Earlier this week, after Noah Syndergaard told reporters that gripping a baseball on a cold night has felt like trying to throw an ice cube, I texted a former Mets reliever (now pitching with another team) to ask if he agreed.
"These baseballs suck," he replied. "They're more slick and the seams are more smooth and hard to grip."
I asked what happens if he roughs up the ball, to which he responded that it's pointless to do when the umpire puts a new ball in play nearly every other pitch.
Meanwhile, in what is clearly creating frustration among pitchers, this season is shaping up to be another record-setting year for power at the plate in Major League Baseball, according to the great work being done by Robert Arthur of Baseball Prospectus, who uses pitch-tracking information available in every ballpark.
"As baseballs become more aerodynamic, they travel further given a certain initial velocity," Arthur explained in a report after the first week of this season. "A deep fly ball that might have been caught at the warning track can instead (with just a three percent change in drag) go into the first row of the stands (for a home run)."
There were 6,105 home runs hit in 2017, sparking league-wide talk of a change in the baseball. The next season, a commission chaired by baseball physicists, Rawlings and MLB revealed that the baseball -- and not the environment around it -- was mostly responsible for the increase in home runs, with the study accounting for the ball's structure, air resistance, bounce and weight. Then, magically, the overall home run total in baseball dropped to 5,585 home runs over the course of that season. Not surprisingly, and much to the chagrin of most pitchers, 2019 is projected to result in another home-run season like 2017.
It's important to note that the 2017 commission did not find any manipulation of the ball by MLB or Rawlings. Instead, they attributed the change in the ball to the unpredictable change in the materials used to make the baseball, any of which could be a result of climate, manufacturing practices, and/or sourced materials.
I mean, I've heard my wife and her friends talk about how the texture of clothing feels different to them than just a decade ago, which studies have shown is likely the result of genetically modified cotton. So, I suppose a similar change could be at play in baseball.
Pitchers are noticing the difference in feel, though…
Unfortunately, no current pitcher (be it on the Mets or with other teams) would comment about this on the record because they didn't want to fling accusations at MLB and also irritate the MLB Players Union. While MLB is aware of the conversation outside the game about a potential difference in the ball, it has yet to receive any direct complaints from the MLBPA.
However, of the seven current pitchers I spoke to (four starters, three relievers), six said the ball had a different feel to them this season, specifically stating they believe it is more smooth and the seams are more shallow -- making it difficult to grip when throwing breaking pitches.
Interestingly, and importantly, four of the six pitchers that complained the most have an average fastball velocity of at least 96 mph. Their change ups and sliders all average at least 89 mph. Meanwhile, the other two pitchers and the one that noticed zero difference all have an average fastball velocity below 96 mph and breaking pitches averaging less than 89 mph.
I find this interesting because the harder a pitcher throws the harder the ball is hit. And, it seems to me that pitchers giving up harder hits would be more inclined to be frustrated and turn to blaming the ball.
Along these lines, for the most part, the league's most-successful pitchers to date in 2019 are all guys with an average fastball less than 96 mph and breaking pitches that average below 90 mph -- a list that includes Matthew Boyd, Marcus Stroman, Trevor Bauer, everyone's favorite surprise story Mike Minor, and German Marquez, who plays home games at Coors Field. Luis Castillo and Gerrit Cole are the outliers, but not by much.
Meanwhile, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom were both struggling before their most recent starts, Zack Wheeler has been mostly solid, and Steven Matz has been great aside from his awful outing in Philadelphia.
"The ball may or may not be different, Mike, but I just think batters are used to these high velocity guys," former Yankees manager Joe Girardi told WFAN's Mike Francesa last week. "They see it in the minor leagues, they see it at the start of the game, they see it from the bullpens, and I think it's not that big of a deal anymore."
According to two current and one former pitching coach I talked with earlier this week, the ball to them feels no different. Instead, much like Girardi told Francesa, they believe the surge in power is a byproduct of more pitchers throwing harder and batters simultaneously changing their approach at the plate. This second point is often referred to as 'The Fly-Ball Revolution,' which was borne out of exit velocity, hard-hit rate and launch angle.
Not surprisingly, three batters and one current hitting coach say the ball feels no different, though all said they prefer to defer to what their pitching counterparts think on the subject.
Last week, after getting shelled against the Brewers on a cold, wet night in Queens, Noah Syndergaard made his ice cube comment.
"The grip comes with the weather and it is more difficult to grip a baseball when it's cooler out," Mets manager Mickey Callaway said before Thursday's game. "Sometimes, and I think this is the case with Noah, you grip the ball differently to get more break on it and then your breaking ball changes a little bit."
The happy accident, though, according to what Callaway has seen this past week during Syndergaard's side work, is that having to alter his grip might end up making him more effective because it appears to be creating a wider variance between between his fastball and off-speed pitches.
Sure enough, on a humid, 75 degree day in Queens Thursday afternoon, Syndergaard threw nine innings, struck out 10 batters and did not allow a run.
In the end, whether the ball is different or not, the above story says that it may be time for the league's pitchers to be adjusting to what they're seeing from the opposing batters. The hitters made adjustments to catch up to and drive the increased velocity and league-wide obsession with throwing fastballs.
So, as is usually the case every 10 years in baseball, pitching coaches and their students need to adjust.
My advice is to return to thinking like Greg Maddux instead of Nolan Ryan.
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is lead writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. He also hosts the MetsBlog Podcast, which you can subscribe to here. His new book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime. To check it out, click here!