Are the baseballs juiced?

Why the MLB needs to come clean about the historic rise of home runs

Are the baseballs juiced?

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.

The Jays can extend their World Series window

An insight into the Toronto Blue Jays’ offseason

The Jays can extend their World Series window

Entering last season, expectations for the Toronto Blue Jays were high, despite the losses of slugger Edwin Encarnacion and relief pitcher Brett Cecil. However, the Blue Jays were unable to deliver on experts’ predictions of a playoff finish, ending the 2017 season with a .469 record, nine games back of the final wildcard spot in the American League.

Missing the playoffs after consecutive trips to the American League Championships Series has left fans pondering a dangerous question: has the Blue Jays’ World Series window slammed shut? If so, then a rebuild would be on the cards, and a difficult one at that. Toronto boasts one of the oldest rosters in the MLB, and they are burdened by the untradeable contracts of veterans Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin, both earning $20 million for each of the next two seasons. The future is bright with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette on the way, but they still find themselves playing High-A ball in Dunedin.

With the notion of a rebuild out of the question, how can the Jays squeeze out another shot at the playoffs? Let’s consider the team’s options this offseason.

 

The addition of an infielder

The Jays boasted a middle infield comprised of Ryan Goins, Tulowitzki, and the oft-injured Devon Travis last season. A healthy Travis started at second, with Tulowitzki at shortstop, and Goins deputizing both positions.

Injuries to Travis, Tulowitzki, and Josh Donaldson exposed the lack of depth in the infield and resulted in Toronto playing some combination of Darwin Barney, Chris Coghlan, Rob Refsnyder, and Goins — none of whom are with the club today — alongside Justin Smoak. This leaves Richard Urena and Gift Ngoepe as the Jays’ only depth at middle infield, making a utility infielder a top priority.

Eduardo Núñez is one such utility infielder. Valued at almost $12 million, he can play virtually anywhere in the field should a starting player go down with an injury. Batting .313/.341/.460 with 12 home runs, 58 runs batted in, and 24 stolen bases last season with the San Francisco Giants and Boston Red Sox, Núñez would bring some speed to an aged squad.

Speaking of speed, Dee Gordon may find himself leaving Miami soon, as new Marlins CEO Derek Jeter attempts to lower the club’s salary. A left-handed batter with a high on-base percentage makes Gordon the ideal leadoff man. He even snagged 60 bases last season, making him an attractive trade option for the Jays. Gordon would take over at second full-time, benching Travis, and making Goins the backup shortstop, creating depth by pushing the incumbent starters down the chart.

Depth at starting pitcher

The Jays’ rotation currently features Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez, and JA Happ, leaving a vacant starter slot. Toronto have rightly expressed interest in Jake Arrieta, one of the top pitchers on the market and a World Series winner with the Chicago Cubs. With a Cy Young Award and two no-hitters to his name, Arrieta’s proven track record makes him a tantalising option for the Jays. The downside? Arrieta would command almost $27 million per year on a long-term contract.

The most interesting option is dual-threat Shohei Ohtani, who is free to be signed on a minor league contract. Unproven against MLB opposition, he is considered a promising starter with a good bat. The one caveat to signing Ohtani is that all teams in MLB have a shot at signing him, so the Jays need a contingency plan should they fail. Toronto should take a run at him, but they will show reluctance to play him in the field if they succeed, as they’ve shown reluctance to push young players, such as Sanchez, too hard for fear of injuries.

Expect Toronto to pick up a few low-cost starters to improve pitching depth. Don’t rule out a return for Brett Anderson. 

Not splurging on sluggers

The loss of Jose Bautista has left the Jays short of a slugger in right field. With big-money power threats JD Martinez and Jay Bruce hitting free agency, it can be tempting for a club to spend big on a long-term deal for either, but they shouldn’t. If Toronto is serious about reaching the World Series in 2018, they need more than just Martinez or Bruce — they’d need to improve the infield depth and the pitching rotation to stand a chance against teams like Houston. Such moves would prove costly in the long term, as the Jays would be stuck with the hefty contracts of Martin, Tulowitzki, and any free agent acquisitions.

Instead, the team should place their faith in Teoscar Hernández, who showed some pop during a September call-up, to spare themselves the stress of carrying several overpaid veterans in the future.

Verdict: the Jays will express caution, making deals to improve depth and hope that last season’s misfortunes were but a blip. This team is good enough to turn things around on their own, and should get back to winning ways with minimal alterations.

