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A tale of two baseballs and why it bodes poorly for the ongoing CBA negotiations

There isn’t a lot of trust between the players and the owners

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Photo by Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

The current MLB lockout wasn’t surprising. Players have seen increased service time manipulation coupled with some of the slowest free agent markets in baseball history over the last few offseasons. That backdrop has had writers and fans prognosticating about potential labor woes as far back as December 2017. Some thought it was overly pessimistic, but that outlook was validated during the arduous negotiation of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, which both MLB and the MLBPA treated as a prelude to the current negotiations. The result was a 60-game season unilaterally implemented by Commissioner Rob Manfred, who later admitted the owners never intended to play more than 60-games regardless of the negotiations with the players. It remains to be seen if baseball will be played in 2022 when Manfred can’t just decree it.

To say the two sides don’t trust each other seems overly simplistic. There is a Marianas Trench of apprehension and suspicion between the players and owners in our national pastime. Every time I think that gap cannot get wider something incredulous happens to worsen the relationship. So, I wasn’t so much surprised as much as internally groaning as the clock ticked towards to expiration of the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) when it was revealed that MLB had knowingly used two different baseballs during the 2021 season. I highly recommend you read the entirety of this exceptional piece by Bradford William Davis at Business Insider, but here’s the rub [emphasis added]:

Insider spoke with 24 people across MLB including players, coaches, scouts, and senior front-office workers, most of whom reviewed Wills’ research. Many requested anonymity for fear of reprisal from the league. They expressed a mix of surprise, alarm, curiosity, skepticism, and frustration with the way the MLB had handled production of the baseball.

“Yeah, that’s a big breach, for me, of competitive integrity,” one American League scout said. “It is a situation where the game plays differently, and there’s a reason that’s not random or aleatory. The game is being made to play differently because they’re tampering with the ball.”

Many of you are familiar with Dr. Meredith Wills’ ongoing scientific determination to uncover what can kindly be referred to as production anomalies, and what many believe is MLB’s near continuous tweaking of the baseball. The real answer is that it’s probably a bit of both.

It began with dissecting the first anomalous home run spike in 2015 and continued through the record-shattering 2019 season, when over half of MLB’s franchises were on pace to break their single season home run record in late August. There were official commissions on the baseball. Tests run on the baseballs. MLB bought Rawlings to better control production of the baseball as then Executive Vice President for Strategy, Technology and Innovation, Chris Marinak told Fox Business:

“MLB is excited to take an ownership position in one of the most iconic brands in sports and further build on the Rawlings legacy, which dates back to 1887,” said Chris Marinak, MLB’s executive vice president for strategy, technology and innovation. “We are particularly interested in providing even more input and direction on the production of the official ball of Major League Baseball, one of the most important on-field products to the play of our great game.”

And still, the home runs surged.

The fact that MLB used two baseballs in 2021 is particularly galling because last February 8 MLB announced they were deadening the ball to deliberately dampen the record home run rate from 2019. It was an unexpectedly transparent turn from the organization who had claimed they were mystified by the home run surge for years. It was also timed to drop 24 hours before a blockbuster cover story from Dr. Wills and Stephanie Apstein at SI revealing MLB batch codes and differences in baseballs used during the 2020 season. As I wrote at the time:

The memo MLB sent to team management wasn’t some grand act of transparency with the league finally admitting what players, managers, writers and fans have known for years. It was a last-minute attempt at damage control. Simply put, they got caught. So MLB did what all organizations in damage control mode do. They rushed to draft a memo, sent it to teams and somehow that memo was leaked to The Athletic just in time to get out ahead of a story that would finally prove the league has been deliberately changing the baseball for at least one season.

The latest Business Insider piece does an exceptional job of detailing the impact differently batched balls could have had on certain streaks last season. Anyone else remember that time Joey Votto turned into one of the greatest power hitters on the planet? Well, here’s reliever Sean Doolittle on at least one of those home runs per Davis:

But for Doolittle, the baseball’s performance in 2021 was anything but improved. He brings up Joey Votto, his prolific Reds slugging teammate who enjoyed a seven-game home-run streak in July.

