The Home Run Derby Monday night was a legitimately legendary head-to-head affair between Joc Pederson and Vlad Guerrero Jr., who needed three extra periods and 79 home runs to decide a victor in the semifinal in one of the most memorable moments in recent derby history.
UNREAL!— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 9, 2019
Vlad Jr. hits another 29 homers in the second round pic.twitter.com/EnO0g7AhlY
We’re still talking about the Home Run Derby this morning, which is a sign of how impressive it was, but one person isn’t a huge fan: Justin Verlander. On Monday night, Verlander spoke to ESPN and went off on the baseballs MLB is currently using and his belief that they’re being manipulated to increase scoring by commissioner Rob Manfred.
“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---ing 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. We all know what happened. Manfred the first time he came in, what’d he say? He said we want more offense. All of a sudden he comes in, the balls are juiced? It’s not coincidence. We’re not idiots.”
Is this a case of a genuine conspiracy, or just Verlander being salty he’s given up the most homers of his career in 2019?
Why the conspiracy could be real:
There are absolutely more home runs being hit in 2019. This is incontrovertible. At its current pace, the season will finish with 6,668 home runs, which would destroy the previous record set in 2017. In the past we’d look to players. Was someone vastly over-performing? An overall shift in the size and power of those entering baseball? Was it a bad year for pitching? This year is different.
Look, even I’ve got to admit it’s awfully suspect MLB wanted to increase scoring, bought Rawlings, which literally makes the baseballs, and now there’s a home run explosion. Correlation might not equal causation, but that’s one hell of a coincidence.
It just so happens MLB’s end goal magically surfaced right after buying Rawlings, and this isn’t some in-depth issue either. Some players have been saying the baseballs feel different.
Asked Sean Doolittle about this today. Upfront & candid, as always. "They feel really slick, they feel really smooth. There’s been several times where I’ve gotten one and I haven’t even thrown a pitch with it. It just really didn’t feel right in my hand so I just threw it out." https://t.co/OI1Cdghlj0— Steve Gardner (@SteveAGardner) May 3, 2019
Manfred himself acknowledged that the baseballs have changed, but attributed the switch to science.
“Our scientists that have been now studying the baseball more regularly have told us that this year the baseball has a little less drag. It doesn’t need to change very much in order to produce meaningful change in terms of the way the game is played on the field. We are trying to understand exactly why that happened and build out a manufacturing process that gives us a little more control over what’s going on. But you have to remember that our baseball is a handmade product and there’s gonna be variation year to year.”
Why this “conspiracy” isn’t a conspiracy at all:
We’ve established there are more home runs. We know that MLB has fundamentally altered the baseballs themselves, but there’s another leap in logic to assume they are intentionally altering them to create more home runs.
To understand this we need to talk a look at the baseball itself. The furor surrounding the ball centers on, well ... its center. The inside of a ball itself is a cork center, wrapped in rubber — this makes up the “pill.” The pill is then surrounded in wool, before being wrapped in leather. Seems simple enough, but each of those elements leaves room for variation.
FiveThirtyEight took X-rays of baseballs in 2018 to examine these variances. Images show numerous balls with off-center pills and inconsistent interiors. It’s the nature of the beast when it comes to any manufactured product, especially one that is handmade. Purists might balk at the idea of creating uniform, homogeneous baseballs because they take the romanticism out of the game — but there’s undoubtedly value in providing players with a similar experience every time they play.
To this end there are two things at play:
- Rawlings has been centering the pill more effectively and uniformly in baseballs.
- There is definitely an overall density change to the balls themselves, as shown by FiveThirtyEight.
We’re left with a scenario where the baseballs are absolutely resulting in more home runs, but that could be because of innovation, not a complicit plan to generate more home runs. The scoring boost could be a welcome boon, but not necessarily a plot.
Or Verlander is right and this is all a big fix. Who the hell knows? I just want to keep seeing dingers.