Aaron Sanchez, the Toronto Blue Jays’ young ace, was sidelined for most of the 2017 season because of a blister. In July, Sanchez’s teammate and fellow pitcher Marcus Stroman was also unable to pitch due to a blister. Stroman publicly commented on the matter, claiming that blisters had become an “epidemic” within baseball.
Noah Syndergaard, David Price, and Taijuan Walker all battled blisters throughout the season as well. These blisters left multiple fanbases scratching their heads, confused at how perfectly healthy players and even aces were left unable to pitch because of what seemed to be an issue with the physical composition of the ball.
These blisters, which seemed to contribute to most pitcher-related injury news in 2017, foreshadowed a larger problem in MLB. A few weeks ago, FiveThirtyEight confirmed an alteration to the balls used in games.
The signs were all there. For one, the number of home runs per season has dramatically increased over the past year — and no, that’s not because of Giancarlo Stanton. The average number of home runs per game in 2017 was 1.26, which is almost 50 per cent higher than 2014’s average of 0.86. There was a 46 per cent spike in home runs between the two years.
In order to explain this spike, it is important to talk about the anatomy of a baseball. There’s the cowhide shell, which is the white leather exterior of the ball, the cork and rubber core, and the yarn that separates the two. The core, however, is where most of the alterations seem to have occurred.
The core of a baseball is made up of four parts. First, there’s the cork pellet that sits in the very centre of the ball. Then there’s both black rubber and a rubber ring, all of which are held together by pink rubber. In a study comparing the densities of balls made in 2014 and balls made in 2017, the ESPN Sport Science team, headed by Dr. Meng Law, found that the pink rubber was around 40 per cent denser in the older balls than in the new.
This decrease in density can be explained by a study done by Kent State University. Looking at the molecular composition of the cork as well as the pink rubber, researchers found that the pink layer of the core had 10 per cent less silicon relative to older balls.
These changes may seem subtle, but they have an impact: baseballs now weigh on average 0.5 grams less than they did a couple years ago. They are also bouncier, which The Ringer estimates can add three feet to the distance a ball travels off a slugger’s bat. This means that a hit that would normally be caught on the warning tracks is now likely carrying over the fence for a home run.
You may be wondering what the problem here. Are more homers bad? Is baseball now an objectively easier game to play? Will 50 home run seasons, like those of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, become the norm? No, no, and maybe. It is important to clarify that the problem with this revelation isn’t that the balls are being ‘juiced,’ but rather, the lack of transparency on the side of the MLB. Keeping mum on alterations to equipment can have serious repercussions, both in sabermetrics and in injuries.
Houston Astros pitcher and 2011 American League MVP Justin Verlander commented on the matter to his nearly two million Twitter followers. “All I’m saying is I don’t care if balls are juiced (seriously),” he tweeted this month. “We’re all using the same ball so it’s a fair field. My issue is I don’t like being lied to. I knew something was different. Century old records are being broken and numbers are skewed.” Verlander was specifically referring to the findings that the exit velocity and launch of a baseball now had a higher correlation to the chance of a home run — something that can be explained by the less dense balls.
Whether the lower densities initially caused the blisters is uncertain; what is clear is that the athletes are frustrated and the fans are frustrated. It seems that everyone except the MLB is frustrated. This then poses the question: why keep the alterations a secret? And why vehemently deny — as Commissioner Rob Manfred has done numerous times — something that was ultimately proven to be true?
Maybe the secrecy is due to some kind of contractual obligation with Rawlings, the company that manufactures the balls in Costa Rica. Or perhaps it comes from fear of backlash — from those who refer to themselves as ‘purists’ and oppose any and all change, scoffing at pitch-clocks and the like. It is true that the culture surrounding the game of baseball has been challenged over the past couple of decades, from social issues, like attempts to remove racist rhetoric from vocal celebration, to technical elements, like adding instant replay. Baseball culture is notorious for rejecting any evolution the game may go through.
This has to change. Progress is good — it is as simple as that. In 1858, baserunners weren’t obligated to touch all the bases in order. In 1884, a player needed six balls to attain a walk. In 1885, bats could have one flat side.
Were it not for change, we would be watching a game where pitchers threw spitballs, players wore no protective gear, and the bats resembled canoe paddles. Baseball is a game that has been transformed into the phenomenon it is today thanks to changes it has undergone throughout its almost two-century existence. It is high time that fans, both old and new, regard the evolution of baseball as a benefit to the game instead of a detriment. For now, however, the MLB owes its athletes and its fans transparency. The way in which Manfred goes about explaining and justifying this issue will be indicative of the MLB’s commitment to the truth — or lack thereof.