Have baseballs been unjuiced? Mets ponder why hard-hit balls are not flying as far.
PHILADELPHIA — Bryce Harper’s home run off Taijuan Walker on Thursday night was absolutely crushed. It came off his bat at 112 mph and traveled an estimated 427 feet to right-center over the first section of seats. Rightfielder Starling Marte took about two steps before stopping and watching.
But Brandon Nimmo, running over from center, earnestly pursued it — a bizarre detail that nonetheless spoke volumes about this season’s batted-ball trends, which has left the Mets, like others across the majors, mystified and frustrated about what the heck is going on with the baseballs.
They aren’t flying the way they usually do. No-doubters come with doubt these days.
“The guys have been complaining about it,” hitting coach Eric Chavez said. “And they’re kind of right.”
In the case of Nimmo chasing Harper’s blast, he felt he had to — just to be sure.
Last weekend at Citi Field, Harper similarly mashed a long fly ball to center. Nimmo initially figured it was gone because of the way Harper — who knows his homers better than anybody — reacted and leaned back to finish his swing. But Nimmo wound up catching it at the wall. MLB’s ball-tracking technology estimated that had it continued its path unimpeded by a fielder or wall, it would have gone 409 feet. The centerfield wall is marked as being 408 feet from the plate.
“I don’t know what to think this year,” Nimmo said. “So I just didn’t want to give up on [the Thursday homer]. It jumped off the bat, but I’ve also seen them where they die. They jump off the bat but then they come down. I just wanted to make sure that if that ball fell in the park, I was not just watching it.”
Hitting across the majors has been down dramatically in the first month of the season. The average on-base-plus-slugging percentage entering the weekend was .679 — which means that the norm has basically been a James McCann-like hitter. Last year, for reference, the standard OPS was .728. In 2017, when the baseballs were considered juiced, it was .750.
Chavez said the Mets noticed in the first weeks of the season that batted balls of a certain quality that typically result in home runs — hit very hard, at the right angle — were not carrying over the fence. They were dumbfounded.
And then in late April, two days before they played the Phillies on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball,” several hitters gave Chavez a heads up: Watch how the baseballs travel during the premier nationally televised game of the week. They had heard that the balls in those games were in some way different.
“I thought for a second, ‘You guys are full of it,’ ” Chavez said.
And then what happened?
“The ball was traveling farther — balls that weren’t hit as hard. And I’m like, wait a minute, that shouldn’t have happened,” Chavez said. “The ball was just traveling better. That was the eye test, but then we lined it up with what the analytics were telling us.”
Chavez — who played 17 seasons in the majors, won a Silver Slugger Award and was a regular down-ballot MVP vote-getter late in the steroid era — is well versed in the sport’s modern analytics. And he points to them as evidence that these baseballs are wacky.
“This is the one thing about analytics. You can’t really argue, right? You can’t argue. These are facts,” he said. “We’ve been hitting balls 104, 105 [mph] at the right launch angle that aren’t leaving. And all of a sudden, now we’re hitting balls 95 — a little less hard than the other balls — and those balls are traveling on Sunday night.’’
Chavez added, noting that hitting coaches around the majors have heard and said the same: “We can argue other things until you’re blue in the face, but we know that with analytics that if you hit a ball over 100 at the right launch angle, it should be a homer most of the time. That’s telling us there’s something going on.”
Chavez did not want to venture a guess, at least publicly, about what specifically is going on. The possibilities are several.
Maybe the standardized use of humidors in all 30 ballparks, new this year, is affecting balls’ flights. Maybe there is something going on with the actual baseballs manufactured by Rawlings — which, as Nimmo pointed out, has been owned by MLB since 2018. Maybe it is just an early-season fluke aided by the cool spring weather in much of the country.
“I know April historically is a low offensive month,” said Nimmo, who noted that he is content to wait until, say, June before drawing conclusions. “Now is it kind of weird that it has been historically, historically low?”
Whatever is going on now, Chavez is hoping for consistency in the quality/characteristics of the baseballs after years of unpredictability.
“I don’t care if you want to pick this ball,” he said. “Just leave it. Why does it have to change? Like, why? Just leave it the same.”