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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Study by expert panel backs MLB claim — the ball isn’t juiced

Commissioner Rob Manfred assembled a committee last August to study every aspect of the exploding home run rate.

Gleyber Torres #25 of the New York Yankees

Gleyber Torres #25 of the New York Yankees follows through on a seventh inning home run against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Yankee Stadium on Friday, May 25, 2018 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

Aaron Boone presides over a Yankees Goliath that is crushing home runs at a record pace this season. Entering Friday night, Boone’s bombers had gone deep 21 times in a five-game span, matching the most in baseball history for such a stretch.

It doesn’t take much to understand why. With giants like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez flexing on a daily basis — along with the mighty rookie, Gleyber Torres — there’s no mystery to it. The Yankees hit three more Saturday night, and at this rate, they will launch 274 homers, surpassing the 1997 Mariners (264).

Major League Baseball, however, has grown more concerned lately about the surge in home runs, especially after last season, when the 30 teams totaled 6,105 — a record that blew away the previous mark of 5,610, which happened to be set the previous year.

Then again, maybe we should phrase that differently. It’s not that MLB was worried about the huge uptick in homers. With the exception of pitchers, everyone loves the long ball. The issue was the perception that something nefarious is afoot, mainly the “juiced-ball” theory, and that’s what got the attention of commissioner Rob Manfred.

Take The Great Home Run Chase of 1998, when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire supposedly brought baseball back from the ashes of the 1994 strike (and canceled World Series) by mashing their way past Roger Maris’ single-season mark of 61. Those two captivated a nation for six months with their herculean feats, only to have the fairy tale debunked as fraudulent because of the advent of the PED era.

That was under Bud Selig’s reign, but Manfred is wary of anything that threatens the integrity of the sport’s accomplishments, as he should be.

Last season, when baseballs began flying out of stadiums in bunches, Manfred came under siege, with the players, media and fans all wondering what was causing the nightly fireworks.

The Astros’ Justin Verlander went as far as to say that MLB was not being truthful with its company stance of insisting the baseball was the same as it always had been.

Some were convinced it was wound tighter, the seams were lower, the core was bouncier. Based on what everyone was watching, the conspiracy theories started to make sense. Perception was becoming reality.

Which is why Manfred assembled a committee last August to study every aspect of the exploding home run rate, and that 10-member group — chaired by Alan Nathan, Professor of Physics Emeritus at the University of Illinois — released its findings Thursday.

It’s an impressive cast. In addition to Nathan, the committee is stocked with professors in statistics, mathematics and mechanical engineering, along with Dan Brooks, the operator of BrooksBaseball.net, an analytical go-to site for any pitching-related matter.

The end product was an 84-page report that can be difficult to fully comprehend without a Ph.D. in these sciences, or at least a few semesters at MIT.

But that’s what we’re here for: to boil down these graphs, charts and formulas into more easily digestible bites.

First, we’ll get right to the main entree, and that’s the committee’s conclusion that the baseball is not “juiced.” After testing the ball in every possible manner, from dissecting game-used balls since 2012 and others straight from the box, as well as pounding them repeatedly in the lab and visiting the Rawlings assembly line in Costa Rica, the committee determined that Manfred’s statement was correct.

“In summary, the recent surge in home runs is not due to either a livelier, ‘juiced’ ball, or any change in batter or pitcher behavior,” wrote Dr. Leonard Mlodinow, a best-selling author and theoretical physicist who put together the 10-page recap. “It seems, instead, to have arisen from a decrease in the ball’s drag properties, which cause it to carry further than previously, given the same set of initial conditions — exit velocity, launch and spray angle, and spin. So there is indirect evidence that the ball has changed, but we don’t yet know how.”

So some of the brightest minds in their scientific fields, after an intensive 10 months of research, couldn’t come up with a definitive answer. But the final result almost doesn’t matter as much as the process itself, which enabled Manfred to ultimately say, “I told you so” to the growing number of skeptics.

