During the Winter Meetings we all got a big laugh at Jon Heyman tweeting that “Arson Judge” was heading to the San Francisco Giants. A much bigger story dropped at almost exactly the same time when Bradford William Davis reported on Dr. Meredith Wills’ latest round of research for Insider, revealing that MLB used at least two (and possibly three) different baseballs during the 2022 season. There is a lot to unpack in this story, and there are more than a few possible implications for baseball fans, so today I wanted to take a closer look at this story and discuss three big implications for baseball and the fans who love it.
It’s still the ball, man
As a quick recap, questions about the baseball began to proliferate with home run and blister spikes in 2015, but really took off with historic home run rates in 2019. As I wrote here at the time, more than half of the league was on pace to break their team marks for home runs that season, something was definitely up. In 2021, Dr. Wills cracked the code (literally) on two baseballs being used in the 2020 pandemic-shortened season. And in 2022, she proved it again.
As Dr. Wills’ research has progressed she has run into more roadblocks getting baseballs from teams. The latest piece in Insider is explicit that non-unionized team employees have been threatened with potentially losing their jobs if they acquire balls for her. MLB disputes this. You can make up your own mind:
While Insider accumulated 204 baseballs from 22 big league parks in 2022 — more than Wills has obtained in any of her previous studies — MLB also made sure it wasn’t easy. One player told Insider that one of Manfred’s top lieutenants warned a players’ union official not to let players send any balls to Wills for “third-party testing” and warned that the league could fire any non-union team employees who helped her research. Nonetheless, we amassed baseballs from sources around the league, and supplemented our sample by purchasing balls fans caught and from licensed vendors at ballparks.
There was also this, from San Francisco Giants outfielder Austin Slater:
Slater said the MLB executive specifically mentioned that the league does not want any game balls going to Wills — and that the league could fire anyone linked to giving out baseballs.
The threat worked. Though players are protected by a powerful union from getting fired over taking home a baseball – something Slater, a member of the MLBPA’s executive subcommittee understood – he was worried about non-union staff who retrieved a ball for him getting punished by the league. “I don’t know how they got wind of what we were doing,” Slater wrote to Wills. “But considering this I won’t be sending any balls out. I don’t want [any] of our guys getting in trouble with MLB.”
The league did not dispute Slater’s account, but denied that it ever threatened anyone’s job. “As a policy, we do not participate in third party studies without clear visibility into research methodology, including storage conditions,” a spokesman said in a statement. “The MLBPA agrees with this policy. The notion that any employee was threatened by MLB is entirely false.” The MLBPA declined to comment.
It’s notable that Slater agreed to be named for the piece and he was not alone. My quick count of player sources in the story tallies five: Slater, Justin Verlander, Chris Archer, Max Scherzer and Nick Castellanos. There are also unnamed player sources in the story plus a named comment that pitcher Chris Bassitt gave to the Mets’ regional sports network, SNY, last season. Fans are not the only people who are fed up with the everchanging baseball. Dr. Wills’ latest round of research included 204 baseballs from 22 different big league parks and revealed there were three distinct groupings of baseballs by weight in play during the 2022 season:
But what’s really notable about the 2022 baseball information is that for the first time Dr. Wills’ research indicated that those “Goldilocks” balls went to specific games:
But perhaps even more interesting than the apparent existence of the third ball itself is where we tended to find it. Though the overwhelming majority of baseballs we obtained were dead, 36 of them fit the bill for what Wills dubbed the “Goldilocks ball:” not too heavy, not too light — but just right. Of those, we found most in one of three situations:
• Postseason games, including the World Series;
• The All-Star Game and Home Run Derby;
• Regular-season games that used balls with special commemorative stamps — such as a Texas Rangers 50th anniversary ball — on the outer leather.
The only Goldilocks balls we obtained from the regular season that did not have commemorative stamps were from Yankees games.
Yes, you read that right — these special, more likely to fly further balls were found in commemorative games, All Star Week, the Postseason... and Yankees games in August, September and October.
Regardless of whether you go full-on conspiracy theory and believe balls were deliberately sent to different places — and really, MLB, could you just be good enough to not make it so easy to come up with these conspiracy theories? I mean, come on, Yankees games in August, September and October? I think we can all agree that it’s potentially catastrophic for the sport to have different balls (with potentially different effects) sent to different places. So let’s look take a closer look at three of the implications from Dr. Wills’ latest round of research.
Which races and records were impacted?
Having different baseballs at Yankees games late in the season as Aaron Judge chased down Roger Maris’ hallowed Yankees and American League home run record is quite the bombshell all on its own. I had quite a few spirited arguments with people about whether Judge or Shohei Ohtani deserved the American League’s Most Valuable Player award last season. To be clear, there are legitimate arguments for Judge even if he hadn’t set the new Yankees and AL record, but I think we can all agree it was a big factor that nudged votes to his side.
