MLB’s Newly Altered Baseball May Change Game’s Analytics Approach

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Barry M. Bloom
·5 min read
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Major League Baseball has slightly altered the specifications of the baseball heading into spring training and the 2021 season. And veteran manager Joe Maddon hopes the unintended consequences may completely alter the game.

“Funny how the game is called baseball, and actually the baseball holds the key,” Maddon said in an interview.

Without delving too far into the details, a mechanical adjustment in the way the ball is woven has decreased its weight by 1/10th of an ounce, an MLB spokesman said. Scientists have determined that the change alone will result “in a small reduction in the distance of a typical fly ball,” Alan M. Nathan, a renowned professor emeritus of physics at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said in a statement provided to Sportico.

Though the new ball hasn’t been tested yet on the field, there’s expected to be an immediate impact on strategy and ultimately on the way the game is played.

“I’m hoping it has a lot [of impact],” said Maddon, who took over as manager of the Los Angeles Angels last year after successful stints with the Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs. “If in fact the ball doesn’t travel as far, that in and of itself will change the analytics of the game. And a lot of things will just simply change off of that.”

Maddon says he envisions a shift away from home runs, strikeouts and walks. Terms like launch angle and exit velocity will revert to what they actually refer to—fly balls and line drives.

“It’ll put more emphasis on speed,” Maddon added. “It will put more emphasis on hitting the ball the other way, especially with two strikes. It’ll put more emphasis on putting the ball in play. Strikeouts will become what they were more in the past. You won’t want to strike out as much. There will be disdain as opposed to just a general acceptance.”

MLB has been pondering the impact of the ball on increased home run production for several years, releasing a study in 2019 that concluded the ball was not juiced, as many pitchers including Justin Verlander suspected at the time.

Nathan was one of three university professors who wrote the 2019 study, a 27-page report that concluded the varying height of the stiches weaved by hand on each ball, and the uneven application of river mud applied to the surface to lessen slickness, had an impact on home runs. The slickness created a propellant effect on the flight of the baseball, allowing it to travel farther, a subject that’s still under study.

MLB, which is a part owner of Rawlings, the equipment company that produces all the baseballs for Major and minor leagues out of a facility in Costa Rica, instructed the manufacturer to research and make changes.

It was determined that the tightness of the innermost of four weaves around the rubber core would be loosened, thus slightly changing the weight and distance the ball will travel. The current spec weight for each ball is 5 ounces to 5.25 ounces, keeping it consistently toward the middle of that range. The rubber core—technically referred to as the COR—makes up 0.53 to 0.57 ounces of that weight.

“The goal of the process change was to reduce the ‘spring’ or ‘bounciness’ of the baseball to bring it closer to the mid-range of the MLB specification,” Nathan said. “Measurements from both Rawlings and the UMass/Lowell test laboratory show that the desired effect was achieved.”

Madison Bumgarner, the veteran Arizona Diamondbacks left-hander, said he detected little difference throwing the new ball during his first bullpen session of spring training on Wednesday at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale.

“It would be great if it travels less, rather than further,” deadpanned Bumgarner, who has become a home-run machine, allowing 30 in 34 starts for the San Francisco Giants in 2019, and 13 more in nine starts for the D-backs during last year’s shortened season.

“MLB is telling us there’s not going to be much of a difference, so we’ll take their word for it,” San Diego Padres second-year manager Jayce Tingler said in an interview. “Maybe the ball will travel a foot, two feet, three feet less at 375 feet. Ultimately if you’re talking about a couple of feet at the warning track, you’re talking about a ball that falls short or barely clears. But we’re not going to really know until we get out there and get going.”

Maddon, though, is part of a contingent of baseball people and fans who yearn for a return to the sport’s halcyon days when moving runners and generating runs were embedded in the fabric of each game. As home runs increased, so did strikeouts and walks in an all-or-nothing approach that has had a deadening effect on the appreciation of play.

Home runs jumped from 4,186 in 2014 to 6,776 in 2019, the last full season before the coronavirus hit. At the same time, strikeouts leapt from 37,441 in 2014 to 42,823 in 2019, with a commensurate increase in walks from 14,020 to 15,895 during the same five-season period.

That change is what made MLB study the composition of the ball. Gabe Kapler, in his second year managing the San Francisco Giants, said there will be some adaptation to the ball traveling a few less feet.

“From a hitter’s perspective it’s actually pretty simple: High line drives always work,” he said in an interview. “From a pitcher’s perspective I could see it providing some confidence if a ball that would’ve gone out over the last couple of years, doesn’t. But I don’t think we’ll know a whole lot until we start to see the trends.”

That’s what Maddon wants to determine, and he says those new trends could cause a sea change in the entire approach to building a team.

“The No. 1 thing would be a shift in the way analytics are utilized,” he said. “There would be a shift in what kind of player you want, the kind of pitcher you want, how you set up your minor-league developmental system and what needs to be emphasized. Everything shifts.”

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