Rob Manfred: Fans say they love home runs ... and strikeouts

Jeff PassanMLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Apparently it’s not just the long ball chicks dig. They love the strikeout, too.

In response to questions about Major League Baseball’s record-setting home run pace, commissioner Rob Manfred on Wednesday said surveys by the league show that fans have enjoyed the uptick – and that a 10th consecutive year of record strikeout totals pleases them likewise.

“The important question is: How do our fans see it?” Manfred told Yahoo Sports. “And our fan research suggests that people like home runs and they actually like lots of strikeouts. Whether that’s the definitive position we take or not, I can tell you again, being a numbers guy, our first step was to try to figure out what fans think, and our initial indications from our fan research is they like it.”

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If further exploration confirms those conclusions, it creates quite the paradox for baseball, which has seen widespread criticism of its lack of in-game action – including from the commissioner himself, whose pace-of-play criticism traces back, in part, to the proliferation of home runs, strikeouts and walks.

Those so-called three true outcomes have accounted for 33.3 percent of plate appearances this year, with players striking out 21.5 percent of the time and belting home runs at an unprecedented rate. At 1.27 home runs per game, players are on pace to hit 6,186 home runs this season, nearly 500 more than the record set in 2000 during the middle of the Steroid Era.

Home run rates typically climb during the summer as well, and if it jumps to 1.29 per game, that would mark a 50 percent increase from 2014, when league-wide offense hit a three-decade low. While speculation about a juiced ball has run rampant – pitchers across the game grumble anonymously daily, and Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander said so publicly this week Manfred insists there have been neither intentional nor unintentional changes to the ball since the home run spike started in the second half of the 2015 season.

“I understand that people like conspiracy theories,” Manfred said. “I wish that I were a) smart enough or b) effective enough to, in the middle of the season, figure out a way to effectuate this sort of change. I would be way better at my job if I were smart enough to pull that off. I understand there is a change that is difficult to explain. The other side of that coin is that to hypothesize that we somehow had a plan that we implemented in the middle of the season that effectuated that sort of change strains credulity.”

Verlander’s willingness to speak out came on the heels of a story at The Ringer in which writer Ben Lindbergh and well-regarded sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman sent 36 game-used balls from before and after the August 2015 spike to a lab to be studied. Not only did their results show a higher coefficient of restitution – essentially how much a ball bounces – it said the lower seams and smaller circumference of the newer balls helped account for the difference.

The study did have its flaws. As Manfred alluded to, just because a ball was used in the second half of 2015 did not mean it was manufactured then. Some teams receive delivery of their entire lot of 40,000 or so balls before the season. Others don’t have the storage space and get once- or twice-a-year refill shipments. Furthermore, because every ball is hand-stitched at a factory in Costa Rica, baseball bakes a margin of error into the manufacturing process. One source said coefficient-of-restitution measures in the past have been higher than those in the Ringer study, and it did not correspond with such a drastic home run jump.

And it is drastic. While the fly ball rate has barely changed from 2014, jumping 1.1 percentage points to 35.5 percent, the number that go for home runs is demonstrably different. Only 9.5 percent of balls hit in the air went over the fence three years ago; today, it’s 13.7 percent.

“Look, juiced balls are an appealing idea,” said Alan Nathan, a physics professor who specializes in applying science to baseball and last year consulted for MLB on the matter. “And in a way, that’s almost what Mickey Lichtman has been telling me for a year now. With that as his starting point, he’s determined to prove it with the best kind of science he can do. Maybe it’s even true. For me, I’m not a statistician. I really would like to see the firm evidence for it. Unequivocal evidence.”

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred on Wednesday said surveys by the league show that fans have enjoyed the uptick of home runs and strikeouts. (Getty Images)
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred on Wednesday said surveys by the league show that fans have enjoyed the uptick of home runs and strikeouts. (Getty Images)

Nathan called the study’s coefficient-of-resistance data, which contended batted balls could receive an extra 3 feet of fly ball distance because of it, “legitimate on its face.” He does not believe the shorter seams have a similar effect, as the Ringer story contended, and wondered whether the samples were representative enough to draw a conclusion.

The league, meanwhile, stands behind its studies conducted last year at UMass Lowell’s Baseball Research Center. Though it has not released the reports publicly, MLB believes they absolve the ball of any substantive change.

“We have tested the baseball really thoroughly and consistently over a period of time,” Manfred said. “I know others have tested it and have said certain things. Our test results from the labs we believe are the most skilled in this suggest there is nothing about the baseball that can account for the increase in home runs.”

And thus the puzzled look on Manfred’s face Wednesday, when he was here to announce MLB and the MLB Players Association’s joint $1 million donation to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Now, there is always the possibility that Manfred is a world-class actor. Perhaps he hatched a Machiavellian plan to increase offense in the game. Convinced a good half-dozen top officials at the league, who have sworn on everything holy to them that MLB had nothing to do with juicing the balls, to lie about it. Trusted everyone who works at the Costa Rica plant to keep the new formula secret. And continues to perpetuate that lie now, knowing that intentional ball-juicing led to the resignation of Nippon Professional Baseball’s commissioner in 2013.

That’s one hell of a conspiracy. The likelier culprit would be some sort of change in the manufacturing process – the sourcing of a material, the production method – that birthed an unintended consequence. Manfred doesn’t necessarily buy that, either, and the entire subject confounds him, frankly, because the lack of clarity.

“This is a tough question for me, because I literally cannot give you a complete explanation,” Manfred said. “This may be an indication of a personality flaw, but I don’t like to be places where I can’t explain something or can’t figure out a full explanation to it. But it’s just one of those ones where I’ve got to tell you, that’s where I am.”

It makes solving the puzzle of baseball in 2017 that much more difficult for the league. Are home runs and strikeouts the scourge or the solution? Can baseball adequately serve multiple masters? And if not, which side does it choose?

The existential dilemma bifurcates the players, too, seeing as home runs enrich position players and infuriate pitchers. And it works its way down to lower levels, with strikeouts higher than ever in college and youth players being taught the difficult-to-master uppercut swing that’s all the rage among power-hitting major leaguers.

“We are very cognizant of the fact that our game has changed significantly,” Manfred said. “Pitchers throw harder. We shift literally tens of thousands of times a year when we used to do none. And that has resulted in hitters taking a different approach. There’s much more tolerance for strikeouts than there used to be. Players have altered their swings in an effort to hit more home runs. And when you’re talking about athletes as great as our athletes, they make those kinds of adjustments, I think it’s bound to have an effect.”

Whatever the cause may be, the effect is clear, and it’s the backdrop for Manfred’s biggest test yet as commissioner: How does he take something he doesn’t fully understand but fans tend to like and make it right? Or does he conclude it’s right already and the game will self-correct as it does so often? This is not entirely binary, but those are the general sides: act or wait.

It’s a vexing problem not just because of how it has changed the game but because we may not know whether Manfred’s action was right or wrong for years. But as baseball continues to resemble something different than it ever has, it’s getting clearer: Rob Manfred’s choice is coming sooner than later.

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