Danny Abriano, SNY.tv | Twitter |
2019 was the year of the home run in Major League Baseball, with many balls that used to be ordinary fly outs sailing out of ballparks. The combination of pitchers being unable to properly grip baseballs that were slicker and had lower seams and hitters taking aim at a ball that was flying differently once hit led to numbers that were staggering.
An MLB-record 6,776 home runs were hit during the 2019 season, up from 5,585 in 2018. There had been a spike from 2016 to 2017 as well (5,610 home runs to 6,105 home runs), but 2019 was simply a different animal. And it transformed baseball into a different sport than it had ever been before, arguably for the worst.
A study released by the league after the season shed a small amount of light on what caused the home run explosion (as did vague statements from the league during the season), but a few things were clear before that report came out. Among them: The 2019 baseball was different than any that came before it, and the league almost certainly knew well after the fact what caused the unintentional change.
But if you're expecting the 2020 baseballs to be back to normal when the delayed season begins, don't hold your breath.
The baseballs teams were using in spring training in 2020 (which are usually a mix of the new ball for that season and the prior season's ball) were 2019-style baseballs. And that tells us a lot about what the regular season ball will be like.
"They're 2019 (balls). Things like, for instance, lace thickness -- which is the easiest way to tell -- is very clearly consistent with 2019," Dr. Meredith Wills -- an astrophysicist and contributor to The Athletic -- told SNY.
According to Wills, the "very long" construction period Rawlings needs to make the baseballs after collecting data from the prior season (usually somewhere around August of the prior season to spring of the new season), means that there very likely won't be any "major" change from the 2019 ball to the 2020 ball.
"In theory, they might still be producing them," Wills said. "Everything would have to run perfectly, including full quotas, no mistakes, and you'd be at least six months to get the total number just to be used by MLB. ... Based on that narrow window -- assuming they had a few months to take data from the previous season and then find a way to use it for the subsequent season. That means that really major changes just aren't possible."
While there likely won't be any major changes, Wills -- who recently received an award from SABR for baseball research -- believes a smaller but very significant change likely will be made. That change could have a positive impact on Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard and others who struggled to grip the 2019 baseball. And the league's policy to more strongly enforce an existing rule regarding pitchers who use substances on the baseballs could be a big reason for the likely change to the ball in 2020.
When discussing how MLB plans to respond in 2020 regarding substances on the ball, it's important to note what happened in 2020 with the Angels, when a visiting clubhouse manager was fired for helping teams doctor baseballs.
"Choosing to look into that at all and enforce it suggests to me that the balls won't be as slick," Wills explained. "Because otherwise, you're going to have a lot of trouble justifying (the rule).
"I think there's good reason that people turned a blind eye this past season (to pitchers using substances) just because the balls aren't grippable. ... The slickness is the only one that I can think of that would be easy to change on a short enough time scale based on what was seen. ... I think that means that they'll end up with not as slick a texture. That's something that actually is reasonably easy to control. ... It has to be done within the factory. It's related to the leather smoothing or the skiving process."
Wills noted that in 2019, some pitchers who were gripping the new ball for the first time dropped it "almost instantly."
While how far the ball flies is not impacted by the slickness of the leather, pitcher grip is. And that grip being better in 2020 would be music to the ears of Syndergaard and many other pitchers.
"I don't have any trust in my slider or curveball," Syndergaard said last April. Every time I get a new baseball out there it feels like I'm holding an ice cube. Very untraditional for me to throw 87 mile per hour sliders. I don't have any answers there. All I know is every baseball I get feels like it's as slick as can be."
Why were the 2019 baseballs so different?
Last July 9, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred vehemently denied that the league purposefully altered the baseballs. And it's fair to say that the league did not intentionally alter the baseballs for 2019.
MLB's purchase of Rawlings in June of 2018 led to internal testing and greater oversight, including following up on the report by the home run committee in 2018, according to Wills, who added that those changes also led to efficiency improvements regarding how the baseballs were produced.
"They really did make a better baseball in 2019 -- a substantially better one," Wills said, later adding that there is zero evidence that MLB and/or Rawlings would have connected the efficiency improvement with the change in drag until well after the balls were made and in use.
So what caused the 2019 balls to be so different? And why will Rawlings and the league need more time to totally adjust the ball if they are so inclined?
"The sorts of things that kind of characterized 2019 in particular, I've attributed to this change in the drying process," Wills explained. "Before (2019), they were air-dried. The only way that I can account for the way the 2019 balls were made -- particularly the roundness of the ball and the (lower) height of the seams -- has to do with starting to sort of heat dry them or dry them under a blow dryer -- which would make sense considering that they also had to produce all of these balls for Triple-A.
"So production had to get ramped up substantially. ... So the idea of heat-drying is actually a really good manufacturing decision from an efficiency standpoint. It also then ended up leading to these kind of changes that sort of gave us our turbo ball that pitchers just couldn't use. ... In order for them to go back to air-drying, that would require probably a big enough change in manufacturing where I don't think they could implement that between Opening Day and August. So I think in general the balls are going to be similar (in 2020), in terms of having low seams."
While the baseballs might still be "turbo charged" in 2020 -- if and when the season begins -- pitchers can at least take solace that the slickness issue that plagued many of them in 2019 will probably be improved.
And even though it is almost certainly too late for the 2020 ball to be one that is back to normal, the fact that the league very likely knows how to make the necessary fixes should be comforting to fans who would rather watch properly competitive baseball games than a 162-game home run derby.