Let’s set aside for a moment the issue of whether or not the commissioner’s office ordered Rawlings, which MLB purchased a year ago, to alter the production of the baseball such that it would be more aerodynamic. Or put another way, whether MLB juiced the balls on purpose.
Commissioner Rob Manfred continued to deny as much this week at the Baseball Writers’ Association of America meeting in Cleveland, which is not surprising. How we got here matters (as does the possibility that Manfred has been lying on the record for months) but regardless of whether what has happened thus far was intentional, what happens next will have to be. And that decision will tell us more about how the league feels about all these home runs than anything anyone has said on the subject.
We’ve reached a pivotal plateau in conversation around the unprecedented home run pace: everyone with a stake in the game seems to understand that the balls are to blame. Production has changed (passive voice to ensure unanimity) and now we have a ball that is able to travel further with the same amount of force. There are other more “organic” factors to explain why home runs are up from 50 years ago — stronger pitchers, steeper launch angles — but the reason home runs have spiked since last year, or even 2017 which was the previous high-water mark — that’s the ball.
So just put it back, right?
To what, though? The 2018 ball? The 2016 ball? We don’t have detailed analysis of the 1930 ball, but it seems hard to imagine that it was more similar to any of those than they are to each other. Retroactive speculation on the comparative composition of the baseball from seasons past is a whole other article for someone more familiar with the scientific analysis that has been so revelatory lately. But the point remains that there is no platonic ideal of a baseball — and, in fact, if what Manfred has said is to be believed, the version we have now is likely the closest we’ve gotten to perfection — and that a return to an earlier-style baseball reflects an active choice that’s indicative of a home run value judgment.
This newfound awareness of the physics of baseballs is not a blip that can be easily undone. We’re through the looking glass and across the Rubicon on needing to know just how juicy a particular season’s balls are. 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.
“We think we have a good handle on what's going on in the manufacturing process as a result of the audit that's been done,” Manfred said Tuesday. “I think our focus going forward is to develop an ability through universities, academics scientists, to measure in advance how the ball is going to perform, to check it before it goes out there so that we don't have to wait until May and say, ‘Gee home runs up, what's going on?’ Just to get a better feel and more consistency on how it's going to perform.”
What he is saying is that although you should not hold him accountable for the variability of the ball in the past, going forward MLB will have the level of quality control necessary to sign off on exactly how the ball flies each season. No mysteries, no excuses.
Manfred has insisted the current iteration of the baseball falls within the existing parameters, and I don’t disbelieve him. On Tuesday, he indicated that the league is discussing tightening those specifications. What he didn’t say, however, is in which direction.
So what kind of baseball — by which I mean both the literal and synecdochical definition — does Rob Manfred want?
For years, stories about the home run rate have referenced Manfred’s inaugural promise to “inject additional offense into the game” as evidence that this uptick is, if not by design, at least welcome. Four years later, Manfred has changed his tune.
"The flaw in logic is that baseball wants more home runs,” he said. “If you sat in owners meetings and listen to people on how the game is played, that is not a sentiment among the owners for whom I work."
Of course, home runs and offense are not exactly the same (or at least they used to not be) and the increasing conflation of the two is part of what baseball purists dislike about the modern game. But among players, at least, there is a perception that if the league did alter the ball, it was to cater to some nebulous sense of what people want.
“I think that’s kind of what makes the game exciting,” his teammate Jeff McNeil told Yahoo Sports. “Bunch of action, I guess.”
“How do they want more offense?” Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer said. “I think fans love the action of the game. The athleticism that it takes to play the game. Making great defensive plays. What’s your top 10? You see great defensive plays, you see great hits, unbelievable running of the bases. I think that’s the most exciting part of our game is when the ball is in play.”
Personally, I agree with Scherzer. But what do I know? I’m just one person. The problem is, so are all the rest of the fans.
Baseball’s audience is not a homogenous, uniformly thinking unit. And the goal is only to make it bigger and more diverse.
Rob Manfred can’t make everyone in and around baseball happy, but he is going to have to do something about the baseball — even if it’s just commit to consistency with what we have now — and in doing so he’ll issue a referendum on all those home runs this year. Whether he wants to or not.
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