Tom Verducci’s Sports Illustrated report about slicker baseballs being used in the World Series is convincing. I don’t know why the balls the Dodgers and Astros are playing with are different than regular baseballs. But when pitchers and pitching coaches on both sides who have gone through a 170-game season so far are adamant that the balls are weird, I take them at their word. They know baseballs.
What’s weird about the baseballs, specifically, is that they’re harder to grip and even harder to throw for a good slider. This hurts pitchers from both clubs. The Dodgers’ Yu Darvish had the sharpest-breaking slider in the league this year, per FanGraphs, with an average horizontal break of 8.9 inches, which is preposterous. Staff-wide, the Astros threw the most horizontally breaky slider in baseball.
It’s hard to parse the specific effects of a juiced or slicked ball.
Neither sounds good for pitchers.
Darvish got shelled in Game 3. In Game 4, as Verducci notes, nobody generated a single swing-and-miss with a slider. In Game 5, Clayton Kershaw generated exactly one whiff on 39 sliders, a 2.6 percent whiff rate compared to a season average of 24 percent. Kershaw made the pitch break slightly more than normal, but he couldn’t pinpoint it.
That all seems suspect, but it’s impossible to prove that pitchers can’t move the ball properly because of the balls. Kershaw’s Game 5 counterpart, Dallas Keuchel, throws a bunch of sliders, too, and it was one of his better pitches. He got whiffs on 24 percent of the sliders he threw, more than he usually gets.
No one’s ever going to prove in a court of law that either team was hurt by what appears to be something funky going on with the balls. Attempting to draw conclusions from the Series’ five-game sample size would rightfully get you jailed for sabermetric high crimes. There’ll be no appeal for whomever loses.
But there are some things we do know about the World Series.
It is an offensive bonanza, though not in equal parts. The Astros are OPSing .844 to the Dodgers’ .733. Of the record 22 home runs that have already gotten smashed into oblivion in this series, 13 have come off Houston bats. A ball’s gone over the fence every 15.7 at-bats, compared to every 27.1 in the regular season, league-wide.
The Astros are hitting the ball in the air a little more often, which contributes. Baseball’s big public data repositories don’t have detailed postseason batted-ball information available, but Houston’s made 10 more air outs this series than L.A., in addition to those four more home runs. You hit a few more balls in the air, you’ll probably hit a few more home runs, on balance. That makes sense.
If there’s something going on here, it probably benefits the Astros.
If you think there’s plutonium in the balls that’s causing them to fly into orbit at an alarming rate — and that’s just an if — Houston has a marginal advantage. It’ll be something for Dodgers fans to be angry about for eternity, even if they can’t prove it.
The short reason for that: Houston’s a historically great offensive team, and an offensive-friendly environment sure seems like it’d be good for it.
By the park-adjusted version of the advanced stat Runs Created, the 2017 Astros are the best hitting team baseball has seen since the 1931 Yankees and the ninth-best all-time. They were 21 percent better at hitting this season than the average team, which doesn’t sound like much but is a huge gap. They were 17 percent better compared to average than the Dodgers, themselves an elite offensive club. They were second in the league with 238 home runs, three behind the Yankees and 17 ahead of the Dodgers.
Two offenses would figure to benefit equally from something that was making offenses better. But if juiced baseballs are leading to dingers on dingers on dingers, the Astros are the team that should be able to go back to that all-you-can eat buffet the most times. It would be like loosing a fox in the world’s biggest henhouse.
The Astros’ pitching staff isn’t as talented as the Dodgers, or as good. But Astros pitchers were fourth in the league in ground ball percentage this year, inducing them on 47 percent of balls in play. Both teams struck out a ton of batters, an almost exactly equal 21.6 percent of them. But the Dodgers gave up more fly balls — 36 percent, compared to 33 percent for Houston — that could turn into homers. The two offenses hit an almost identical rate of fly balls, with L.A. a few decimal points ahead.
Both teams are elite on both sides of the ball. But the Astros’ success is a little more predicated on run creation, the Dodgers’ a little more on run prevention. A track meet with huge numbers and little dominant pitching should favor the Astros more often.
Of course, none of this will ever be provable.
It might not even be provable that the balls are weird. If that is proved, we’ll still be a long way from knowing how much either offense was helped.
But the World Series sure looks like a different game than the one these teams spent 170-some other games playing. Two of Houston’s three wins have come by one run during homer-fests we almost never see, and the balls might be bad.
Dodgers fans don’t have to be certain of what’s going on to be annoyed.