Feb 4, 2020 - Sports

How an inconsistent baseball threatens trust in MLB

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

The MLB's problems extend far beyond Houston's cheating scandal

The Astros' second baseman José Altuve during a press conference in West Palm Beach, Florida. Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Astros had three months to craft a thoughtful apology for the team's sign-stealing scandal. Instead, José Altuve and Alex Bregman spoke for a combined 90 seconds — and owner Jim Crane questioned whether sign-stealing even helped his team win games.

The big picture: While baseball grapples with the fallout, don't lose sight of the many other problems Major League Baseball faces as commissioner Rob Manfred enters his sixth season at the helm.

Go deeperArrowFeb 14, 2020 - Sports

The Astros' apology tour

The Astros' Jose Altuve during a press conference in West Palm Beach. Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Houston Astros are very sorry for cheating their way to a World Series win, even as their owner bizarrely flip-flopped on whether their cheating changed any games.

Why it matters: The sign-stealing scandal is among the biggest since the steroid era, spilling over into other clubs and giving MLB some nasty publicity.

Go deeperArrowFeb 13, 2020 - Sports

Inside the Astros' front office's sign stealing operation

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Over the weekend, a bombshell Wall Street Journal report revealed that the Astros' front office was not only aware of the sign-stealing that was going on but, in fact, created the system in the first place. It even had a name: "Codebreaker."

How it worked: Using an in-game live feed, someone would log the catchers' signs and the type of pitch that was thrown into an Excel spreadsheet. An algorithm would then decipher what each sign meant and that information was communicated to a baserunner, who would relay it to the hitter.

Go deeperArrowFeb 11, 2020 - Sports