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MLB will deaden the ball in 2021

I guess we should all just be happy they decided to be transparent this time

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Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Late Monday, with approximately a week until pitchers and catchers begin to report for Spring Training, Eno Sarris and Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic published a bombshell piece announcing that MLB planned to deaden the baseball for the 2021 season:

Fewer home runs might be hit this year in baseball, sacrifices on the path to efficiency and standardization. Multiple sources confirm the ball’s construction will change slightly, and five more teams are adding humidors for ball storage — all parts of MLB’s attempt to reduce the wild recent year-to-year swings in home run rates league-wide.

The Athletic obtained an internal memo Major League Baseball sent Friday to general managers, assistant general managers, and equipment managers outlining minor changes that might combine to reduce offense slightly in the 2021 season. The combined effects might seem imperceptible to fans and perhaps even those on the field, but past history suggests very small changes to the ball’s construction can be a big deal.

Standardization is almost certainly a good thing when it comes to the baseball, as is the increased transparency from MLB that they are deliberately tweaking the ball in key ways for 2021. However, the thing I found myself wondering as I read this piece was “Really? You couldn’t give teams a heads up about this before they had 95 percent of their rosters set?”

Every fan of baseball has known that something has been going on with the physical ball for years now. Rob Manfred’s office has denied that MLB deliberately changed the production of the baseball even after the league purchased Rawlings in 2018 in an effort to “provide more input and direction” on the ball. That isn’t me paraphrasing MLB, those are the words of Chris Marinak in this Fox Business piece:

“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.”

The ball came under increased scrutiny in 2017 when home run rates skyrocketed for the first time. You may also recall a rash of pitchers having blister issues that popped up at the same time, leading Ben Lindbergh of the Ringer to wonder if the changes to the baseball were the cause:

Michael [Baumann] and I figured that our big blister show would have a short shelf life. Almost three months later, though, blisters have become a bigger story in baseball than they were then. Hill, who’s back in action and, for the time being, blister free, is one of many high-profile pitchers who’ve battled the problem this year, including Corey Kluber, Noah Syndergaard, Jake Arrieta, Johnny Cueto, and David Price. The latest starter to join the blister brigade is Toronto’s Marcus Stroman, who last week was pulled from a start against the Yankees after 79 pitches because of a developing blister. Although Stroman doesn’t appear likely to miss extended time (he threw 109 pitches in his next start against the Astros), he isn’t taking the condition quietly. After that game against New York — thinking, perhaps, of his teammate Aaron Sanchez, who’s been sidelined by blisters for parts of both this season and last — he complained about a blister “epidemic” in baseball.

“For MLB to turn their back to it, I think that’s kind of crazy,” Stroman said. “I have no theory. But obviously, I mean, it’s not a coincidence that it’s happening to so many guys all of a sudden. It’s not a coincidence.”

Stroman, who said that he’d never had blister problems before, wouldn’t elaborate on why he believes that the blister cases are connected. But his reference to MLB’s back-turning seemed like an allusion to the memo that the league had distributed days earlier, in which it sought somewhat unconvincingly to refute the idea that the construction of the baseball itself has changed in recent years, as has been reported by The Ringer and FiveThirtyEight (and echoed by many players, coaches, and managers). Stroman seemed to be suggesting that the baseball is responsible not just for the game’s record home run rates, but for its alleged blister epidemic too.

On July 1, 2017 MLB denied there were changes to the ball. That offseason, they published their first official report on the ball. Unfortunately, the link to that first report is broken. The Athletic refers to it as “now missing.” Every contemporaneous piece about that report heads to this broken link. But the conclusion of that document was reported as follows:

“I think one of the things we’re going to have to do as we continue this journey of discovery is accept the fact that the baseball is going to vary and the performance of the baseball is going to vary, and we’re going to do everything we can to control it,” said Morgan Sword, MLB Senior VP, League Economics & Operations. “But that is kind of fundamental to the equipment choice we’ve made. I mean, it’s always been the case. The baseball has varied in its performance probably for the entire history of our sport.”

The committee’s report said 60 percent of the home run increase could be attributed to a reduced drag from lower stitches, which leads to less drag on the ball and it traveling farther. And the other 40 percent was traced to a change in hitters’ approach.

You got that? Just natural variance. Nothing to see here. We are all just going to have to live with some blips in the data. As a reminder, these were the 2017 and 2019 blips in the data according to the second ball report MLB commissioned after 2019:

Home runs per batted ball since 2000
MLB Report

Now, I’m just going to leave the fact that MLB had to commission two reports on the physical ball within three seasons to the side. It turned out 2017 was amateur hour compared to what 2019 had in store. At the time I noted that 40 home runs in a season just didn’t get me all that excited anymore and posted a series of articles that looked at the number of teams who all ran down their all-time home run records in a single season.

But it wasn’t just the sheer number of home runs, or the blister epidemic. Hit batsmen were at an all time high, as Devan Fink noted at FanGraphs. Fink had some pretty compelling charts that showed a correlation between hit batsmen and reliever usage, but I found myself wondering if a combination of pitchers who weren’t quite as in control of their stuff were struggling more with a new ball.

Meanwhile, scholars like Dr. Meredith Wills cut up dozens of baseballs, measured their seams and told us how the 2017 ball was different, and then how the 2019 ball was different again. Data scientist Rob Arthur compared air resistance between the 2019 regular and postseason balls and demonstrated a pretty glaring abnormality:

And through it all: multiple record home run years, blisters, hit batsmen, baseballs that were demonstrably different, and home run rates that were notably off in the postseason, MLB told us there was nothing to see here. It was all random chance.

Well, yesterday the Wizard finally stepped out from behind the curtain with MLB revealing that they will “slightly” deaden the ball on purpose for the 2021 season. According to the Athletic the move should return the ball to 2017 levels:

With strikeouts in the game surging, one risk in deadening the ball is that it will leave the game with all those swings and misses and fewer big flies. But a five percent reduction in homers won’t bring us back to before the live ball era; it’s more likely the ball will fly like it did in 2017, a season that broke home run records before 2019 made mincemeat of those home run records.

Sources say this is all an effort to increase consistency in the ball, which has acted differently over the last few years. The natural variation in a handmade ball is difficult to reduce, and Rawlings identified a key way it could change the ball reliably and center it within the specifications, which are wider for MLB than they are in the KBO.

With all due respect to the people messing around with the baseball, they don’t really seem to have a great handle on the exact impact of a tweak to the COR here or a tweak to the seams there, but that isn’t the biggest issue here. Rosters are almost completely set for all 30 teams. They signed pitchers and offered contracts to players based on their previous performance. And now, a week before Spring Training, the ball changes. Again.

I mean, kudos for a bit of transparency, I guess. It isn’t really Rob Manfred’s strong suit, but I have to wonder why they are making this announcement now. Let’s give MLB the benefit of the doubt and even though it strains credulity, for the sake of argument I’ll stipulate that this is the first deliberate action they’ve taken to manipulate the ball. However, even with that stipulation this entire story just leaves me with a lot of unanswered questions. For example, isn’t this the type of thing they could have announced in November? How many 30 home run guys are about to turn into 10 home run guys with a lot of long fly outs? How many pitchers didn’t get resigned because what used to be a long out sailed just out of the park over the last couple of seasons?

And perhaps most importantly, what exactly is the point of trying to increase the consistency of one of the most important pieces of equipment in the game if you don’t tell people about it when they are actively building their rosters?