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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Possible difference in the baseball a bitter pill for pitchers  

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to reporters after a meeting of team owners in Manhattan on Thursday. Photo Credit: AP/Seth Wenig

At the MLB owners’ meetings in Manhattan this past week, commissioner Rob Manfred was asked if he had an official explanation for the skyrocketing spike in home runs this season.

His response? A magic pill.

No, not the pill you’re probably thinking of right now. What Manfred referred to was the “pill” at the baseball’s core, which is actually a round, rubber-coated cork. It’s wrapped in three layers of different yarn, another layer of thread, and finally the two-piece leather cover, which is stitched together by the red laces you see on the exterior.

As Manfred explained Thursday — and MLB’s recent independent investigation into the “juiced ball” first revealed — the manufacturing process has created a more accurately centered pill, meaning the baseball is more symmetrical and basically flies better with a lower drag coefficient.

“We believe that the batch of baseballs that we have this year have less drag,” Manfred said. “Our thinking in that regard was colored by the report that was done last year that identified that as an issue. Our ongoing conversations with the scientists suggest that. We continue to focus on trying to figure out exactly why that is.

“They [Rawlings] haven’t changed their process in any meaningful way. They haven’t changed their materials. There’s two points that I would make, even in the report last year: The scientists identified the pill in the baseball — not what it was actually composed of — but the centering of the pill in the baseball as something that could be a drag issue. To the extent that the pill is not perfectly centered, the ball wobbles when it’s hit, creates more drag. We think one of the things that may be happening is they’re getting better at centering the pill. It creates less drag.”

Manfred insists this is not intentional, but MLB purchased Rawlings last year for close to $400 million, so they really couldn’t have any greater control over the manufacturing process. Once the shipment of baseballs leaves the plant in Costa Rica, however, there are other considerations, which Manfred brought up after the pill theory.

“There’s all these man-made issues,” Manfred said. “It’s hand-stitched, where it’s stored after it’s made, where it’s stored at the ballpark, who puts the mud on the ball, how much mud they put on the ball. So it’s really difficult to isolate any single cause, but we do think it’s a drag issue.”

In case you’re wondering, yes, the baseballs still get a pregame rubdown with a special mud to make them less slick, and MLB has tried to be more uniform with that. Another interesting theory put forth recently was a study done for The Athletic by Dr. Meredith Wills, who discovered a significant (9.0 percent) increase in the lace thickness between pre-2015 baseballs and ones from 2016-17, when the jump in home runs occurred.

Wills postulates that the thicker exterior laces are by nature easier to grip, thereby enabling the person assembling the ball to make it tighter and smaller — though not purposely. Also, the thicker laces would enable the ball to better retain its shape when struck, further decreasing the drag on its flight — like the centered pill — and add more distance.

The one undeniable fact: something is going on, and presumably the homer-happy trend is going to be around until this batch of baseballs runs out.

Through Friday, the sport has averaged 1.36 home runs per game, well above the previous record of 1.26 set in 2017. That puts MLB on pace to finish with 6,612 homers this season, far surpassing the 2017 mark of 6,105.

Remember when the Yankees hammered their way to the single-season record of 267 home runs last year? At this rate, they won’t hold the title for very long, and the Bronx Bombers could be demoted to fourth on that all-time list. The Twins are on pace for 309 this season, followed by the Mariners (286) and Brewers (282).

On an individual basis, there are 61 players on track to finish with at least 30 homers this year. Last year, 27 reached that plateau.

Aside from the why, this nightly fireworks display raises another important question: Are all these home runs bad for the game? The argument has always been that the younger generation of fans, the video-game crowd, loves the long ball and that the so-called purists yearn for more on-field action on the playable side of the fence. Manfred says MLB owners — the crowd with a keen interest in attendance figures and TV ratings — are split on the subject.

“I think the overwhelming sentiment among ownership is that we want to put a game on the field that is responsive to what our fans want to see,” Manfred said. “They do recognize that there’s a segment of our fan base that really likes home runs. We also know from our research there’s another segment of our fan base that likes to see more action in terms of more triples, more doubles, more singles and more stolen bases.

“People say they can change the rules to fix these things, or adjust the ball, or do whatever. When you think about the two things that I just said — people do like home runs yet they want more action — it’s a little harder to come up with the changes that address both of those things. Less home runs, yet enough action to keep people satisfied. We think — including the number of home runs that we have out there — that we present a very entertaining product for our fans on the field. And as opposed to seeing it as a criticism of the game, I think our owners’ desire to make sure that we continue to manage change in the game, and make the product as good as possible, should be seen as a positive rather than a criticism of the way we’re playing now.”

TANKS FOR NOTHING

One topic that continues to raise Manfred’s ire — or that of any pro sports commissioner, for that matter — is the perception that teams are tanking seasons for better draft picks and spending less in the process. Call it whatever you want — rebuilding, rebooting, reloading — but some franchises absolutely punt away seasons, and that includes the 2017 world champion Astros, who didn’t even try to compete from 2011 to 2013, when they averaged 108 losses.

This season, five teams — the Blue Jays, Orioles, Tigers, Royals and Marlins — are on pace to lose at least 100 games. Through Friday, all but Miami was more than 20 games out of first place, and Baltimore was 27 1⁄2 games back. When those mail-it-in-clubs were mentioned to Manfred, he bristled.

“How about we stay with fun facts to know and tell — there are 22 teams within five games of the wild card right now,” Manfred said Thursday. “In a 30-team league, that’s pretty good at this point in the season. Our clubs — every single one of them — is in this game to do one thing. That’s to win.

“There’s always been cycles in baseball of rebuilding, and sometimes as the economics in a sport change, those cycles can be a little deeper and quicker than they have been historically. But I don’t think you can produce a result where you have 22 teams with a realistic chance of making the playoffs at this point in the season and say we lack competitiveness in the league. I just don’t buy that.”

A few days later, Manfred’s number rose to 23, counting the current division leaders. But the tanking subject has become such a sore spot for baseball because of the labor implications, even with union chief Tony Clark wildly swinging and missing in his accusations.

Clark filed a grievance in February 2018 claiming the A’s, Rays, Marlins and Pirates were pocketing revenue-sharing money rather than improving the team and staying competitive. The A’s went on to win 97 games and claim the second wild card, and the Rays had 90 wins — finishing third behind the Red Sox (108) and Yankees (100) — so that was pretty much a knockout victory for MLB.

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