“The first homer he hit to start that streak was an opposite-field homer in Cincinnati that carried out to, like, straightaway left field,” Doolittle said, describing it as a “weak fly ball” that shouldn’t have made it over the wall. Thanks to the advent of publicly available analytics measuring how hard the ball was hit (exit velocity) and the trajectory (launch angle), you don’t have to take Doolittle’s word for it. The fly ball Votto struck had a .082 xBA and 8% home-run probability, meaning that more than nine times out of 10, a ball hit that hard and that high gets caught in the outfield, not in the cheap seats.

I’ll be the first to admit this is anecdata, however, it’s the type of anecdata that would have massive statistical implications for players. Additionally, while the analysis so far has looked at streaks like Votto’s, remember that the Joey Vottos of the world are not the most impacted by this. Votto is a 38-year-old player with 15 years of service time behind him. He’s in the eighth year of a 10-year, $225 million deal that has an option for an 11th year. He will take any home runs he can get for the next few seasons to pad his stats and we will all argue about his case to be enshrined in Cooperstown some day.

The players most impacted by the ever-changing balls, like many of the rules changes MLB proposes, are the players at the margins. The players who need those extra two or three home runs to justify staying in the majors for another month or two. The pitchers who need to keep their HR/FB rate low enough to entice their club to give them the ball for one more start. The players are well aware of this, as we can see from Doolittle in Davis’ article below:

“I kind of feel like pitchers were being punished for giving up an increased number or percentage of home runs on their stat lines,” Doolittle said, remarking on the home-run boost. Doolittle argues that relief pitchers, who enter the game in short spurts after a starting pitcher’s work is done, are particularly vulnerable to a surprisingly bouncy baseball taking money out of their pocket.

But this goes far beyond players and fans ability to trust the stats that dominate so many decisions in today’s game. Maury Brown at Forbes has an exceptional follow-up piece on this issue today that focuses on the ways this latest reveal about the baseball continues to erode trust in MLB as an institution. He included this video tweet of Pete Alonso speculating that MLB manipulates the ball depending on the type of players who are about to hit free agency:

And here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter if Alonso is right about this or not. It matters that Alonso, and other players like him, believe this could be possible. That lack of trust makes negotiating a new contract with MLB in good faith difficult even before you consider that one of the league’s early offers to players was tying arbitration to FanGraphs WAR. What could possibly go wrong if player compensation during their most productive years were tied to a statistical system fundamentally altered by MLB tweaking the baseball?

Both Davis’ and Brown’s pieces contain a statement from MLB that they informed the MLBPA that 2020 balls would be used due to pandemic constraints on production at the Rawlings factory. However Davis’ piece also contains this rebuttal by reliever Andrew Miller [emphasis added]:

As for the league’s contention that it informed the union, if that’s true, it doesn’t appear that the information reached the players themselves. None of the 10 players reached by Insider for this story were aware that they had been playing with two different balls. The veteran pitcher Andrew Miller, a union leader who is deeply engaged in ongoing negotiations with the league over the next contract, said: “I’m not sure what we were told, but I’d assume it was nothing. If the balls meet standards, then they would have no reason to tell us anything.”

While specifications may have been met, it is time for the league to admit the radically different outcomes baseballs within those specifications can have under similar circumstances. Again, from Forbes:

Major League Baseball has said that the ball is within a specified range. The players continue to ask whether that is true given it is only discovered that changes have regularly occurred through independent reporting? As one player noted, two balls hit by him with the exact same exit velocity and launch angle had two remarkably different outcomes during the season: one went about 5 rows out of the ballpark. The other died well ahead of the warning track. Together, there were over 60 feet of difference. There may be sound reasons for the two being markedly different (weather and time of year, are certain factors), but with the ball’s changes now an active discussion with players, fans, and media is it any wonder the players now question variations?

Players have told us for years that the ball is not behaving the way they expect it to given all their years playing the game. Independent researchers like Dr. Wills and Rob Arthur have demonstrated repeatedly the effect that changes to the ball and drag have on it’s performance.

MLB’s answer was years of stonewalling, leaking a memo confirming changes to the baseball a day before the SI exposé proved the ball was different, and a retroactive clarification that there were in fact two baseballs used in 2021.

Frankly, that is an inadequate response from an institution that markets itself as the nation’s pastime under normal circumstances. It’s a potentially disastrous response from an institution that is about to embark on the most contentious labor negotiation with its players in over 25 years.