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Baseball

The Ball Is Juiced. Who Cares?

Home runs are flying out of ballparks across Major League Baseball. Fans and writers are whispering conspiracies about a juiced baseball. Here's the thing: it's about damn time.

by Rian Watt
Jul 12 2017, 2:28pm

Photo by Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

There is no longer any doubt about it: the baseball is juiced.

Separate and independent investigations at FiveThirtyEight and The Ringer have confirmed what had been suspected for months: that Major League Baseball's recent and remarkable surge in home runs is neither a fluke, nor just the result of hitters switching up their approach at the plate en masse.

In other words, Yonder Alonso might be trying to hit more fly balls, sure, but Yonder Alonso does not a home run revolution make, at least not alone. Even as hitters have adjusted their swings, changes in the physical construction of the baseball have combined to lower the ball's drag coefficient and give the average hitter a few extra feet (and maybe much more than that) on the typical fly ball.

It's about damn time—and MLB should just own the change.

As it stands, analysts like Rob Arthur, the author of the FiveThirtyEight study, have taken pains to emphasize that there is no evidence to suggest that MLB has intentionally modified the ball to generate more home runs. The ball may be slightly different, yes, but that doesn't necessarily point to a conspiracy.

Speaking yesterday in Miami, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said essentially the same thing. In his 30 years in the game, Manfred said that he has "never heard a conversation in which people have suggested we should purposely alter the baseball." He then, hilariously, suggested that there might be something juiced about … the bats. Yeah, OK.

Thing is, though, the public discourse surrounding the issue—the whispered talk, the innuendo, the headlines well-suited to our conspiratorial times—all of it rests on the unspoken assumption that if there has been a change to the ball and that change has been kept quiet by MLB, well, there's something wrong with that.

I don't think that's the case.

If MLB wants to juice the baseball, MLB should be allowed to juice the baseball, full disclosure be damned. And if the baseball changed without MLB trying to change it and the league decided it liked it, they don't have to tell us that, either. MLB is not the federal government—it doesn't owe us openness. It doesn't owe us transparency. It doesn't owe us anything except entertainment, and the same standards of decency and ethical conduct that we should expect of any other member of civil society. As long as all 30 teams are using the same ball, who cares if the ball is marginally different from the one used in 2014?

Now, lest I be misunderstood to be defending the league against all comers, MLB does have a responsibility of disclosure and action in this case, even if that responsibility is not to the fans. That responsibility is to its players, who have fought for and won the right to bargain collectively over the terms of their employment by the league, and who have a vested interest in the physical construction of the baseball—which is, after all, the central tool of their trade.

And so, if MLB modified the construction of the baseball and failed to inform the players of such a change, maliciously or not, there's every reason for the MLBPA to agitate for transparency and disclosure on the subject, at least to its members, and to demand an expanded voice in the process in the future. Pitchers, clearly, have a professional interest in a change that is currently wreaking havoc on their home run rates (particularly veterans, who've built careers on the old baseball, and are presumably less able to adjust to the new one). There is also anecdotal evidence of an increased risk of blister injury with baseball's new lower seams.

As for the fans? They can agitate for transparency if they want it, and Manfred would be well served in being more transparent, but I see no particular reason for MLB to take a preemptively defensive posture on the matter. As far as I'm concerned, if juicing the ball instead of the players means fans get more dingers without pumping impressionable and eager young men chock-full of dangerous hormones, I'm all for it. Hell, let's juice the ball even more. How many new fans did baseball find itself during the height of the steroid era? How many children of the 90s drifted off to sleep with images of Slammin' Sammy and Big Mac dancing their heads? Dingers are damn good entertainment.

And a juiced ball is better, surely, than the sanctimonious and hypocritical drug policy of two decades past that vilified players for making choices—choices deleterious to their health, no less—that they had every incentive in the world to make, while the league profited handsomely off those choices and punished players for them simultaneously. So while, yes, it would be nice if the league were transparent about the process by which the ball was changed—and even nicer if they issued formal statements that didn't hand-wave the subject away—the fact is that as far as I can see it's an unmitigated good thing for the game's fans if the ball is juiced.

That position, I recognize, requires a willingness to accept baseball as living in a forever floating present, à la the Simpsons, where Bart's 11th birthday comes and goes a dozen times and it's impossible to tell whether Roger Maris was any better a hitter than Scooter Gennett. There is a case to be made that the sustained enjoyment of the game demands a sense of being able to compare players across eras, which requires predictability, or partial predictability at least, and unannounced changes to its basic tools make that darn near impossible. Perhaps that case holds merit. I'm a sucker for the history of the game, too—but the fact is, I like home runs far too much to get worked up about any of that.

There are a lot of good things to get upset about in the world today. Let's not have juiced baseballs be one of them. Bring on the big flies. Bring on the dingers. Big-bomb baseball is back, baby, and it's good again. Just ask Yonder Alonso.