Why MLB baseball attracts scrutiny and suspicion

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Over the past half decade, Major League Baseball has been flooded with new data, affecting the way the game is played and played. This season, this information has focused on the sport’s most important equipment: the ball.

From its production to its function, Ball has emerged as a cause and symptom of a historically slow offensive start to the season, leading to accusations and conspiracy theories. During the first month of the season, the major hitters in the league combined had a 0.233 hitting average, the lowest since 1968, and 0.629 OPS, the lowest since 1981. Hitters shake their heads watching high fly balls fall against the wall during hitting practice. Shooters grumble about their lack of control—some more public than others.

“I’m hesitant to say it’s a huge problem because if everyone has to deal with it, you’re like, OK, everyone is on the same level of having to deal with it,” said Veteran Detective Colin McHugh. “But I don’t want, on every court, to see what the ball looks like, to decide whether I can throw the court I want to throw it, and whether I should try to get a new ball.”

Baseballs that have been hand-stitched with leather produced from their distinctive environment have been played by generations of the big leagues. Baseballs have never been identical. But thanks to the wide availability of spin rate, exit speed, and ball flight data, this generation of top players know exactly how those inconsistencies affect performance.

If the seams are less than normal and the bowler cuts the curve ball at a slightly lower than average rate of rotation and that curve ball gets hit, was the bowler? Or was it the ball? How much should a bowler be expected to adapt to the ball as opposed to working around it?

And if small changes in baseball could affect performance, and MLB was in a position to control small changes in baseball…well, what once felt like anomalies—like different dimensions from park to park or referees’ preferences— Begins to feel like an insect. Players floated everything from league-changing balls to reduce free-agent earnings to a league screaming at them for more exciting nationally televised games, all charges that league officials deny.

But many veteran shooters say that while fast balls slip and often initiate these conversations, it’s not the most common problem that arises from an inconsistent grip. They argue that layers a little higher or a slightly chalky surface forces them to make adjustments that hitters don’t have to make.

In the first month of the season, 10.3 percent of volleys traveled for home runs, the lowest percentage since 2014. And while short spring training limited the amount of hitters they could work on timing and April’s expanded rosters meant more hits against new painkillers, That little white ball with red seams is still at the center of the debate.

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That sort of talk was whispered in the years since MLB bought its ball plant, Rawlings, in 2018. The sound grew louder when home run rates soared in 2019, and then again when MLB confirmed it had made changes to baseball before 2021 season, then admitted that she used two different balls due to production problems caused by the pandemic.

Those issues have now been resolved, according to a league official who requested anonymity to speak openly about the league’s efforts. That official explained that the league recast baseball before the 2021 season so that it has a lower and more consistent coefficient of recovery, or COR. COR indicates the amount of energy lost during the impact. The higher the COR, the higher the ball.

And although the baseballs the league used in 2019 and 2020 had a COR that was within the range specified in the rulebook, their average number was on the high end. In 2018, 12.7 percent of volleyballs ended up as home runs. In 2019, this rate increased to 15.3%.

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Besides measuring COR, Alan Nathan, a University of Illinois physicist who previously advised MLB on baseballs, has studied drag — the force that acts opposite to the ball’s flight, which is caused by the way air moves around seams and the surface. Nathan studied home strikes between April 18 and April 22 and concluded that 2022 baseball is seeing more drag on the fly than it did in April 2021 or in 2019 or 2018. The balls are not only less bouncy this season, but they are also less aerodynamic.

But MLB officials insist that consistency, more than any stubborn match-fixing on the field, has been at the heart of ball decisions in recent years.

Prior to this season, the MLB’s local management committee proposed installing humidors — climate-controlled tanks, primarily — in all 30 parks. The goal was to standardize not only the way baseball travels, but also the feel of gritty shooters while holding them. The league has ordered 29 of the 30 teams to install humidifiers in their stadiums and set each to have a humidity of 57% and 70°C. The exception was in Colorado, to account for its height.

