All the research and science Major League Baseball's money can buy has led commissioner Rob Manfred to one conclusion: making baseballs is hard.
Manfred offered some perspective on the debate of juiced and deadened baseballs that’s permeated throughout the league in recent years.
“Let's remember this is a handmade product,” Manfred said at The Associated Press Sports Editors Commissioners meetings in Manhattan on Monday. “Sometimes I read these things that are written and it's like we have a dial downstairs on the fifth floor, and we turn the dial and we get a different baseball.
"Getting the baseball to do something, given that it is a man-made product, is not the easiest thing in the world.”
Manfred said the league’s focus remains on each ball behaving as consistently as possible by narrowing the broad specs MLB has used for ages.
“The change we made in '21 was intended to, and did have the effect of centering the baseball in the range of specifications much more tightly and at the center as opposed to in the tails of the distribution.”
Manfred disputed claims that those changes, as well as a crackdown on pitchers’ use of sticky substances to help them grip the ball, led to more hit batsmen. He also said the league is working on solutions to help pitchers get a needed grip without giving a competitive advantage.
“We have two products out there that we're testing with both major-league and minor-league players designed to deal with the grip issue,” Manfred said. “It's two different approaches in terms of what's better, more functional for players. We do want to give pitchers a ball with better grip, again more consistent, without providing, let me use the phrase 'performance enhancement,' associated with the crazy sticky stuff. I think we’ll have something by next year. I hope we have something that everyone agrees is the right approach.”
ON THE CLOCK
With the minors serving as test labs for potential rule adjustments, Manfred described pitch clocks as the “most important” change, and likely the next to hit the majors.
“I think the reviews in the minor leagues have been really positive,” Manfred said. “Twenty-plus minute reductions in game time. Actually [having] an effect on the way the game is played in terms of more balls in play and more action in the game. And maybe most important, we're down to I think it's less than one violation a game, and what's that show you? When you have great athletes like we have, you change something, they adjust. They get used to it, and they move on.”
ALL-IN ON ROBO UMPS?
Automated ball-strike systems will continue to be utilized in the minors, Manfred said, as they’ve proved to be “robust and accurate,” but major-league implementation is not imminent.
“I think the most interesting thing that's going on about the automated strike zone is we're testing two different formats. The earpiece — umpire gets every pitch called — and we are also utilizing a challenge-type system in one of our minor leagues.
“I don't see the automated strike zone getting to the top of the agenda during the '22-23 offseason, I think it's got a little more of a delay in front of it. There's just only so many changes you're going to make in one year.”