This MLB season, the ball is driving everyone crazy


How much should a pitcher be expected to conform to the ball rather than avoid it?

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during a news conference. Bebeto Matthews / AP file photo

For much of the last half decade, Major League Baseball has been inundated with new data that has impacted how the game is played and conducted. This season, this information has put the focus on the most fundamental piece of equipment in the sport: the ball.

From its production to its functionality, the ball has proven to be both the cause and symptom of a historically slow offensive start to the season, leading to accusations and conspiracy theories. In the first month of the season, major league hitters have a combined batting average of .233, the lowest since 1968, and an OPS of .629, the lowest since 1981. Hitters shake their heads when they see tall flyballs falling in front of the wall while hitting practice. Pitchers rant about their inability to navigate — some more openly than others.

“I’m hesitant to say it’s a big deal because when everyone has to deal with it, you think, well, everyone’s dealing with it on the same level,” said veteran aid worker Collin McHugh. “But I don’t want to have to look at every pitch, how the ball feels, decide if I can throw the pitch I want to throw with it, if I should try to get a new ball.”

Generations of great players have played with baseballs hand-sewn from leather that is a product of its own environment. Baseballs have never been the same. But with the widespread availability of spin rate, exit velocity, and ball flight data, this generation of big leagues knows exactly how much these inconsistencies affect performance.

If the seams are lower than usual and a pitcher snatches a curveball at a slightly lower than average spin rate and that curveball gets hit, was it the pitcher? Or was it the ball? How much should a pitcher be expected to conform to the ball rather than avoid it?

And when small changes to baseball can affect performance, MLB has the ability to control small changes to baseball. . . Well, what once felt like a quirk – like different dimensions from one park to another or judges’ preferences – is starting to feel like a flaw. Players have changed everything from the league to reduce free agent earnings to the league juicing them for more exciting nationally televised games, all allegations by league officials are denied.

But several veteran pitchers say that while fastballs slide up and in, those conversations often start, but they’re not the most common problem arising from inconsistent grip. They argue that slightly higher seams or a slightly chalkier finish forces them to make adjustments hitters don’t have to.

In the first month of the season, 10.3% of flyballs traveled to home runs, the lowest percentage since 2014. And while a shortened spring practice limited batsmen’s timing and expanded rosters in April meant more attacks against fresh helpers, That little white ball with the red stitching remains the focus of debate.

That sort of talk was whispered in the years after MLB bought its ball maker Rawlings in 2018. It got louder as home runs soared in 2019, then again when MLB confirmed it had made changes to baseball ahead of the 2021 season, then admitted it had used two different balls because of production issues caused by the pandemic .

Those issues are now resolved, according to a league official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the league’s efforts. This official stated that the league revised baseball ahead of the 2021 season to have a lower and more consistent coefficient of restitution, or COR. The COR refers to the amount of energy lost during impact. The higher the COR, the more bouncy the ball.

And while the baseballs the league used in 2019 and 2020 had a COR that was within the range specified in the rulebook, they averaged in the high range. In 2018, 12.7% of flyballs ended as home runs. In 2019, this rate had risen to 15.3%.

Alan Nathan, a University of Illinois physicist who previously advised MLB on baseball, not only measured COR but also studied drag — the force opposing the ball’s flight and caused by the way it how air moves around the seams and surface. Nathan studied home runs hit between April 18 and April 22 and concluded that baseball in 2022 experiences more drag in flight than it did in April 2021, 2019, or 2018. Not only are the balls less bouncy this season , but also less aerodynamic.

But MLB officials insist that consistency, more than any dogged manipulation of results on the field, has been at the heart of decisions about the ball in recent years.

Prior to this season, MLB’s home run committee proposed installing humidors — basically air-conditioned closets — at all 30 parks. The goal was to standardize not only the way the baseball moved, but also the stickiness pitchers felt when grasping. The league has ordered 29 of its 30 teams to install humidors in their stadiums, each set to 57% humidity and 70 degrees. The exception was in Colorado to account for the altitude.

