Just Dewey: Were MLB baseballs juiced this season?

Peter Dewey

The 2017 Major League Baseball season came to end this past week with the Houston Astros defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games to win the franchise’s first World Series.

This World Series was exciting for a number of reasons, but one seemed to stand out above the rest: the record number of home runs hit in the series. There were 15 home runs hit in games two and five alone and 25 total in the seven games.

World Series MVP George Springer tied Reggie Jackson and Chase Utley for the most home runs hit in a World Series with five. Springer also became the first player to ever homer in four consecutive World Series games.

This year, MLB players broke the single season record for home runs in a season with 6,105 long balls hit between the league’s 30 teams. The previous record, set in 2000, was 5,693.

Many pitchers have claimed that the baseballs used this season were juiced, or slicked, causing for the uptick in home runs. During the World Series, Astros pitcher Justin Verlander was very skeptical of the balls being used.

“Mr. (Rob) Manfred (MLB Commissioner) says the balls haven’t changed,” Verlander told the LA Times’ Bill Shaikin. “I think there’s enough information out there to say that’s not true.”

While Verlander’s claim has been echoed by pitchers such as Boston’s David Price, San Francisco’s Johnny Cueto and Toronto’s Marcus Stroman, to name a few, not all the evidence points towards his theory.

ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight, founded by Nate Silver, focuses on using statistical analysis in their stories on sports, politics and economics. They found that in this World Series, players had an all-time high home run rate when they made contact with a pitch. They found that the rate of home runs hit was up 69 percent from the 2017 regular season, beating the previous high of 56 percent in 2009.

In a study done by Jeremiah Robert Dwight of Arizona State University, it was found that a more slippery or slicked baseball would actually travel less distance than a roughed up one. While the ball might not be as easy for pitchers to control, it does not add to a hitter’s ability to hit out of the park.

For me, the players’ input is more important than the numbers. And players from all teams have come out and said that something is different about these baseballs.

Cincinnati Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart did an interview with Barstool’s Pat McAfee and his comments caught my attention.

“When they have to put something in your locker, every month, from the Player’s Association or from Major League Baseball that explains the process that they are picking out the baseballs, you know something is up,” he said.

The MLB can avoid talking about the change in the baseballs and there may not be enough information to prove that something has changed, but when veterans who have been playing this game for years are saying that something is wrong, I tend to think they have a point.

The fact that this season blew away a home run record set during the steroid era is especially concerning. Sure, it makes the game more exciting for fans who want to see offense, but is it worth sacrificing the integrity of the game?

This year, home run rate and runs per game skyrocketed after being on decline since 2010 and players are noticing that some of the balls that reach the seats hadn’t in years past.

“I’ve seen so many home runs that just don’t look normal,” New York Mets reliever Jerry Blevins told USA Today. “It just feels like there’s been a lot of home runs being hit by guys who normally don’t hit them, or by guys who normally don’t him them where they hit them.’’

A perfect example of this came in that wild 13-12 World Series Game 5. Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig hit a ninth inning home run where he seemed to swing with just one hand. Yet, the ball flew into the left field seats as if he had made perfect contact.

I am all for good baseball, and have loved seeing the improvement in the ratings and the excitement surrounding the game in recent years. But with players speaking out against the integrity of the game in such a fashion, it concerns me for the future.

Baseball took a step backward after the steroid era because players numbers began to decline since they were no longer on performing enhancing drugs. With less home runs, and many high profile players caught cheating, it took a hit on the MLB’s integrity and star power.

If the MLB is trying to bring interest back to the game by changing the baseballs to benefit hitters, they are compromising the game. Despite the fact that players were notified of the ball selection process, it is clear that pitchers believe the makeup of the baseballs has changed.

This change can create a domino effect, as it will not only enhance offensive players ability to hit home runs, but it will hurt pitcher’s statistics in the process. By enhancing the ball for hitters, the MLB could hurt a pitcher’s ability to earn a big contract because their numbers are being inflated by the change in the ball.

I understand that many fans want to see offense and sky-high homers, but there are many aspects of baseball that make it enjoyable. Close games, decided in pitcher’s duels force teams to get timely hits, and play flawless defense. It may not be as flashy as hitting a long ball, it is what makes baseball such a tactical and multi-faceted sport.

By juicing the baseball, the MLB is prioritizing hitters over pitchers and home runs over shutouts.

While there are always outliers in any trend, the 2017 season shattered the previous highs set in the steroid era. Unfortunately, we will have to wait until next season to see if this trend will continue, or if it was just a fluke.

If the home run numbers begin to fall back to earth, then the juiced ball conversation will start up again, and the MLB will have some explaining to do.