The Pen: MLB can't shrug off extreme volatility of the ball. Everyone sees it now

LOS ANGELES, CA - October 9: Will Smith #16 of the Los Angeles Dodgers leaps in the air after just missing a game winning home run against the Washington Nationals in the ninth inning of game five of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday, Oct. 09, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)"n
The Dodgers' Will Smith leaps in the air after just missing a home run against the Nationals in the ninth inning of Game 5 on Wednesday. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

In July, halfway through a season that would end up smashing all previous records for home runs, commissioner Rob Manfred addressed the BBWAA at the All-Star Game in Cleveland to essentially concede that the ball was different without conceding intent. He assured writers that the league was gaining “a good handle on what's going on in the manufacturing process.”

I wonder whether Manfred realized that this wasn’t the sort of reassurance that would put the issue to bed. In fact, far from it. Copping to a level of control, or even just awareness, would only invite further questions. Or, as I wrote at the time, “Now that we can track with pinpoint precision the impact that the ball’s manufacturing has on the on-field product, the conversation is only beginning.”

I don’t bring that up now for the sake of taking a victory lap but rather to emphasize that even after predicting as much, I am in awe of how quickly everyone noticed something is up with the balls this October.

(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)

In that press conference, Manfred promised a future in which “we don't have to wait until May” to start asking if inconsistencies in the ball are impacting the home run rate. Turns out, he wildly overestimated how long it would take observers to go from speculation to confirmation.

Before all four division series had wrapped, baseball writers and fans noticed an uptick in fly balls that seemed to die at the warning track, started publicizing their theories and suspicions, and, thanks to Rob Arthur at Baseball Prospectus, were given statistical proof that the aerodynamic drag on the ball had shot up in October, resulting in far fewer home runs than anticipated. All that took a matter of days, during which there were fewer games (but still a statistically significant number of pitches thrown, which is how Arthur tracks drag) than there would be during a regular-season week.

(I should clarify that none of this is “unfair,” per se. So long as both teams are using balls with comparable specifications, complaints about how the Dodgers might have won if Will Smith’s long fly ball had traveled a few feet further do more to highlight how precarious any advantage in baseball is than they do to undermine the sanctity of a given game.)

In response to Arthur’s study, Major League Baseball issued a statement that the postseason balls were pulled from the same batches as the admittedly extra juicy regular-season balls.

That is a tautologically unsatisfying response because the drag on the ball is different and it does appear to be having a material impact on the game. MLB is failing to engage with the issue at hand when they respond with an insistence that they didn’t do anything nefarious. Culpability is intriguing, especially as it relates to whatever is at the root of the change, but MLB (which has a large ownership stake in the Rawlings production company) doesn’t get to be done talking about how the baseballs are different or abdicate responsibility for it by releasing a pat statement saying that it expected the balls to be the same.

For his part, Manfred told Forbes in September that he reconvened the same panel that previously studied the ball and expected a new report on what happened this year shortly after the World Series. That was before the October spike in drag and it’ll be interesting to see if this forthcoming report addresses the recent aberration. Without specifying what kind of changes baseball might pursue, Manfred said they’re working toward “a more predictable, consistent performance from the baseball.”

I wonder if he knows whether that’s possible. Predictable, maybe. But consistent?

Analysis of the home run rate both this year and especially this postseason has bemoaned the sudden and extreme volatility, but while the change is certainly more sudden and more extreme — as Arthur and others like Dr. Meredith Wills have shown — I’m not convinced that the ball being volatile is.

Either MLB is changing the ball on purpose or else it can’t control it. If it’s the latter, Occam's Razor should tell you which one is more likely: that we’re worse at making consistent baseballs than ever before or that we’re better at studying them precisely.

Statcast and suspicious spikes in home runs have beget a generation of fans and commentators who are trained to look for anything that feels like a marked shift in how batted balls are traveling in the air, and who have established a method of analyzing the physical ball’s role in that shift. This past week has been a testament to just how quickly that perceptiveness can take root and turn into a meaningful revelation that the league has to be prepared to contend with.

MLB is promising future consistency while also chalking up the inconsistency this postseason to normal fluctuations. Opacity at this point is just frustrating. In order to reconcile those things, the league should get on the side of engaging with this data, embracing revelations, admitting when something has changed, and ultimately being more transparent overall about how much consistency we can expect from the baseballs.

Otherwise we’re in for a lot more think pieces.

Notes from the clubhouse

In the decisive Game 5 of the ALDS that saw the Houston Astros handily advance past the Tampa Bay Rays, sign-stealing — and particularly the Astros’ well-documented history of doing so legally and illegally — was suspected to be part of how they jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first inning off Tyler Glasnow. He addressed those concerns after the game, with a nod toward specifically what kind of sign-stealing would be acceptable:

“I think how the game is today, a lot of teams are concerned [about sign-stealing]. I think that’s part of the game, too, if you can steal signs at second, that’s part of the game. We have ways to combat that.”


Notes from the stands

Last week, I asked you to tell me about which individual player you want to see succeed this postseason and I’m sorry that some of you are already sorely disappointed:

At least this means that the “Kershaw” fans don’t have to change their answer for next year?

A little love for the old guys getting their last chance:

And the young guys, who have changed a team’s fortune with their ascendance …

...and who piss off old columnists along the way.

Ultimately, people just really love dominant starting pitching:

And it helps to be a sweetie.

In the middle of October, especially if you’re professionally obligated to follow along with the playoffs, the games can simultaneously start to run together and seem unparalleled in their specific drama. It feels like I’ll never forget the dominance of Gerrit Cole or the quirkiness of a homer-ruled-double, but I wonder which of these moments and performances will actually transcend future seasons and so, for next week, tell me —, or on Twitter — what you think was the most memorable postseason game you’ve seen.

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