It's one of those reports that's liable to slip through the cracks even though the impact could be transformative. According to an internal memo obtained by The Athletic, MLB is indeed changing the ball in 2021.
No need for theories or speculation. It's happening. And thanks to the fine work of Ken Rosenthal and Eno Sarris, we know in what ways it is happening.
Through changes in the manufacturing process, Rawlings is deadening it, reducing the tension on some of the internal winding to make it less bouncy. The changes are less about reducing home runs, which have swallowed up many of the game's subtler elements in recent years, and more about standardization. (It's also why an increasing number of teams are storing their balls in humidors prior to game use.) The league allows for a coefficient of restitution (bounciness, basically) between .530 and .570, and the goal is have more balls right in the middle at .550. Many in recent years have measured at the higher end of that range.
There is a counterbalancing effect. While less bouncy, the balls will also be smaller (or if I'm interpreting the report correctly, lighter), thereby reducing drag. So while they won't ricochet off the bat with as much velocity, they're liable to carry more.
Perhaps, then, any amount of hand-wringing is unfounded. You'll hear stories about how a similar change to the coefficient of restitution in Korea three years ago led to a steep reduction in home runs, but their balls actually got larger, not smaller, which served to suppress home runs further. Two opposing changes, as is happening with the MLB ball, may serve to neutralize the effect, at least in large part. If nothing else, it makes it impossible to say with great certainty how offensive output will change.
In the report, Rosenthal and Sarris speculate that the new ball could result in a home run rate more in line with 2017, the start of the juiced ball era, than 2019, the peak of it.
Total HR hit
If so, the effect will be significant but not drastic enough to turn the Fantasy Baseball world upside-down. You may remember 2017 was the year all our norms began to change, with home runs becoming more evenly distributed and mid-level pitchers becoming more vulnerable. The past two years exacerbated it, but they didn't start it.
Bottom line is we're not going to have a great sense of how the new ball plays until we get a full year of data with it, so I'd urge caution when making changes to your approach and rankings. Just for the sake of intellectual curiosity, though, I've put together a list of five pitchers who might benefit and five hitters who might suffer from a deadened baseball.
Again, it's all so theoretical at this point that I'm reluctant to change my initial stance on these players, but it's something to have in the back of your mind when splitting hairs on Draft Day.
SD San Diego • #59 • Age: 25
Paddack's home run rate has always been on the high side and was especially bad last year (2.1 per nine innings) despite a big reduction in fly-ball rate (32.9 percent). His 3.77 xFIP suggests he's already due for better home run luck, and a deader ball would help.
Dylan Bundy SP
LAA L.A. Angels • #37 • Age: 28
Home runs were always what held Bundy back in the AL East, with its smallish parks and loaded lineups, but he fared better in the AL West last year. There may be even more reason for hope considering the average distance on his home runs the past three years was 392 feet.
HOU Houston • #53 • Age: 23
Javier is an extreme fly-ball pitcher who succeeds primarily by preventing hitters from squaring up the ball. It's a bit of a tight-rope walk that still resulted in 11 homers last year, but they averaged just 389 feet.
BOS Boston • #17 • Age: 31
Eovaldi's home run-to-fly ball rate has been higher than 20 percent the past two years, coinciding with the latest home run explosion. It was only once higher than 15 percent before that.
Matthew Boyd SP
DET Detroit • #48 • Age: 30
Boyd has been one of the most homer-prone pitchers over the past two years, undermining whatever improvements he has made as a bat-misser. But he's another example of a pitcher who saw his home run-to-fly ball rate spike when the ball became even more "juiced" in 2019, settling at 18-20 percent compared to 10-12 percent in the two years prior. Maybe a deadened baseball could be what revives him.
Alex Bregman 3B
HOU Houston • #2 • Age: 26
He's not known for hitting the ball especially hard and has averaged less than 385 feet on his home runs the past three years. We saw last year what a reduction in home run-to-fly ball rate could mean for him.
DJ LeMahieu 2B
NYY N.Y. Yankees • #26 • Age: 32
LeMahieu has seen his home run-to-fly ball rate explode the past two years, and it's mostly because he's taking advantage of the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium (check out the home/away splits). Still, if he's already hitting some of the shortest home runs of any player, averaging just 361 feet on them last year, how much more can he afford to lose?
Cavan Biggio 2B
TOR Toronto • #8 • Age: 25
Biggio is already getting the absolute most out of some modest tools, his production largely built on him hitting the ball high rather than hard. As with Bregman and LeMahieu, his average home run distance suggests he could have a problem with a deadened baseball.
Ketel Marte 2B
ARI Arizona • #4 • Age: 27
Marte actually averaged an impressive 405 feet on his 32 home runs in 2019, but then he hit only two home runs last year. Never has there been an easier year to hit home runs than 2019, and if you look at his year-by-year home run-to-fly ball rates, that season's 19 percent mark is a total outlier. The second-highest mark of his career is just 10.9 percent.
Alex Verdugo CF
BOS Boston • #99 • Age: 24
Not only did Verdugo average only 380 feet on his six home runs last year but he outperformed his xSLG (.373) by nearly 100 points (.478). He already plays in a big, tough park for left-handed hitters, and a deadened baseball would be just another cause for concern.
So which 2021 Fantasy baseball sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which undervalued first baseman can help you win a championship? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy baseball rankings for every single position, all from the model that called Will Smith's huge breakout last season, and find out.