CLEVELAND — A few months after leading all National League shortstops with 25 home runs as a rookie in 2017, Cardinals infielder Paul DeJong put on a crisp white lab coat at a Long Island university and, to scratch his science itch, ran a few experiments on some official major-league baseballs. With the help of a friend and scientist, DeJong’s tests took a quick, introductory look at how temperature altered the bounce of the ball.
They found at temperature extremes the ball’s bounce deadened, but DeJong, a biochem major in college, described those for-fun tests as not nearly complete enough to be conclusive.
“I am curious, though,” DeJong said Tuesday as he readied for his first All-Star Game. “I feel like the factors involved could be lengthier than we might think. The seams’ height. The materials used. How tightly wound is the core? Temperature changes for sure. There is a lot of stuff that goes into the ball that could affect it.”
DeJong’s curiosity has become baseball’s concern.
What several players at this week’s All-Star festivities described as an “explosion” of home runs in the game has prompted questions, criticism, and even an expletive about how something about the baseball clearly has changed. Its behavior is different. At the break, a total of 34 players have hit at least 20 home runs, almost twice as many as there were in 2016, three times as many as there were in 2014. Batters are on pace this season to hit 6,668 homers, a total that would vaporize the record of 6,105. That was set in 2017. Four teams are on pace to break the major-league record for homers in a season, and nearly half of the teams are on pace to set their club record for homers in a single season. Using big-league baseballs this season, Class AAA has seen a dramatic rise in homers.
Houston ace Justin Verlander started the 90th All-Star Game for the American League on Tuesday at Progressive Field. He leads baseball in home runs allowed, at 26 because, hey, it's 2019 and even the best gets bruised. On Monday he told ESPN.com that the baseball is “a (rude adjective) joke.”
“The elephant in the room is, yes, the ball is different,” said Max Scherzer, Washington righthander, seven-time All-Star and St. Louis-area native.
“I believe the ball suddenly changed,” union chief Tony Clark said Tuesday during an annual gathering with baseball writers. “And I don’t know why.”
Major League Baseball and its commissioner, Rob Manfred, has acknowledged the baseball has changed in a way that creates “less drag.” The reason confounds them, he said.
Measurements on the baseballs, which are manufactured by St. Louis-based Rawlings, remain within the prescribed parameters, Manfred insisted Tuesday, but they have veered toward extremes of those specifications. He said the cause of these changes are “a topic under discussion.”
Prompted by the spike in homers and a perceived increase in finger blister injuries for pitchers, the union has expressed concerns to MLB. MLB funded a study that was filed and released a year ago about the balls. The surge in homers continued, unabated, and so did the players musing this week that the baseballs were “juiced.”
Or, at the least, goosed.
“Manipulation of the baseball is a great conspiracy theory,” Manfred said. “Baseball has done nothing, given no direction for an alternation in the baseball. As a matter of fact, we commissioned an independent study to make sure there has been no intentional alteration of the manufacturing process. The biggest flaw in that logic is that baseball somehow wants more home runs. If you sat in an ownership meeting and listened to people talk about the way our game is being played, that is not the sentiment among the owners. There is no desire on the part of ownership to increase the number home runs in the game.
“To the contrary,” Manfred said Tuesday, “they’re concerned about how many we have.”
Yet power is, as ever, popular.
Clicks dig the long ball.
Vlad Guerrero Jr. hit an astonishing 91 home runs during Monday’s Home Run Derby, breaking and then matching the record for home runs in a single round. He was out-blasted by Mets rookie Pete Alonso in what some billed as the most exhilarating and exciting Home Run Derby . . . ever. Alonso said Guerrero and Joc Pederson “put on a show” during a round that took three tiebreakers and combined for 79 homers. Alonso has become a sensation with 30 homers by the break — and a run at Mark McGwire’s rookie record of 49. The Home Run Derby was so exhilarating that Tuesday an official said there was discussion of expanding the field of participants for 2020 at Dodger Stadium.
In last year’s All-Star Game, a record 10 homers were hit — shattering the previous record of six — and 13 of the 14 runs scored in the game came via homers.
On Tuesday, the game lacked that same crackle as the NL struck out 16 times and only two homers left the ballpark. The crowd roared for both.
Swings have been geared toward power. The market rewards power. The game has gravitated toward power. And it’s possible goosed baseball could be the preferred baseball.
“What kind of game do we want to have?” Clark asked, rhetorically.
But there is more to changing the ball than an upswing in homers and spectacles like the Home Run Derby. Trace the fault lines out from the ball and both sides wonder about the increased blisters, rising exit velocity, the showcase-style of play, slower pace to games, and, yes, harder foul balls reaching the stands. Clark called it a safety issue.
“At some point safety has to be one of the things considered,” said Houston starter Gerrit Cole. “I’ve seen a pretty gruesome injury in (the stands) in Seattle. Saw a gruesome injury at home. I’ve encouraged people to bring their gloves to the field. I’m not connecting the dots directly from the baseballs to hurting fans but they are coming off the bats hotter, so be aware.”
There is also the whiff of intrigue from Major League Baseball purchasing Rawlings in June 2018 and the influence it now has. Clark suggested how “that dynamic changes the perception and it changes the direct input that can be offered with respect to that piece of equipment, and it just happens to be one of the most important.” Manfred rejected that notion and described ways baseball is investing in advanced technology that will improve “managing” the testing of baseballs before they are approved for play.
After being manufactured by hand in Costa Rica, all official Major League Baseballs are stored in a warehouse near Washington, Mo., before being distributed to major-league teams. The preferred conditions for the baseballs are those found near St. Louis.
Coors Field’s humidor is set to replicate Missouri’s temp and humidity.
Major League Baseball has created a laser that can better measure seam height and that is being explored as a reason for the blisters and reduced drag. In addition to that, baseball is trying to invent a way to test drag on a ball before its put in play.
The commissioner mentioned one possible cause for the reduced drag is the “wobble theory,” which suggests the pill at the core of the ball shifts to alter the ball's spin. That has been tricky to test and adjust, officials said. Major League Baseball has worked with physics experts and has sought help from universities in hopes of creating advanced techniques so that a cause for the reduced drag can be found and quality-control tools can be established to identify a baseball’s traits before its put in flight.
Manfred was asked Tuesday if he would consider a baseball czar to oversee manufacturing and suggest improvements. He said “data” has to be the guide, and he pledged, multiple times, “transparency.” That includes if baseball decides, yes, to change the ball.
That’s the how and the what.
The players still want the why.
Until then there’s no drag on speculation.
“How, what, why, how can that possibly be?” asked Scherzer, who spoke with an official from the commissioner's before Tuesday's All-Star Game and heard the leagues' explanations about the baseball's change. “It’s really hard as players to not wander down that path. We try to take MLB at face value — that they’re trying to do something. We’d like to see MLB do something about it, really take ownership of this. . . . If fans want that, that’s awesome. If the former players believe that’s the best version of the game, then, hey that’s the decision. Players just want answers. Players want to know where this is going to end up. More importantly, if the players don’t know where, the fans don’t know where. . . .
“That’s why players want answers. That is why this is MLB’s problem.”