Bernstein: Did MLB Mess With The Ball?

If the baseball itself remains a variable, chaos will reign among executives.

Dan Bernstein
October 10, 2019 - 2:21 pm

(670 The Score) We know this era of explosive home run hitting began roughly after the 2015 All-Star Game, when the balls used in MLB play started carrying farther through the air due to a lessening of drag.

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Given time and all kinds of scientific examination, the overwhelming evidence of juiced baseballs eventually led to an admission from even commissioner Rob Manfred that the ball was less air resistant, though he insisted it remained within their comically acceptable limits of variation. This fact was reinforced when the Triple-A level began to use the MLB ball this season, and its home run rate ballooned by a full 50 percent. It has become the new normal, with us now inured to the rewriting of record books for home run frequency.

Or had become, until the 2019 playoffs began. Something is up, as the ball has abruptly stopped flying like it has been.

Rob Arthur of Baseball Prospectus posted a series of tweets Monday detailing how air resistance is back in a big way, coinciding with the start of this postseason. Using data from the MLB pitch tracking system to observe exit velocities and launch angles while applying park effects, he determined that there have been 50 percent fewer home runs than would've been expected from such impacts during the regular season. He notes that the measurements correct for temperature, altitude and pressure and that the largest effects have actually been recorded in the climate-controlled environment in Tampa.

Arthur reports that the difference in drag isn't noticeable on the no-doubt bombs but instead on those that register a 20-70 percent home run probability that "just aren't carrying like they used to."

Playoff baseballs are indeed separately produced, but what we don't know yet is where and when this is done. So random happenstance is as possible as some kind of intention even if we're engaging in wild theories of an attempted correction, because we have no idea when any kind of decisions would have to be made regarding the characteristics and/or specifications.

And about the aforementioned Triple-A? There's more on that, too.

Baseball America executive editor JJ Cooper was also busy on Twitter on Thursday, reporting on a notable drop in home runs in August in those circuits, particularly the International League, where Cooper found that the home run rate dropped precipitously from one in every 25 at-bats in June and July to one in every 30 in August. He also shared anecdotal evidence from players about the August ball feeling softer and having more prominent laces.

Whatever is happening could continue, or it could revert when the next box of balls is opened. If it's not an active effort, the only other possibility is something more alarming -- extremely coincidental variance of which pallets of merchandise arrive on what ships at what times. And that uncertainty has to have general managers terrified about how to budget resources and assess the value of players.

How much should be paid for power when it's not being provided by the ball, and how does that change what a player is worth relative to replacement level? What happens to the calculated value of a win? How does the engineering of pitches change when the ball moves through air differently.

Perhaps the new market inefficiency in the business of MLB is finding approaches, swings and pitch types that are less a function of the baseball's construction than others, because if this is becoming a variable, all bets are off.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s Bernstein & McKnight Show in midday. You can follow him on Twitter @Dan_Bernstein.