Each humidor contains approximately 2,400 balls stored in boxes labeled with the date each was placed on the shelf. Balls must remain there for two weeks before they can be used for play.

But even consistent storage can’t ward off other variables, and so far the humidors have created a slightly wetter baseball that doesn’t travel as far. The wetter the baseball compared to the air it’s flying through, the shorter its flight will be. At the beginning of the season, when the weather is cold and the air relatively dry across the country, this flight was more limited than in previous years.

League officials say they expected ball flight to drop early in the season, but also expect a change as the weather warms and the air gets wetter.

Meredith Wills, who has a PhD in astrophysics and has been studying MLB’s balls for years, said she wasn’t sure wetter nights would put what seemed a very dead ball back on an average flight. She said she thinks the changes the league has made to the ball to create greater consistency in the COR may have introduced inconsistencies in other areas.

“I’m guessing what we might see with that dead ball and the 2019 ball and all the things that’s happened since MLB bought Rawlings is this,” Wills said. “One of the best ways to break something is to try to fix something that wasn’t broken to begin with.”

Pitchers, on the other hand, don’t seem nearly as concerned about how far the ball will fly in April compared to June. Their definition of a consistent baseball is one they can find a consistent foothold on, with seams at predictable heights and evenly applied mud.

Grip has been in the spotlight since the league cracked down on the use of sticky substances last summer, restricting players to using a now standardized Honduran rosin and their own sweat. While pitchers around the game agree that some of their peers just went too far with sticky substances, many pitchers are now venting their frustration at the lack of stickiness on the surface of baseballs.

After watching his teammates get hit by errant pitches 19 times in the early weeks of the season, Mets starter Chris Bassitt blamed MLB for what he called “slippery” baseballs, hinting that pitchers without one stickier substance baseballs cannot safely grip with rosin alone. Bassitt, who currently has a 2.61 ERA with the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career, seems to be overcoming this problem well. League-wide, hit-by-pitch numbers were down for the first 25 games of the season.

But the issue of consistency becomes central to pitchers in different ways. Some pitchers are affected by having to make these adjustments more often than others. Veteran Baltimore Orioles starter Jordan Lyles explained that his aim changes entirely depending on how the ball feels in his hands. If he wants to throw a curveball but the seams feel low or the ball feels slippery, aim much lower.

“If you throw it like a regular curveball, it’ll slip and it’ll fly higher,” Lyles said. “Sometimes you have less confidence in your breaking balls and lean on fastballs. So hitters will stop worrying about breaking balls and just sit on the fastball knowing that a guy doesn’t know where the breaking ball is going.

Adjustments are part of the game for pitchers and always have been. But what they want, he and others say, is to do less.

“The most difficult thing in sport is hitting. No question,” McHugh said. ” . . . but it seems antiquated to me. Don’t we have a better solution for this?

“What if they just told the thugs to stop using batting gloves? They would say what do you mean by that?”

MLB argues that unlike sticky substances, batting gloves never broke the rules at all. But the league is still trying to address the grip issue.

Several pitchers suggested a more standardized process of rubbing mud on the balls before use, and MLB has apparently begun to embrace this suggestion: instead of having to complete the process a few days in advance, baseballs must now be mud-coated on the day of the game will be covered.

Similarly, the sport is testing a pre-tacked ball in the Texas League, the second recent attempt at a prototype that helps pitchers hit midway. If this ball is well rated and big leagues decide they like it too, it could hit the market as early as 2023 – but pre-tacked balls also introduce new variables.

Changing the baseball’s surface can alter its flight. And even if they don’t, hand-stitched balls mean hand-stitched seams: Optimizing consistency never means complete uniformity. But in the age of data-driven baseball, it’s always about getting closer to perfection, even in a sport that so rarely allows for that. This MLB season, the ball is driving everyone crazy

Matthew Hallett

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