When counting up all the problems currently associated with Major League Baseball, from labor strife to pace of play to Gen Z popularity, it’s only natural — amid the sport’s creeping existential crisis — for the list to include the very thing that makes the game possible.
The baseball. Of course.
Hand-stitched cowhide, with a cork center (pill) surrounded by layers of yarn. Deconstructed, the ball sounds more like a cat toy than a tool at the center of a $10 billion industry.
Manufactured in Costa Rica by Rawlings, a company owned by MLB, the process involves a tangled blend of tradition, ancient craft and conspiracy theories — a perfect reflection of the sport itself.
You may have noticed that this leather-covered clump of wool has come up in conversation more and more in recent years, as it did again last week with the revelation — first introduced by The Athletic — that MLB had sent a memo to teams informing them of deliberate changes to the baseball.
Also, five more teams have installed humidors at their stadiums, bringing the total to 10 of 30 overall.
These alterations, boiled down, were done to reverse the alarming trend of soaring home run stats. Or to put it more technically, to decrease the COR (coefficient of restitution) to make the ball less bouncy or lively on a more consistent basis.
As one person familiar with the memo described the changes, they could shorten the flight of the ball by two or three feet for shots that travel more than 375 feet. By most ballpark specifications, that might represent the difference between the seats, the wall or the warning track.
Or the variables in distance could be more. Or less. No one seems to know exactly how much until these baseballs are put in play full-time for the 2021 season.
MLB’s official stance — though not attached to commissioner Rob Manfred or anyone else at the Sixth Avenue offices — insists they were made to bring the baseball more consistently in line with the rule-book specifications. "The bounciness had drifted up a little bit," as a person involved in MLB’s examination said this past week.
That’s quite an understatement. In 2019, when the sirens went off, MLB averaged 1.39 home runs per team per game with a total of 6,776 overall — both all-time records.
While the numbers were gradually surging upward, the 2019 season was a monster jump from 2014, when those same statistics were 0.86 and 4,186, respectively. The backlash was so severe after ’19 that MLB had an independent investigation take a closer look at the ball’s performance, no doubt due in some degree to absolve them from "juicing" allegations.
Back then, the panel of scientists rounded up by MLB came to the conclusion that a near-microscopic drop in seam height resulted in less drag on the baseball’s surface, hence it flew farther.
My favorite part of that winter meetings afternoon in San Diego was MLB officials discussing all of the organic factors that go into the production of baseballs, from the grass the cows eat to how the number of mosquito bites on that cow might affect the quality of the rawhide covers.
Oddly enough, MLB trumpets the baseball’s all-natural materials as integral to the sport’s tradition and history despite the troublesome variations they also link to them. Truth be told, I’d say it’s impossible to make a baseball that would be universally loved, anyway. Pitchers prefer higher seams and a tackier surface for better grip and additional movement; hitters enjoy less drag for more carry in this launch-angle era.
As for MLB’s memo involving the 2021 baseball, sources said it was just another attempt by the league to be transparent with an issue that has snowballed in the public forum over the past few years. Others viewed it as MLB finally admitting the past manipulation of the baseball in order to spike offensive production.
"Did I see MLB is ‘slightly’ deadening the baseball?" the Dodgers’ David Price tweeted last week. "I thought MLB said it hadn’t been juiced? Lol. Pitchers knew all along!! Baseballs had a different feel and a different sound. Happy to see they’re attempting to go back to the regular baseball . . ."
No player has a closer relationship with the baseball than the pitcher, obviously. They notice any incremental difference, down to the thickness of the Delaware river bed mud rubbed on the surface pregame. Yes, amid all this scientific discussion about how the baseball is assembled, there is the not-so-small matter of requiring mud to dull the new-product slickness of the processed cowhide.
There is a potential way around all this: using synthetic materials instead. Then again, if MLB did go that route, any discrepancy in the baseball no longer could be pinned on a cow’s diet; it would lead directly back to Rawlings’ factory specs. For now, MLB prefers the company line to be "there’s only so much you can control," as one industry official mentioned last week.
The fact is, MLB goes through 1.3 million baseballs each season. That’s a lot of room for variations in the manufacturing process, even before purposely messing with the size, weight or bounciness.
Will MLB’s changes actually "deaden" the baseball for 2021? That appears to be the hope for Manfred & Co., but tinkering like this also has a history of leaning toward unintended consequences.
For a sport that could use more on-field action, however, keeping the baseball inside the fences with a little more frequency isn’t a bad place to start. Next they need to work on the unchecked proliferation of strikeouts and somehow create increased contact at the plate, which isn’t as simple as adjusting the ball’s specifications.
Regardless, we’ll still be talking about the baseballs. Scrutiny and suspicion again will follow their flight this season more closely than a sprinting outfielder’s eyes. Now it’s just a matter of seeing where they all land.
GOING . . . GOING . . . GONE?
The skyrocketing home run rates in recent years could be a thing of the past if the alterations made to the baseball affect its flight for the 2021 season. Here’s a snapshot of MLB’s power production since the numbers jumped in 2014.
HR/Team/Game Total HRs Slug %
2014 0.86 4,186 .386
2015 1.01 4,909 .405
2016 1.16 5,610 .417
2017 1.26 6,105 .426
2018 1.15 5,585 .409
2019 1.39** 6,776** .435
2020* 1.28 2,304 .418
* 60-game season
** All-time record