Varsity Blues baseball win OUA Championship

Blues pitcher Peter Nash describes the impressive feat

Varsity Blues baseball win OUA Championship

An 8–3 victory on October 15 saw the University of Toronto Varsity Blues baseball team win their first OUA title in five years. A match where the Blues never relinquished their lead, the gold medal game was a reflection of the team’s strong season and even stronger lineup and roster, rallied together by first-year head coach Mike Didier.

Peter Nash, a senior in the Masters of Exercise Science program, was unanimously selected as the starting pitcher for the game and pitched six innings with dominance, recording six strikeouts while surrendering only two runs. A current coach in the Leaside Baseball Organization, Nash grew up admiring Roy Halladay and Justin Verlander while playing baseball in Ajax. Reflecting on his team’s 9-7 season, finishing tied for third in the OUA standings, Nash said, “It was obvious that [the Blues] were a top contender. Each game we lost, we knew we either beat ourselves or were right there. I had confidence at each position around the diamond, which I would argue is more than any other team could claim.”

Once October 13 rolled around and the playoffs for the OUA Championship officially started, Nash’s confidence was put to the test. Shutting out the Guelph Gryphons in the first round and defeating the Waterloo Warriors 7–3 in the quarter finals, the Blues moved on to face the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks in the gold medal game.

“I was both excited and nervous for the top of the Laurier order. They run three good lefties to start and follow it with the hitter of the year in the 4-spot,” said Nash, describing the strategy he and catcher Tanner Young-Schultz discussed going into the match.

“You could tell that, over the course of the game, they started to recognize my change-up and lay off when it ran off the plate,” continued Nash. “Nonetheless, the change-up was good enough to get sufficient outs. The bottom half of their order saw a bigger mix of curves and fastballs with a greater amount of righties.”

A critical defensive play came in the bottom of the fourth, when a Warriors runner was caught stealing by Young-Schultz.

“I was confused why they decided to run, as Tanner’s pop time is just fine, and I didn’t have a leg kick going; they really killed their own rally being over aggressive,” commented Nash on the opposition’s questionable decision. He added that despite the encouraging play, there was no room for letting guards down, as “momentum is easier to believe as a fan.”

The offense supported Nash’s terrific start; outfielder Michael Deluca scored three runners by collecting hits in both the first and second innings. Second baseman Marco Bandiera, outfielder Bradley Bedford, and infielder Roy Suzuki also collected runs batted in (RBIs) throughout the game. This offensive outburst allowed pitcher Graham Tebbit a comfortable cushion to close things down, and in his three-inning appearance, he only allowed one run.

Nash had difficulty choosing his favourite moment of the game since there were so many RBIs to “get you excited,” but he enjoyed striking out Davenport with a 3–2 change up in the first inning. Davenport was the hitter of the year.

“I would put that second only to seeing my rookie, Mikey, hit a long fly out to the oppo gap that really showed his development over the course of the season offensively,” said Nash. “He went from the bottom of the order to hitting line drives and loud outs consistently, which poses good signs for a first year outfielder. Seeing guys improve is what makes me tick.”

As for the future, Nash will continue coaching elite youth baseball and playing for the Pickering Red Sox senior team.

“[The Blues] have talent on the bench and on [the] pitching staff, so I have faith that U of T will be strong next year,” he said.

 

 

Does anybody really win with wins?

Baseball’s analytical community understands that a pitcher’s win-loss records shouldn’t matter

Does anybody really win with wins?

Every November, after a gruelling 162-game regular season and an intense postseason, Major League Baseball awards its athletes in both the American and National Leagues with various accolades. Most Valuable Player, Silver Slugger Award, and the Gold Glove Award make up a few of the prestigious honours that can crown a player’s season. Meanwhile, pitchers are fixated on one specific achievement, the Cy Young Award, which recognizes one pitcher as the best of the season as determined by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA).

Last year, Boston Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello won the award over the Detroit Tigers’ Justin Verlander and Cleveland Indians’ Corey Kluber. The manner in which the BWAA voted sparked a controversy, though, because of inconsistencies between ranked-ballot votes for Porcello and Verlander. The Red Sox pitcher received eight first place votes, while Verlander received 14 but was completely removed from two of the ballots.

