Major League Baseball is in the middle of its first work stoppage since the 1994-95 players' strike. The collective bargaining agreement expired at 11:59 p.m. ET on Dec. 1, and almost immediately upon its expiration, the owners locked out the players. It's unclear when the owners' lockout will end, but until it does, hot stove activity is halted.
Just prior to the lockout, Bradford William Davis of Business Insider reported MLB used two different baseballs during the 2021 season. . In previous years the league used a heavier baseball, leading to the increase in home runs. Both balls were within specification ranges, it should be noted, but small changes even within those ranges can lead to a big difference in performance.
Dr. Meredith Wills, an astrophysicist, has studied MLB baseballs the last few years and found both the lighter (2021) and heavier (pre-2021) baseballs were used this past season. MLB does not deny that. The league says manufacturing shortages related to the COVID-19 pandemic forced Rawlings to use leftover balls to meet demand this season. Here is MLB's statement:
"Rawlings manufactures Major League balls on a rolling basis at its factory in Costa Rica. Generally, balls are produced 6-12 months prior to being used in a game. Because Rawlings was forced to reduce capacity at its manufacturing facility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the supply of re-centered baseballs was not sufficient to cover the entirety of the 2021 season. To address this issue, Rawlings incorporated excess inventory into its shipments to Clubs to provide a full complement of baseballs for the 2021 season."
Each baseball is marked with a batch code indicating when it was manufactured. Wills found Rawlings manufactured both the lighter and heavier baseballs since late 2019. The lighter ball was produced from Oct. 2019 to Jan. 2020, the heavier ball from Jan. 2020 to Oct. 2020, the lighter ball from Oct. 2020 to Jan. 2021, and the heavier ball since.
The batch codes tell us Rawlings, which is owned by MLB, did not simply fill the gaps this past season with leftover heavy baseballs manufactured prior to 2021. They also manufactured the heavier baseball in 2021. MLB says it informed the MLBPA about the change in baseballs, though several players cited in the Business Insider report are skeptical.
"I'm not sure what we were told, but I'd assume it was nothing. If the balls meet standards, then they would have no reason to tell us anything," said lefty reliever Andrew Miller, a member of the MLBPA's executive subcommittee. "... There's a fair amount of distrust between players in the league on certain topics, and this is one of them."
Having to use two different baseballs because of supply shortages created by the pandemic would be understandable, though the batch codes tell us both the lighter and heavier baseball were manufactured in 2021, raising questions. Here are four questions MLB should answer to help restore confidence in the product it is selling.
1. Why were two different baseballs used?
We know the official reason: COVID-19 created supply chain issues and Rawlings filled the gaps with leftover inventory. The batch codes tell us that's not really the case though. They tell us the heavier homer-happy ball was manufactured this year and used in big-league games this past season. So what's the real reason?
Was MLB not happy with the performance of the lighter baseball? Did an early season decline in home runs and offense spook the league and create concerns about the game's entertainment value, leading to a return to the heavier ball? Did someone at Rawlings misread the specifications and this is all one big misunderstanding? Something else entirely?
|Home runs per team per game||Runs per team per game|
MLB has been wishy-washy about the baseball the last few years. In 2018, a study found the ball changed sometime around the 2015 All-Star break, leading to more homers. MLB commissioned its own study, which found the ball was not changed intentionally. In 2019, MLB reiterated the ball was not changed intentionally, and instead partially attributed the home run rate to hitter behavior.
Who knows what to believe at this point? And that's sort of a problem, no? MLB doesn't have much (any?) credibility when it comes to the baseball itself. In the year 2021, it's not unreasonable to want one single baseball that not only performs the same way year after year, but also the same way within in a single season. MLB should explain why we didn't have that in 2021.
2. Which ball was used in which games?
I remember precisely when I first thought to myself "MLB brought back the 'juiced' ball, didn't they?" this season. It was the Field of Dreams Game in Iowa. The ball flew in that game. The Yankees and White Sox combined to hit eight home runs that night. They then hit eight homers combined in the final two games of their series at Guaranteed Rate Field, one of which went to extra innings.
We should know which baseball was used in which games, and why. Was it entirely random, or did MLB intentionally juice specific games like, say, the nationally broadcast Field of Dreams Game? The best-case scenario is it was random. The worst case is it was intentional, which would create major competitive integrity questions given MLB's full on embrace of gambling revenue.
"You know, send a bouncier baseball, lighter baseball -- whichever flies more -- to a primetime series," an unnamed National League pitcher surmised to Davis. "Then (send the deadened baseballs to) Texas versus Seattle. Or, you know, Detroit versus Kansas City. No one's going to bat an eye."
Keep in mind this is already a very sore subject for players. Over the summer Mets slugger Pete Alonso accused MLB of tweaking the baseball to depress player salaries. Hard to see how MLB could have a reason for intentionally sending certain baseballs to certain games that doesn't further create distrust among the players.
3. Which ball are we getting in 2022?
MLB told Davis the "2022 season will be played with only balls manufactured after the production change," and gosh, I wish I could believe them. The fact of the matter is we have no idea how the baseball will play in 2022, because we didn't know how it would play in 2021, 2020, 2019, etc. until the games started. Not much more we can do other than wait and see.
"You would like to have some consistency," Yankees infielder DJ LeMahieu told Davis. "I don't think it's that difficult to have pretty consistent baseballs year in and year out."
4. Will Manfred resign?
The answer is almost certainly no. At least not over this. Commissioner Rob Manfred is accountable to no one but the 30 MLB owners and he makes them way too much money to resign over some bad PR involving the baseball. There is precedent for a commissioner resigning in disgrace over a scandal involving the ball, however.
In Sept. 2013, Japanese baseball commissioner Ryozo Kato announced his resignation after it was revealed the league secretly changed the baseball in the middle of the 2013 season. Here's part of the ESPN report:
Kato, a former Japanese ambassador to the United States, came under criticism in June when it was revealed the league had secretly switched to a livelier baseball for the 2013 season. The new ball has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of home runs.
"I caused a lot of problems over the ball, and that was a huge reason for my decision,'' Kyodo news agency quoted Kato as saying.
If that is not an identical scandal to what happened in MLB this year, it is damn close. MLB used two different baseballs and said it was the result of supply change shortages, but the batch codes tell us the heavier home run happy ball was also manufactured in 2021. It wasn't just leftover inventory from previous years.
Based on the precedent set by Kato, then yes, Manfred should resign. I don't expect that to happen, however, and Manfred should at least explain why what happened in MLB this year different from what happened in Japan in 2013. The supply shortage excuse doesn't add up given the batch codes.