Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory.
But leave it to Major League Baseball to figure out a way to turn a flurry of home runs into a full-blown hysteria, all the dingers becoming an unwelcome distraction at the league’s All-Star festivities this week amid talk of juiced balls, bad acts and unintended consequences.
When people reference about the “Three True Outcomes” in baseball these days, it’s a new holy trinity: strikeouts, home runs and complaints.
We can thank our old friend Justin Verlander for some of the latter, I suppose. It was Verlander, now with the Houston Astros, who ratcheted up the debate Monday, speaking up for pitchers all across the league and uncorking a few bombs of his own by suggesting the home-run display we’ve witnessed this season is no accident.
“A (bleeping) joke,” was how Verlander framed his pitch, high and tight up under the chin of MLB executives who’ve made no secret they want to see more offense in the game, trying desperately to cater to a new generation of fans.
But Verlander didn’t stop there, and when he was done blasting MLB’s leadership, he had effectively accused league officials of conspiring with Rawlings — the baseball manufacturer that MLB purchased along with San Diego Padres ownership last summer — to alter the most elemental piece of equipment in the game.
“If any other $40 billion company bought out a $400 million company and the product changed dramatically, it's not a guess as to what happened,” Verlander told ESPN. “We all know what happened. (Commissioner Rob) Manfred, the first time he came in, what'd he say? He said, ‘We want more offense.’ All of a sudden he comes in, the balls are juiced? It's not coincidence. We're not idiots."
Sounding the alarm
Now then, Verlander has never been shy about expressing his opinions. And as one of the most dominant pitchers of his generation — even at age 36, he was Tuesday’s All-Star Game starter for the American League — his voice carries. Still, he's not the only one sounding the alarm
Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon actually compared the baseballs in play this season to golf balls, joking last weekend, "You could just have stamped Titleist on the sides of these things." And Tony Clark, another ex-Tiger who now serves as executive director of the MLB Players Association, was among those crying foul Tuesday, telling reporters, "I believe the ball suddenly changed. And I don’t know why.”
Meanwhile, all that’s clear from a series of convoluted responses from Manfred, who succeeded Bud Selig as commissioner in 2015, is that the league knows it has a problem on its hands. It’s just not sure how to fix it, or even if it should, frankly.
Honestly, when was the last time you heard a fan leaving the ballpark griping about seeing too many home runs? And that’s really the heart of the problem here. Pitchers are watching light-hitting infielders take them deep for opposite-field homers — Verlander already has been tagged for 26 home runs this year, two fewer than he did all of last season — and wondering where the honest brokers are.
Because baseballs are indeed flying farther and more frequently out of the park than ever, with MLB hitters on pace to shatter the league record for home runs (6,105) set in 2017, another year where pitchers were convinced somebody had doctored the baseballs.
And there is scientific research backing up all the anecdotal evidence that began piling up way back in April when pitchers first started grumbling about hurling ice cubes. An MLB study commissioned after the home-run surge in 2017 couldn’t pinpoint the specific reasons. But astrophysicist Dr. Meredith Wills, writing for the The Athletic last month, found that thinner laces and smoother leather have created a more aerodynamic baseball, one that’s harder to grip and spin and, ultimately, one that’s bound to travel farther when hit.
To wit: In barely half a season, major-league hitters have already hit more home runs measuring 450 feet or more than they did in all of 2018.
“There’s a little less drag on the baseball this year,” Manfred admitted this week. “We’re in the process of trying to figure out why and get a little bit better at managing that.”
But in saying that, he also pushed back on the conspiratorial piece of this story.
“Baseball has done nothing, given no direction for an alteration of the baseball,” Manfred said at his annual All-Star press conference with the Baseball Writers Association of America. “The flaw in logic is that baseball wants more home runs. If you sat in owners’ meetings and listened to people on how the game is played, that is not a sentiment among the owners for whom I work.”
I’m not sure I buy that last part. I doubt the players will, either. But the onus is on the league now to fix this, either with tighter specs on a manufacturing process they absolutely can control now, or with better testing before putting the product into play.
Look, the home runs are here to stay, as analytics-fueled approaches have taken hold, taking much of the in-game excitement with them.
Major League Baseball set a record for strikeouts for the 11th consecutive year in 2018, and for the first time that total (41,207) surpassed the number of hits (41,020) in a season. The league batting average (.248) was the lowest since 1972, the year before the American League added the designated hitter.
Defensive shifts and the increased usage of relief pitching are among the factors. But so is the emphasis on launch angles and exit velocity from hitters. That's not going to change anytime soon.
So the question for the folks in charge of the game boils down to this: How far are they willing to let things go? Depending on the answer, they'd better be ready to duck.