When each pitcher’s individual statistics are broken down and further examined, it becomes apparent that there’s a brazen discrepancy between what the BWAA aims to reward and the way in which the selections are determined. Last year’s voting illuminated a problem with modern pitching sabermetrics: the importance the win-loss record holds far outweighs the information that the statistic actually encapsulates.   

Baseball is an analytical game — managers and fans alike act as statisticians to make sense of a player’s success or struggles. The win-loss statistic is one that applies solely to pitchers: a pitcher is awarded the win if he was the last to pitch before the winning team took the lead for the final time. It’s a divisive statistic because it says very little about a pitcher’s abilities yet holds a lot of weight when it comes to discussing performance. In 2016, Rick Porcello ended the regular season with 22 wins and four losses, whereas Justin Verlander went 16 and nine.

There is a continuing trend of prioritizing a pitcher’s win-loss record over other, more complex and telling statistics. Maybe it’s because the win-loss record is straightforward, but the dissonance is staggering between wanting to accurately characterize a pitcher via his stats and relying so heavily on wins and losses. As soon as the baseball community collectively labels a pitcher’s winning record as obsolete, there will be more integrity and fairness in deciding who excelled in a season.

It is necessary to determine what attributes makes a pitcher stand out from his peers: value to his team is not mutually inclusive with talent. Performance can be quantified by Earned Run Average (ERA), for example, which denotes how many runs a pitcher allows on average in his outings. Strikeouts are another good measure of success.

To quantify value, however, Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is the best statistic to look to since it indicates how many of the team’s wins were brought solely by the pitcher. A Quality Start (QS) is also a viable option, recorded when a pitcher allows three runs or less, and serves as a constructive statistic since it incorporates a pitcher’s command and control on a given night.

But to truly discredit win-loss statistics, it’s crucial to discuss run support, the average number of runs a pitcher receives from his team. In 2016, Porcello had a Major League leading 6.53 runs in support of him per outing, whereas Verlander only had 3.97. To further exemplify: in 2013, the AL Cy Young winner, then-Detroit Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer, ended the season with 21 wins while, on average, his team scored him 5.59 runs. Second place Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish had only 13 wins, partly because of his 4.28 run support. There is a strong correlation between high run support and more wins, which should effectively delegitimize the statistic from its pedestal, yet no such demotion has taken place quite yet.

On August 15 of 2016, when the Toronto Blue Jays’ R.A. Dickey faced the New York Yankees, the knuckleballer pitched five strong innings, giving up only one run — an uncharacteristic feat for the right hander who often struggles with his command. Toronto went on to lose 1-0 that night and Dickey collected the loss. However, in a game only two months prior, on June 25, Dickey gave up four runs against the Chicago White Sox, and still collected the win in a 10-8 Blue Jays’ victory. In neither outing was his performance rightfully rewarded, yet games such as these happen every night and are the basis for the existence of a pitcher’s record.

There is no question about it: based on his statistics, Verlander deserved the 2016 Cy Young Award. And so begs the question: if analytics hold the most importance come awards season, how could such an act of larceny be committed against Verlander? 

Porcello, who had a higher ERA, a lower WAR, and less quality starts and strikeouts, rode his league-leading 6.53 run support to finish the year with 22 wins and crown his five-and-a-half months of play with one of baseball’s most prestigious awards.

Though not as controversial, it is arguable that former Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke was in a similar situation as Verlander in 2015, when he came second to the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta in the Cy Young vote. Despite having the league’s lowest ERA for a starting pitcher and having the most quality starts in the MLB, Greinke’s 19-win season did not seem as accomplished as Arrieta’s 22.  Arrieta can thank his teammates for that — since their 4.18 run support was substantially larger than his competitors.

Baseball has always been a game oozing with logic and rationality; its fields are geometric and its rules are philosophical, so it’s quite ironic that the league uses so little logic when it comes to sabermetrics. Aside from hockey goalies, no other sport assigns individual players a win or a loss — so why place so much importance on a pitcher’s record? If a pitcher is only as good as his battery mate, why not assign the outcome of the game to the catcher as well? These are all questions that shouldn’t just plant the seed of doubt when it comes to the discussion of the integrity of wins and losses — they should water the seed until it grows into green, soft stadium grass.

Verlander’s loss in 2016 and Greinke’s in 2015 prove that a pitcher’s abilities and accomplishments lie far beneath the surface-level wins and losses. As soon as the MLB, and baseball more broadly, divorces itself from records and begins to rely on more complex and cogent pitching statistics, both criticism and praise will become drastically more justified.