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MIAMI – During the American League All-Stars’ team picture Monday afternoon, a group of players standing near one another started talking about juiced baseballs. For all the memos Major League Baseball wants to send out denying the existence of an extra-springy ball, all the conceivable explanations for the record number of home runs than will be hit in 2017, the players – the ones gripping the ball, the ones hitting it – are now the ones wearing the tinfoil hats.
This is not to say they’re all seeing black helicopters at this point. Yahoo Sports asked two dozen All-Stars a simple question Monday: Is the ball juiced? And a vast majority of them, after a snort or a chortle, countered with a simple answer: “I don’t know.”
That didn’t stop them from talking about a home run hit by Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve on Sunday. Altuve is a remarkably gifted hitter. He is also 5-foot-5. And to see him take Toronto’s J.A. Happ out to the opposite field, on an off-speed pitch no less, had his teammate Dallas Keuchel, Boston Red Sox star Mookie Betts and others nodding in agreement that, yeah, maybe there is something up with the ball despite MLB’s protestations otherwise.
“We’ve got the smallest guy in the major leagues going backside at the Rogers Centre,” Keuchel said. “You could make a case for, yes, they’re juiced, or no, they’re not. Nobody’s going to know. I personally think sometimes they are.”
Now, it must be said: Keuchel is a pitcher, and the vast majority of juiced-ball conspiracy theorizing comes from those whose ERAs have suffered under this new epoch in baseball, where hitters are on pace to smash 6,126 home runs, which would break the record set in the middle of the Steroid Era by more than 400. The public complaining got loud enough that commissioner Rob Manfred sent a memo to all 30 teams saying “there is no evidence that the composition of the ball has changed in any way that would lead to a meaningful impact on on-field play.”
“Major League Baseball put something on our chairs saying it’s not,” Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy said. “They have people a lot smarter than me looking at it. So I’ll go with that.”
Certainly Murphy doesn’t mind the idea of a juiced ball. He is one of the game’s most contact-oriented hitters, and after seven seasons of posting a slugging percentage that started with a 4, he led the National League last season and is raking at a .342/.393/.572 rate this season. He is one of dozens whose stat lines have benefitted as home runs jumped from 0.86 to 1.01 to 1.16 to 1.26 per game over the last four seasons.
Amid Manfred telling Yahoo Sports he did not understand the cause of the home run spike but was certain it wasn’t from a juiced ball, The Ringer and Five Thirty-Eight both ran stories that said otherwise. Each gained traction inside clubhouses, arming pitchers with evidence to show their teammates and imbuing in hitters at least a scintilla of doubt in what the league claimed.
Some tried to rationalize.
“The pitchers’ arms are juiced,” said Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, pointing out, accurately, that pitchers today throw harder than ever and implicitly invoking Newton’s Third Law.
Others blamed external factors.
“Global warming, dude,” Mariners DH Nelson Cruz said. “I’m serious!”
(He was not serious.)
“I don’t have any idea,” Rockies closer Greg Holland said. “I just chuck and duck.”
For all those whose curiosity is limited to chucking and ducking, there are a few players who have given the matter deeper thought.
“I’m a big believer in things being cyclical,” Giants catcher Buster Posey said. “I think guys aren’t as concerned with two strikes about cutting down, so you’re probably having more aggressive swings. You have a lot of pitchers who come in now that are flamethrowers, so it’s, ‘Hey, here it is, let’s go,’ and not necessarily working the bottom of the plate. I’m not a pitcher, so I don’t have a theory that a lot of the pitchers have.”
Lack of selectivity and hard-throwing pitchers: Check and check.
“Games evolve and things happen over time,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We talk a bunch with the pitchers on our team. I think people train specifically for what they want to do in sports now. It’s the same reason pitchers throw 100 mph instead of 90: They know exactly what they need to do to get the most out of the muscles in the body they need to use to throw 100 mph. Now we’re just kind of figuring out what we have to do to, as Murphy says, get the ball in the air.”
Training for a specific task and launch-angle obsessiveness: Check and check.
“Even if the ball has been changed slightly, that’s an evolution of every sport,” Reds first baseman Joey Votto said. “When it’s home runs, it becomes touchy. The sport is so connected to its history. We have this idea of current humans being better than previous humans.”
Votto’s existentialism brought up a keen point: the sanctity of the home run. Strikeouts have infected modern baseball as we know it for the last decade. The game is a distant cousin of what it was a quarter-century ago. And yet until recently, when its effects were so obvious, the fundamental change had been met with but a whisper of concern. Home runs, on the other hand, are infiltrating the psyches of pitchers everywhere, including the one starting for the NL in Tuesday’s All-Star Game.
“The way I’ve been looking at it, ball is flying for whatever reason,” Nationals ace Max Scherzer said. “I really don’t care. I’ve given up a lot of homers over the past year and a half. That’s really been something that’s been a thorn in my side. I’ve had to become a better pitcher, locate better. Because of the home run spike, I’ve dialed it in even more to try to make my location better to try to prevent them. I think I have a hand in it, in not letting them hit as many homers out, and that’s made me a better pitcher.”
Scherzer’s kindness and benevolence in assigning home runs some sort of reverence for forcing him to improve is not shared. The one person keeping him from the title of the best pitcher in the world has shown a single weakness this year. Clayton Kershaw entered the season allowing 0.54 home runs per nine innings over his first nine seasons. This season? More than 1.22 per nine, a 126 percent jump over his career average.
“I’ve given up a lot more homers,” Kershaw said, “so, sure, I’ll say the ball is juiced.”
Kershaw smirked, his dry humor taking on a bit of a gallows twist. That’s life for pitchers in 2017, in this weird place where the commissioner says, nope, nothing to see here, and pitchers say, yup, there kinda is, big guy, and hitters just shrug emoji and hit dingers and say, hey, if it’s a little juiced, cool, but if you’re really looking out for us …
“Hopefully, it’s juiced more,” Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager said.
Wishful though Seager may be, MLB understands the scrutiny on the ball will grow at least commensurate with the home run rate. Juiced-ball stories have been around forever. They were a popular theory during the time players were the ones juicing. Tales of balls wound too tightly or seams sewn too close to the surface go back decades.
This is different, though. This is every outfielder with an anecdote about going back on what looks like a routine fly ball – and back and back and back until somehow it landed in the bleachers. It’s pitchers, who know the sound of a well-hit ball, seeing ones that aren’t squared up end in a runner circling the bases at a languid pace. And it’s the lack of a definitive smoking gun, one that makes everyone, even Major League Baseball, say, “A-ha!,” that keeps this mystery inside of an enigma wrapped in cowhide going.
“If they are juicing the balls, they’ve done a really good job,” Keuchel said. “It’s just like counterfeit money. The guys who do it the best don’t get caught.”
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