Each humidor holds about 2,400 baseball balls, stored in boxes bearing the dates that each has been shelved. The balls should be kept there for two weeks before being used for play.

But even consistent storage can’t stave off other variables, and so far, humidors have created a baseball that’s a little wetter and doesn’t travel far. The wetter the baseball is relative to the air it travels through, the shorter its flight. Early in the season, when the weather is cool and the air is relatively dry across the country, that trip is more limited than it has been in years past.

League officials say they expected ball flight to decline early in the season, but they also expect to see a change as the weather warms and humidity increases.

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Meredith Wells, who has a PhD in astrophysics who has been studying MLB balls for years, said she’s not sure more wet nights will bring what appears to be a very dead ball back to the average flight. She said she believes the changes the league has made to the ball with the intent of creating greater consistency in COR may have created inconsistency in other areas.

“I think what we might see with this dead ball and 2019 ball and all the things that have happened since MLB bought Rawlings is this,” Wells said. “One of the best ways to break something is to try to fix something that wasn’t broken in the first place.”

In the meantime, bowlers don’t seem to be concerned about how far the ball will fly in April versus June. Their definition of consistent baseball is one in which they can have a consistent grip, layer at predictable heights and apply clay uniformly.

Grip has been in the spotlight since the league began cracking down on the use of adhesives last summer, limiting players to use the now standardized Honduran rosin and their race. While bowlers throughout the game agree that some of their teammates have gone too far in using adhesives, many bowlers are expressing frustration with the lack of play now on the surface of baseballs.

After watching his teammates get hit by the wrong pitches 19 times in the first few weeks of the season, Mets player Chris Bassett blamed the MLB for what he called “slippery” baseballs, noting that in the absence of some kind of adhesive, pitchers can’t catch Baseball reels safely using rosin alone. Bassett, who currently has a 2.61 ERA with the best stroke-to-walk ratio of his career, seems to have overcome that problem just fine. At the league level, hit numbers plummeted during the first 25 games of the season.

But the issue of consistency becomes central to shooters in different ways. Some shooters are affected by the need to make those adjustments more than others. Jordan Lyles, the veteran Baltimore Orioles player, explained that his goal changes entirely based on the way the ball feels in his hands. If he wants to throw a curve ball, but the seams look low or the ball feels slippery, he shoots a much shorter distance.

“If you throw it like a normal curve ball, it will slide and it will go up,” Lyles said. “Sometimes you end up having less confidence on the break balls and relying on the fast balls. So hitters will stop worrying about broken balls and sit on the fast ball because they know the guy doesn’t know where the broken ball is going.”

Mods are part of the shooters game, and always have been. But what they want, he and others say, is to earn less.

“Hitting is the hardest thing to do in sports. No doubt,” McHugh said. “…but it seems old to me. Like, don’t we have a better solution to this?”

“What if they just told the hitters that you are not allowed to use batting gloves anymore. They would be like, what do you mean?”

The MLB argues that unlike adhesives, the batting gloves weren’t breaking the rules in the first place. But the league is trying to tackle the grip issue anyway.

Several bowlers have suggested a more standardized process of rubbing the balls with mud prior to use, and it appears that MLB is starting to try and embrace that suggestion: Rather than having to complete the process a few days ahead of time, baseballs should now be muddied on game day.

Likewise, the sport is testing a prepackaged ball in the Texas League, the second-last attempt at a prototype to help tackle midstream bowlers. If this ball is well reviewed and the big players decide they like it too, it could arrive as soon as 2023 – but the pre-fitted balls offer new variants too.

Changing the surface of a baseball may change its trajectory. And even if it doesn’t, hand-sewn balls mean hand-sewn seams: improving consistency will never mean complete uniformity. But in this age of data-driven baseball, the goal is always to get close to perfection, even in a sport that rarely allows it.

Neil Greenberg contributed to this report.

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