Given that the commissioner never believed there was a problem with the baseball in the first place — going by what he was told by those on the manufacturing side — this investigation essentially freed MLB from suspicion of tampering with the ball.

“I thank the committee for all of its hard work on this important issue,” Manfred said in a statement. “Based on the results of their study, I am accepting their recommendations immediately and look forward to their continued guidance in this area.”

One narrative the committee appeared to neutralize was the modern fascination with factors such as exit velocity and launch angle, the new darlings of the Statcast set. After poring over research from Statcast, the group determined that these two elements did not directly contribute to the increase in home runs. So hitting coaches that are pushing the whole launch-angle phenomenon as a key to greater homer production might not be on the right track after all.

“The team found that exit velocities decreased slightly from 2016 to 2017, which would tend to lead to fewer, not more, home runs,” Mlodinow wrote. “Launch angles exhibited a small increase, but only for the players with lesser home run talents. And spray angles were quite stable over the time period of the home run surge. The team also investigated the joint distribution of launch angle and exit velocity, important because a high percentage of home runs are hit with these parameters in the red zone.

“That joint distribution was also consistent over the time period in question. Hence there is little evidence to support the claim that batter behavior with regard to any of these factors contributed to the increase in home run hitting.”

The best the committee could come up with in its determination that the baseball does carry farther was that the rubber pill at the core “may be more centered” since 2015, which could mean the ball might be “staying rounder” while spinning.

That goes back to the lower drag coefficient adding distance to each fly ball. After peeling away the yarn (85 percent wool, 15 percent synthetic), leather cover (tanned from dairy cows in Tennessee) and 108 stitches (rolled between two grooved wooden plates to flatten), the positioning of the pill (coated in tacky adhesive) was as close as the group could get to a physical explanation.

And what about the mud? If there is going to be this much scrutiny directed at how the baseball travels through the air — i.e., the drag coefficient — wouldn’t the amount of mud rubbed onto the ball before games affect the surface (and therefore flight) in a significant way?

MLB still relies on the archaic practice of muddying up the box-fresh surface of the baseball in order to make them more tacky, but there is no calibrated method.

That could change. Among the committee’s five recommendations to Manfred was to create a standard for the mud-rubbing process, which then would be enforced by the umpires. The others involved monitoring the temperature and humidity in the stadiums’ baseball storage facilities (with the possibility of going to humidors for 2019), a review of Rawlings’ production specifications, performing “aerodynamic testing” on game baseballs and also enlisting some committee members as part of a scientific advisory council for the commissioner.

The take-away from all this? Manfred countered with a strong response when the game’s integrity was questioned, and now MLB has guidelines in place — along with an exhaustive scientific study in its back pocket — to guard against rogue trends in the future.

As for the meaning to those in uniform, this study wasn’t really for them as much as it was to reassure a suspicious public.

When Boone was asked Friday about the findings, he talked about how big a deal it was last season for him as a broadcaster, always gripping and squeezing a baseball in the booth during those discussions. But now?

“I haven’t given it much thought in this seat,” Boone said.

As long as everyone uses the same baseball, most players are fine with whatever the specifications are. And if it’s any consolation, home runs are back to a more typical rate this season, averaging 1.12 per game, as opposed to 1.26 last season.

Even with the Yankees Factor, a variable the scientists might have to start accounting for next time.

WEIRD SCIENCE?

Major League Baseball’s exhaustive investigation into the sport’s surging home-run totals didn’t reveal any smoking gun — or a juiced ball, for that matter. But there’s no disputing the numbers, which have been soaring since a slight dip after the 2012 season.

SeasonTotal HRHR/Game

2018* 1,645 1.12

2017 6,105 1.26

2016 5,610 1.16

2015 4,909 1.01

2014 4,186 0.86

2013 4,661 0.96

2012 4,934 1.02

*Saturday’s games not included

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