In ALCS clash, Justin Verlander says the fluctuating baseball 'dictates the game'

HOUSTON — In the first inning of the first game of the long-awaited Championship Series between the American League’s biggest juggernauts, one of baseball’s biggest stars (figuratively, literally) hit a ball 102.8 mph at a launch angle of 32 degrees to left-center field. Since 2015, batted balls with those specs have produced an .820 average and a home run 76 percent of the time. In Minute Maid Park, specifically, there were four balls hit with an exit velocity between 102 and 104 mph and a launch angle between 31 and 33 degrees during the regular 2019 season. All four of them were home runs, two to left-center.

Aaron Judge hustled out of the box and was somewhere around second when center fielder George Springer caught the ball at the warning track — just a long, loud out. One that would soon be forgotten as the New York Yankees stormed ahead thanks to Gleyber Torres’ big night, snagging an important 7-0 road victory against the dominant Houston Astros in Game 1. So it sounds like a lot of nerdy nitpicking to even pull all those numbers and still be talking about an out that didn’t matter, and a home run that didn’t happen, after the game.

But the same forces that changed the flight of the ball that Judge hit are working on every ball in the air this postseason, and in doing so, putting pressure on the style of play guys on the field have carefully adapted to. And that matters more than any one fly ball.

Judge hasn’t seen all the recent talk about how the playoff ball has more drag, less juice than the uber ball that induced record numbers of home runs in the regular season. And he doesn’t think the ball he hit Saturday night should have gone out.

“I got it off the end, just a little out front. I didn’t really have a shot,” he reasons. “I tried to put a good swing on it, but I’m just amped up, my first at-bat.”

He is in good spirits after the victory, joking with the dozens of reporters who lingered at his locker that their presence and the corresponding pressure to put his shoes on quickly made him feel like he was going through a TSA checkpoint. And so even though he didn’t take the bait to talk about the shifting nature of the ball the way I’d hoped he would, I follow up with the data, explaining the probabilities and the precedent — even in this ballpark!

“Oh really? Wow,” he humors me. “Missed one right there.”

Aaron Judge does not care. And honestly, why should he? The Yankees are coming off a sweep and then another win. They’re playing well. It’s working. Even if the ball is different than it was just two weeks ago (and it’s worth emphasizing that it demonstrably is), both teams are playing under the same constraints. Swinging for the fences still works to score runs and thinking about it too much certainly won’t help.

But whether or not anyone is thinking about it or even noticing: “The ball incredibly dictates the game that's being played on the field that fans witness,” as Astros starter Justin Verlander said. “I think this year is a great example of this.”

Verlander, who will be asked to bring the Astros level in the series on Sunday night in Game 2, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the fluctuations in the baseball. He said he hadn’t wanted to draw his teammates’ attention to the latest round of suspicious data for fear of distracting them before the decisive Game 5 against the Rays.

Besides, “I think MLB just came out with a report they haven't changed, right? I guess we've got to believe that, right?” he said with a smirk.

Judge is more careful with the press, wary of saying anything controversial. But home runs being down isn’t a conspiracy theory, it’s a collection of data points. The ball being different isn’t something you can opt into or out of.

This weekend, we reached a critical mass of reporters covering the postseason who had read Rob Arthur’s study of the October baseball and wanted to know whether the guys on the field and in the dugout noticed anything amiss.

Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said that not only had he thought a ball that Marcell Ozuna hit should have gone out, but crucially that the team’s analytics department had done their own research and concluded that the ball is flying 4.5 fewer feet on average in the postseason. That made headlines, but the other remaining managers were more circumspect.

The Nationals’ Dave Martinez chalked it up to atmospheric changes, the “heavy air” this time of year, but said that the Nationals were trying to accommodate a deader ball, both with where they positioned their outfielders and how they planned to score runs.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone deflected, saying, “No, other than when you said that I hadn't heard anything. So I'm going to ask our guys what we've got.” Of the studies that show rather conclusively that something is different: “I don't know what to make of that.”

The Astros’ A.J. Hinch was the most dismissive of the managers remaining.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the type of matchups that go on during playoff baseball when you're trying to win. You're exploiting weaknesses in hitters. Maybe you're even able to exploit it a little bit more,” he said in response to a question that referenced Shildt’s comments about the analytical anomalies in the ball. “But the conspiracy of the ball, I'm so far away from caring about that. I want to try to win games.

“I don't have a lot of time to spend on the difference in the ball.”

There’s an action missing from that sentence though — not a lot of time to spend doing what? Thinking about who or how or why the ball changed? Fine. Railing against it in frustration when his team loses? That’s very zen. Taking a quiet comfort when he has an ace on the mound who gave up a career-high in home runs this year? Wouldn’t matter if he did. Adjusting his extremely fine-tuned understanding of the game and how he advises players to approach it?

That’ll happen whether it’s consciously connected to statistical analysis of the drag on the ball or not, and it will affect everything from individual stat lines to the outcome of this anticipated ALCS clash.

New York's DJ LeMahieu (26) completes the double play on Houston's Alex Bregman during Game 1 of the ALCS on Saturday. (Getty)
New York's DJ LeMahieu (26) completes the double play on Houston's Alex Bregman during Game 1 of the ALCS on Saturday. (Getty)

In a sweeping oversimplification of a trend that has touched all facets of the game: Baseball has been optimized within an inch of its life. To think that doesn’t include a careful, practiced, second-nature awareness of how the sport’s fundamental physical object behaves is just silly. Not to mention the data-driven mandate on how to react in certain situations. It’s so hard to prove a negative, but maybe Astros third baseman Alex Bregman got doubled up between first and second because he saw hundreds of balls hit like the one Yordan Álvarez slapped into right field Saturday night and that experience taught him that it would travel 4.5 feet further and evade Judge’s outstretched arm.

(Also, maybe Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr. expected the ball he hit in the NLDS to escape the park and save him a news cycle of public shaming because that’s what well-hit balls have done during his time in the league.)

Players misjudging batted balls matters. How they adapt matters even more.

Setting aside this October downturn, the increasing so-called juiciness of the ball dating back to the second half of 2015 has made home runs so accessible that they’ve crowded out other forms of offense.

“Stolen base opportunities were down, moving the guy over. All the risks that you would take — unnecessary risks you would view now to have a baserunner get out on a base path — trying to go from first to third, trying to stretch a single to a double, they slowly worked their way out of the game this season … because every single batter in the lineup can go deep the next pitch,” Verlander said. “When you're playing in a game where there's more extra base hits than there were singles, why would you risk that? I understand that.”

Crucially, he’s not complaining about kids these days and how they’ve bastardized the game with their flashy bat-flip-inducing long balls. He’s explaining how changes to the equipment (combined with an increasing ability to accurately evaluate different kinds of contact) encouraged what he calls an “ADD version of baseball.”

“Where it's these huge elation moments, home run, home run, yeah, yeah. And then you're just kind of sitting there waiting for the next moment with a bunch of strikeouts in between.”

So then the deadened ball of October (spooky!) is good? Maybe! For fans of small ball, at least. (Although we’re probably in for a lot of near-misses at the warning track first, declining power numbers among the league’s middle class and a corresponding decline in how that player is valued in arbitration or free agency.) The point is, it matters — whether you read the studies or not.

Putting a baseball in the air is the fundamental building block of the sport. It happens hundreds of times a night, hundreds of thousands of times in a season. Teams are built, are optimized, based on an understanding of how things like exit velocity and launch angle will determine the upshot of a ball in flight. If the drag coefficient has changed, so will the outcome. It’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s just math.

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