The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
Periodically, I will post new entries about current baseball topics.  The posts will typically be a mixture of commentary, history, facts, and stats.  Hopefully, they will provoke some  of your thoughts or emotions. Clicking on the word "Comments" associated with each post below will open a new dialog box to enter or retrieve any feedback.
It used to be the players were juiced, now it's the baseballs

When the historic home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa occurred in 1998, we initially thought it was great for the game of baseball.  It provided excitement for fans perhaps not seen since Roger Maris was chasing the Babe’s 60-home run record in 1961.  There’s a home run craze going on now, with seemingly most of the MLB players getting a piece of the action this time around.


It turned out the players were juiced thirty years ago, but now it’s the baseballs that are creating the excitement.  There were more home runs hit in the month of May this year than any month in history.  This season is on a pace to see over 400 more home runs hit than last year.  It’s a trend that has been building for several years now.


Perhaps one of the best pieces of evidence it’s the baseball that causing the surge is Baseball America reported there’s also been a power explosion at the Triple-A level of the minor leagues.  It began using the major-league baseball this season rather than standard minor-league balls of the past.  Based on April’s games, Triple-A hitters homered every 29 plate appearances, which was a rate 49 percent more than in April 2018.


When initially challenged by experts over a year ago, MLB denied there was any change in the specifications for baseballs, maintaining that the balls were within approved manufacturing specifications.


The Commissioner’s Office later admitted there was “a drag issue” with the baseballs but didn’t quantify what caused it.


Scientists have contended that the physical characteristics of the ball have changed resulting in a significantly lower drag coefficient than that of previous years.


Astrophysicist Dr. Meredith Wills recently published in The Athletic her own independent study that evaluated the possible causes of a decrease in drag, including lower seams of the ball, smoother leather on the ball, a rounder ball, thicker laces on the ball, and a smaller ball.


Dr. Wills concluded that the decrease in drag could be traced to an increase in lace thickness, which inadvertently produced a rounder ball.


It’s not as though baseballs have been illicitly altered.  They haven’t been knowingly “juiced” in the same sense that hitters in the Steroid Era were gaining unfair advantages by taking PEDs.  While it may be true any changes in the ball have been within the allowed range of specifications for major-league baseballs, even small changes have had an effect.  (Baseball Prospectus’s Robert Arthur asserted that a three percent change in drag coefficient can work to add about five fee to a well-hit fly ball, which in turn can increase home runs league wide by 10-15 percent.)  It perhaps suggests that the ranges for the manufacturing standards of baseballs are too permissive.


If the results of changes in the ball were indeed unintentional by Major League Baseball, they are certainly not complaining about the results it’s had with respect to the increased entertainment it has provided the sport.  It seems like a new home run milestone is being set by a player or a team every day, whether it involves the number home runs hit or the distance balls have travelled.


The small change in baseballs, in conjunction with a general change in hitting approach by many players focused on launch angle and exit velocity, is responsible for the surge in home runs.


The surge is fueling new interest in the game and is now largely defining MLB’s game, similar to the way the NFL’s offense has become pass-happy and the NBA is thriving on the three-pointer.


More players are putting up bigger offensive numbers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are overall better players than those from earlier days.  (Tommy La Stella of the Los Angeles Angels is averaging a home run once in every 19 at-bats so far this year, when he had averaged one in every 94 at-bats in his previous five MLB seasons.)  But no one seems to be worried about comparing stats from today with traditional marks from baseball history.


Perhaps the only negative of changes in the ball is that pitchers are getting battered more, as demonstrated by overall increases in earned run averages (ERA).  Pitchers have also complained about the balls causing more blisters.


It’s true the game needs more excitement nowadays.  The propensity for higher strikeouts and the pace of play issues need to be countered, and an increase in offense is a good way to accomplish that.


Let the balls fly out of the park!


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