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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Yesterday's Home Run Derby news cycle began with All-Star Justin Verlander emphatically saying that the league is juicing the baseballs, adding more fuel to an already raging fire.

By the numbers: MLB teams are projected to hit at least 6,463 home runs this season, which would break the all-time record set in 2017 (6,105) by almost 400, per WashPost.

"It's a f---ing joke. Major League Baseball's turning this game into a joke. They own Rawlings, and you've got [commissioner Rob] Manfred up here saying it might be the way they center the pill. They own the f---ing company. If any other $40 billion company bought out a $400 million company and the product changed dramatically, it's not a guess as to what happened. We all know what happened.
Manfred, the first time he came in, what'd he say? He said we want more offense. All of a sudden he comes in, the balls are juiced? It's not coincidence. We're not idiots. ... They've been using juiced balls in the Home Run Derby forever. They know how to do it."
— All-Star Justin Verlander, via ESPN

Context: MLB does in fact own Rawlings, but they purchased the company last summer — more than two years into this ongoing home run surge. Obviously, that hurts the argument that the balls were suddenly altered once MLB took control.

  • On the other hand, multiple independent studies have shown that, beginning in 2015, the balls changed. So perhaps MLB was influencing the design before the purchase?
  • Hitters are being coached to elevate the ball like never before, and that is certainly contributing to the record numbers, but something is going on with the balls, and the players know it.

The bottom line: I'm not sure we've ever seen anything quite like this juiced ball saga, and MLB's "nothing to see here!" stance grows more disingenuous by the day.

  • And here's the crazy part: If they'd just admit that something significant is going on with the balls — instead of gingerly suggesting that maybe something is afoot — would anybody be mad? Fans love homers, and even pitchers would likely appreciate the transparency.
  • Instead, Manfred continues to play defense, seemingly worried that anything he says will make the league look bad when, in reality, the only thing making the league look bad is that they refuse to fully acknowledge what every fan and player is thinking.

Go deeper: Baseball's season of extremes

Go deeper

Updated 4 hours ago - Sports

The potential GOAT of chess faces intriguing challenger

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The World Chess Championship between Norway's Magnus Carlsen and Russia's Ian Nepomniachtchi began on Friday, 1,094 days after Carlsen won his fourth consecutive title.

Why it matters: During the long, COVID-fueled layoff, chess entered a new era, and with the championship finally here, the age-old game is ready for its close-up.

Department of Interior proposes raising cost of drilling on public lands

A horizontal drilling rig and a pump jack sit on federal land in Lea County, New Mexico. Photo: Callaghan O'Hare/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Oil and gas companies should pay more to drill on federal lands and waters, the Department of the Interior argued in a report released Friday, saying that the current rates were "outdated."

Driving the news: The Department of Interior report said that the federal government's oil and gas leasing and permitting program "fails to provide a fair return to taxpayers, even before factoring in the resulting climate-related costs that must be borne by taxpayers."

5 hours ago - Health

U.S. to restrict air travel from 8 countries over new COVID variant concerns

A COVID-19 vaccine is administered. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The U.S. will impose new air travel restrictions in response to the Omicron variant, a new COVID strain first detected in South Africa, President Biden announced Friday.

The big picture: Air travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi will be restricted starting on Monday.