Additionally, the Yankees weren’t just interesting because of a home run race late in the season — there was quite the playoff race for wild card spots in the American League East this year. What impact did different balls at Yankee Stadium have on pitchers and their pitches? Or on outcomes in key moments of different games? I did a quick count of all of the games teams in contention for playoff spots played from August 1 through the end of the season at Yankee Stadium and came up with the following:
Playoff contender games at Yankee Stadium Aug-Oct 2022
|Team||# of Games|
|Team||# of Games|
Look, there were a lot of variables that took Minnesota’s playoff chances from 39 percent the day before they entered Yankee Stadium for a four-game series on September 5 to 18.2 percent when they left it on September 8, but if I am a Twins fan I would want the actual baseball to not be a variable I had to consider when contemplating that 20.8 percent drop. The way MLB handles the ball has clouded that certainty.
And then, there is the question of which eight parks are not represented in Dr. Wills’ sample? As a fan of a team in the NL Central who watched Albert Pujols go absolutely next level on the way to cranking 17 of his 24 home runs between August and October on the way to his career mark of 703, I have some questions about which balls were used in Cardinals games. Incidentally, it seems worth mentioning that the National League MVP came from the Cardinals, with Paul Goldschmidt putting up the second best season of his career at age 35. In Goldschmidt’s defense, he put up better numbers in the first half than the second half and nothing in Dr. Wills’ research or Davis’ piece indicates there were Goldilocks balls in play in the first half of the season. However, I think we can all agree it would be better for MLB if I hadn’t even needed to look up those splits due to questions about the physical ball.
Player earnings and contracts
Does Aaron Judge still command a nine-year, $360 million contract without breaking Maris’ record? Perhaps, but who knows? Additionally, it’s not like they swap out batches of baseballs every time Judge comes to the plate. Other Yankees players benefit from the stock of more home run prone baseballs being used at their home park as well. Do not get me wrong, I want nothing but good things for Anthony Rizzo always, until the end of time. He had a really solid August at Yankee Stadium where he put up a 124 wRC+ as opposed to a 90 wRC+ away from New York. If he ends the season on a down note, how likely is he to opt out of his Yankees deal and get a better deal? No one can answer those questions, but MLB has put themselves in a position where we have to ask questions like this, which, frankly, sucks.
Even beyond contracts this year, one could to make an argument that the uncertain environment around home runs may have impacted contracts and team decisions over the last few seasons. Why pay up for a 20 home run bat when it looks like it’s just not that rare of a feat? Could that have impacted, say, Jed Hoyer’s decision to let all of his 20+ home run guys not named Ian Happ go via trades, free agency or non-tenders over the last two seasons? My point is that there are a lot of questions that are perfectly reasonable to ask here that impact more than home run records and MVP races.
Gambling and baseball
Speaking of places that are impacted by a lack of transparency in equipment, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention MLB’s increasingly prominent partnerships with gambling outfits over the last few seasons. If you tuned into an Apple TV+ game this year, you likely noticed a slew of new metrics that informed viewers about a player’s likelihood to get on base after a 1-2 count, that also have the advantage of informing the types of quick prop bets online gambling outfits like to advertise. There is a sportsbook currently under construction at the corner of Addison & Sheffield at Wrigley Field and the White Sox, a team infamous for having eight players booted from the league for throwing the 1919 World Series have a sportsbook-sponsored video board in left field.
Now, I am not that big of a gambler in terms of things like prop bets or betting on individual games. I did put $20 on the 2016 Cubs to win the World Series, but that was more because if they won it all I wanted to be able to say I won that bet. But my lack of gambling experience doesn’t change the fact that there are few things I can think of that impact gambling more than making opaque and unpredictable changes to the most basic pieces of equipment in the game.
Caveats and takeaways
MLB’s response to the Insider piece was to provide statements from two league affiliated researchers who both concluded that the variance Dr. Wills noted in her research was within the standard range of deviation one would expect from a handmade product:
In response to Insider’s inquiries about the Goldilocks ball, MLB provided statements from two researchers who work for league-affiliated research labs, one from Washington State University and another from the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Both said they had studied 2022 baseballs and found no variation beyond what you would expect from a hand-made product.
Insider acknowledges that the baseballs they studied all fell within the parameters for an official MLB baseball with this aside:
It is worth noting that all the balls we obtained fell within the legal specifications in MLB’s rulebook. But as Alan Nathan, a league-commissioned physicist, once said, “The specs on Major League baseballs, they almost don’t deserve to be called specs… They’re so loose that the range of performance from the top end to the bottom end is so different.”
To be sure, we are talking about grams here, just the tiniest variations in weight across baseballs. It’s also worth noting that while 204 baseballs may be the largest sample Dr. Wills has been able to work with in a season, it is still a small sample relative to the number of baseballs used in an MLB season, and as I noted above it was not uniform across parks.
But we also know that small differences matter when it comes to the baseball. And those caveats honestly just make me wonder why MLB isn’t dealing with this issue transparently. If they truly were production noise, why would scientists consistently be able to demonstrate different outcomes based on the ball?
More broadly, questions about the baseball every offseason are basically commonplace now. It’s like we debate free agents, contract amounts, whether Jed Hoyer will sign anyone and wait to find out how many different baseballs Dr. Wills found in play last year. It’s damaging for the integrity of the sport and clearly has frustrated players as well as fans. The number of possible implications for the sport and players are enormous. MLB owns the company that is making the baseballs. It’s past time for MLB to commit in advance to a single baseball across the league for the season, and to communicate in advance to players and fans any exception(s) to using that ball.