Feb 4, 2020 - Sports

How an inconsistent baseball threatens trust in MLB

Illustration of baseballs arranged in the shape of a question mark
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The Astros' sign-stealing scandal is a huge black eye for Major League Baseball and threatens public trust in the sport, but there is something that poses an even bigger threat to that trust — the baseball itself.

Catch up quick: The "juiced baseball" emerged as a storyline last season, but the inconsistency of MLB's baseballs has been a theme for years.

  • 2019: In April, Baseball Prospectus' Rob Arthur found that the ball had lower drag due to lower seam height, a result that was corroborated by MLB officials. Discussion reached a fever pitch at the All-Star Game, when Justin Verlander said MLB had intentionally "juiced" the ball, citing its purchase of Rawlings in 2018, and it re-emerged as a storyline in the postseason when balls appeared to have been "de-juiced."
  • 2018: A committee concluded in an 84-page report that increased home-run rates were due to "changes in the aerodynamic properties of the baseball itself, specifically to those properties affecting the drag" — but they couldn't determine why those changes had occurred.
  • 2014: Following the lowest-scoring nonstrike year since 1976, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred reportedly approached the players union about wrapping the ball tighter to make it fly farther.
  • 2000: A study funded by MLB and Rawlings found that "two baseballs could meet MLB specifications for construction but one ball could be theoretically hit 49.1 feet further."

The big picture: It would appear that baseball's most essential piece of equipment — one that affects every pitch, every player, every team, every championship —is either being intentionally modified to produce certain results or unintentionally altered from batch to batch.

  • Both are troubling: Either MLB is being untruthful, or the league is incapable of manufacturing a consistent baseball. The latter might be worse, as it makes you wonder whether the baseball has ever been consistent.
  • MLB senior VP Morgan Sword spoke to this in December, saying that the baseball world needs to "accept the fact that the baseball is going to vary" and that "the baseball has varied in its performance probably for the entire history of our sport."

What they're saying:

  • "The more we learn about the ball's uncertainty ... the more we have to confront the fact that so many of the stories we've grown up with and cheered for and cherished are more unreliable than we want to believe," writes The Ringer's Zach Kram.
  • "[I]f the 2019 postseason ball is representative of on-field production going forward, there is no guarantee that the 2020 ball will be any more predictable. And we may discover next season that 'random is the new normal,'" writes Dr. Meredith Wills, one of the data scientists who investigated the ball's composition, per The Athletic.

The bottom line: Baseball has a transparency problem, right down to its literal core.

P.S. ... In related news, the Astros hired former Rays executive James Click as their new general manager.

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