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A bombshell online report casts new light on MLB’s memo about deadening the ball for 2021

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Maybe MLB wasn’t being that transparent after all

Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Yesterday I wrote about Major League Baseball’s decision to “slightly deaden” the ball for 2021. I had a hard time containing my snark as I recreated the timeline for the shenanigans that we have all seen with the baseball over the past five seasons but I begrudgingly gave MLB partial credit for some much needed transparency about one of the most important pieces of equipment in the game.

I might have spoken too soon.

Mere hours after I submitted my story for publication, Stephanie Apstein and Dr. Meredith Wills published an absolute bombshell about the baseball in Sports Illustrated. You should read the whole piece, it reads like a John Le Carré novel. There are secret codes, pseudonyms to protect people’s identity and team staff members risking their jobs smuggling baseballs out of ballparks so Dr. Wills can continue her research on what has been making baseball fly so far over the last few years. But the thing that jumped out at me the most was this, emphasis mine:

SI first asked MLB last week about its manipulation of baseballs. After the league admitted to SI that it had made adjustments, but insisted that they were minimal, it sent a memo to general managers, assistant general managers and equipment managers informing them of the changes.

This is the first time MLB has publicly acknowledged experimenting with the ball, indicative of its typically close-to-the-vest approach.

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 players absolutely get it. Look at this screenshot of Dodgers pitcher David Price’s Twitter timeline yesterday:

David Price’s timeline Feb 9

These are not unrelated stories. Dr. Wills’ persistence and research forced MLB to admit something they have been trying to avoid. As Craig Calcaterra wrote in his must-read newsletter “Cup of Coffee” today:

Before the committee was doing its work — and since the committee issued its report — an astrophysicist named Dr. Meredith Wills had been conducting her own research on baseballs and the home run explosion. She released a report in June of 2019 which concluded that, based on her examination of baseball seams and seam height, a key part of the manufacturing process — the manner of drying of damp, finished baseballs after assembly is complete — likely did change, and was changed intentionally, though likely due to an increased volume of baseballs which needed to be manufactured, not with an aim to juicing home run totals. The committee’s findings, while far more opaque, were likely a discovery of the same change in drying the baseballs, but Willis got there first, and she was more forthcoming about her findings and her methods. Some people — like your newsletter writer — believe that the committee was reacting to Dr. Wills as much as it was doing its own thing.

Funny thing about independent folks: they don’t stop investigating things just because an institution such as Major League Baseball deems a matter settled. Willis kept investigating, surreptitiously getting game balls, dissecting them and measuring them. Her earlier research had found changes which were not necessarily aimed at juicing baseball but which did inadvertently. Her latest research, however, found something that was pretty astonishing..

He continues to cite this part of the SI piece, a remarkable revelation with potentially far reaching consequences for the game of baseball:

But the balls used in games during MLB’s 2020 season—when dingers flew out at a rate second to only that of 2019—tell a different story, according to Wills, whom SI contracted for the rights to publish her research. After deconstructing and measuring their components, she found that a significant percentage of the 2020 balls were constructed in a way that would likely make them fly farther—and that the changes could have only been deliberate.

Calcaterra then adds his own critical piece of evidence to the timeline:

Most damningly, the juiced baseballs Wills found were being manufactured THREE MONTHS BEFORE that December 2019 press conference. A press conference which I attended, by the way. Sitting at the table, not ten feet in front of me, was the President of Rawlings, nodding along as everyone spoke about innocuous manufacturing changes leading to accidental ball flight changes. All the while his factory — which is owned by Major League Baseball — was making intentionally-juiced baseballs. At least according to the SI report.

Major League Baseball has done everything in its power to obfuscate on its role in the controversy over juiced baseballs. The more I read about this the more it seems clear the two commissions they brought together to study the ball weren’t about gathering and disseminating information - they were about obscuring information. After all, a study extends the timeline on a proximate issue, pushing it out of sight until a date when the organization commissioning that study chooses to share it. Commission results bury the details in longer documents that require a lot more work to read and understand than your typical news article.

Similarly, releasing a memo to teams the Friday before Sports Illustrated drops a story detailing MLB’s manipulation of the ball isn’t an act of transparency, it’s an attempt to muddy the waters in the hopes that fans won’t dig too deeply into MLB’s role in the construction of the baseball.