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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.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
Updated 8 hours ago - Technology

A dark view of the future of autonomous weapons

A still from the video "If Human: Kill ( )." Image: Future of Life Institute

A new short film warns of the coming risks posed by the development and proliferation of lethal autonomous weapons.

Why it matters: Drones with the ability to autonomously target and kill without the assistance of a human operator are reportedly already being used on battlefields, and time is running out to craft a global ban of what could be a destabilizing and terrifying new class of weapon.

Updated 9 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus variant surveillance varies widely by state — Omicron cases confirmed in 5 U.S. states America probably won't lead the effort to understand Omicron.
  2. Vaccines: Omicron adds urgency to vaccinating world — Omicron fuels the case for COVID boosters — Moderna loses patent battles tied to COVID vaccine — Pfizer could have vaccine data for children under five by end of 2021, CEO says.
  3. Politics: Nevada to impose insurance surcharge on unvaccinated state workers — New Jersey GOP lawmakers defy statehouse COVID policy — Oklahoma sues Biden administration over Pentagon vaccine mandate — Omicron travel bans are sign of what's to come.
  4. World: WHO: Delta health measures help fight Omicron — COVID cases surge in South Africa in sign Omicron wave is coming — Germany approves new restrictions for unvaccinated people.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.
Updated 14 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Prosecutors charge parents of Michigan school shooting suspect

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The parents of a 15-year-old accused of killing four students and wounding seven other people at a Michigan high school have been charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter, according to court documents.

The latest: Lawyers for James and Jennifer Crumbley told the Detroit News they are "returning to the area to be arraigned," after law enforcement officials announced a search for the Crumbleys had been initiated.