Tigers debate 'juiced' baseballs, stolen signs

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
The Seattle Mariners' Guillermo Heredia rounds the bases on a homer off Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez in the fifth inning Monday night.

Seattle — There was a pretty lively conversation in the Tigers clubhouse and manager’s office before Monday’s game.

First topic: The likelihood that the baseball is, if not juiced, then manipulated to maximize distance — kind of like a Titleist Pro V1 golf ball.

“The old eye test is the best thing to go by,” said Tigers ace Justin Verlander, who admits his view on this subject is 100-percent biased. “Guys who have been around the game a long time, you see balls leaving the yard that otherwise shouldn’t.

“Whether the balls are juiced or not, I don’t know. But there have been reports that seem to indicate they might be.”

Home runs are flying out of ballparks at record rates, that is indisputable. Just this past weekend, according to Elias, there were 153 home runs hit during 46 games.

That obliterated the major league record for home runs over a three-day span — by 12. The old mark of 141 was set in 2016 (still in the manipulated ball era). The mark before that, set in 2000, was 135.

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There have been more mis-hit balls leave yards. Justin Wilson gave up a home run in Houston to Alex Bregman that, based on its low exit velocity and bat angle had a zero chance of being a home run.

Balls are being hit into the shrubbery beyond the center field fence at Comerica Park with greater frequency.

A study recently posted on The Ringer, written by Ben Lindbergh, posits that balls are flying farther in part because the seams on the ball have been lowered, limiting the drag on the ball in flight and allowing for more carry. The study showed balls carry up to seven feet further than balls with more raised seams.

“There are no seams on the baseball,” Verlander said. “They’re there more just for aesthetics at this point, just to hold the ball together.”

Balls are also wound tighter than they have been in past years. But, as major league baseball has shown, all the changes are within their broad manufacturing specifications.

“If it is true (that the balls are juiced), then I wish MLB would just say, ‘Yeah, we want more offense. We juiced them a little bit,’ ” Verlander said. “At least then it’s like, OK, we’re on an even playing field. We all have the same ball in our hand.

“But at least there would be an explanation as to why home runs are going out at such an extreme rate. I think people just want answers — specifically pitchers.”

Ian Kinsler, sitting nearby, reminded Verlander that hitting the baseball was still the hardest thing to do in sports and pitchers still hold the advantage. A point Verlander conceded.

“Home runs are certainly more prevalent,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “Fans love home runs, but baseball also wants to curtail the length of games and having more offense doesn’t go along with that.

“I don’t know if balls are juiced or not. I just know balls are flying.”

The second topic was what to do about the rampant sign-stealing that every team in baseball, not just the Tigers, are dealing with.

“A lot of it is they’re stealing signs from the video room, figuring them out and then carrying it out onto the field,” Ausmus said. “I can’t prove it, but my guess is there are some clubs that have it figured out long before you get to town.”

The Tigers and others have taken to using a complicated and ever-changing series of signs, especially when there is a runner at second base, which often slows the pace of play to a crawl.

“With video you can break it down,” Verlander said. “We don’t have somebody like that, but I am sure teams have a person that can break down signs and codes and they have the signs before you even get out on the mound.”

In the past, when the technology wasn’t as sharp, when there wasn’t HD capability and every facial tick or expression could be seen from the center-field camera, stealing signs was a respected art in the game.

Technology has taken the art out of it.

“It’s not about gamesmanship anymore,” Verlander said. “It used to be, if you got my sign, good for you. When you are standing on second base, before HD and all of that, you couldn’t see specific signs the catcher was throwing down unless the camera was right on him.

“Now you can see so good, you see exactly what he is putting down. The gamesmanship is no longer there.”

Both Verlander and Ausmus believe MLB will take a page out of football and allow managers and catchers headset technology so they can communicate verbally.

“I don’t think that’s a bad idea,” Verlander said. “I think it’s a good idea.”

Verlander would also like the league to explore a way to keep the baserunner at second from peeking in.

“I don’t know how you would do it,” he said. “Somehow, you have to allow the pitcher and catcher to give a sign quickly and efficiently without the runner on second looking in. I know that’s something hitters don’t want to give up. Because a lot of teams do a lot of reconnaissance work on that, and the teams that are good at it have the advantage.”

Interesting talk. @cmccosky