major League Baseball could face a dead-ball era. In fact, the first dead-ball era came over 100-years-ago. The original dead-ball era lasted from around 1900 to 1919 when Babe Ruth appeared on the scene as a power hitter for his time. The era was categorized as the era due to low-scoring games and lack of home runs. And by lack of home runs, I mean, in 1908 teams only averaged 3.4 home runs per game.
Back then in Major League Baseball, it was common for a single baseball to be in play for over 100 pitches. In fact, the same ball was often used until it started to unravel at the seams. The longer it was in play, the softer it became, and attempting to hit a heavily used ball for distance became much more difficult for even skilled players. The softer ball made home runs less likely.
Other contributors in the original dead-ball era included: Major League Baseball adding the foul strike rule. The National League adopted the rule in 1901 while the American League waited until 1903. Before the rule went into effect, foul balls did not count as strikes. A batter could foul off countless times with no strikes counted against him, except bunting attempts. Another contributing factor included the use of the spitball pitch. After the death of Ray Chapman and other factors, the league banned the pitch in 1921. The spitball would increase the curve of the pitch, making it difficult to hit. Pitchers went as far as using tobacco juice with this pitch.
Ultimately between 1900 and 1920, the leader in home runs often had fewer than ten per season. The cumulative batting average ranged between .239 and .279 in the National League, while the American League averaged between .239 and .283. While the original dead-ball era had different contributing factors, it will be interesting to see if there are any comparisons with Major League Baseball deadening the ball this season.
But Wait; There Are More Changes
While Major League Baseball plans to start on time, the global pandemic will be celebrating an unfortunate one-year anniversary. And with the upcoming season, fans can expect a few noteworthy changes to return.
According to multiple reports, MLB and the MLBPA have agreed on health-and-safety rules for spring training and the regularly scheduled season. Among the rules are fan-not-so-favorites: shortening of doubleheader games to seven innings apiece and the rule that starts every extra inning with a runner on second base. Of course, certain changes from previous seasons were undoubtedly due to the pandemic. It made sense to shorten the length of doubleheaders and the attempt to reduce the chance of an 18-inning ballgame. Although it left a bad taste in the mouths of many, it assisted and encouraged social distancing for players.
A change that many expected will remain in the American League only. According to Yahoo Sports’ Hannah Keyser, Major League Baseball does not see the DH’s presence falling under the health-and-safety umbrella. As of now, pitchers will once again be batting in National League ballparks.
For MLB, the change comes when spectators and players alike feel this year has heightened expectations due to the shortened 2020 season. And many questions left unanswered, we look to Spring Training. If there were ever a time for pre-season activities to shine a light, it would be now.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)