How Simple Tweaks To Baseballs Makes A Major Impact On The Game
For decades, the baseball’s effect on the game was one of the great conspiracy theories that baseball fans loved to debate. There was plenty of discussion but little data.
There was the weird home run blip in 1987, when home runs were hit in bunches only to go back to “normal” in 1988. But for years, any rumored tweaks to the baseball were treated much in the same way as corked bats, stolen signs and spitballs in the nebulous world of speculation.
In 2019, we no longer are left to speculate as to whether a tweak to the baseball makes a major impact on the game, The data is there and we have multiple examples of leagues deliberately or accidentally modifying their game simply by changing the baseball.
If a league wants more home runs, it can simply lower the seams on the ball (reducing the drag, which allows the ball to carry farther) or adjust to a livelier core of the baseball. If a league wants to tone down offenses, it can reverse the process or even make the baseball a little bigger.
Major League Baseball has said that they have not made any attempted changes to its baseball, though multiple studies by The Ringer, FiveThirtyEight and Dr. Meredith Willis have found changes that, while staying within the parameters of a legal MLB ball, appear in recent years to have made the ball slightly smaller and tighter, which produces less drag. At the same time, home runs have gone through the roof—or at least over the fence—at prodigious rates in the majors and minors with the Major League ball, while the traditional MiLB ball continues to play the same as it has for much of the past decade.
"We believe that the batch of baseballs that we have this year have less drag," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said. "We continue to focus on trying to figure out exactly why that is. Rawlings hasn't changed their process in any meaningful way and they haven't changed their materials."
But while Major and Minor League Baseball have not come out and said they’ve changed the ball, they are proving to be an exception. All around various leagues we’re seeing how tweaking the ball can lead to massive changes to game.
In the first half of this decade, college baseball had a problem. After bat standards were tweaked to make metal bats more comparable to wooden bats, home runs disappeared from the college game. In 2013, UCLA won the national title while hitting 19 home runs as a team. Pat Valaika (five home runs) and Kevin Kramer (three) were the only two Bruins hitters with more than two home runs. In the 14 games of that College World Series, only three home runs were hit.
So the NCAA tweaked the ball. They lowered the seams to match the seams used on the minor league ball, which was also was produced by Rawlings. Reducing the drag helped the ball carry more. An NCAA-sponsored study found that such a change could add 20 feet to a well-struck ball. Home runs went from one every 86 at-bats in 2014 (the last year of the old ball) to one every 61 at-bats in 2015, an increase of 41 percent in one season. Since then, the NCAA has generally been happy with the level of offense.
The reverse effect was desired in Korea this year. After seeing the league produce more home runs in recent years, the Korean Baseball Organization decided that it wanted to take some power out of their league.
Before the season, the KBO modified its baseball, making it a little bigger. That one change has significantly changed how the game is played. Last year, teams averaged 1.22 home runs per game and 5.5 runs. Five different hitters topped 40 home runs and the league broke its single-season home run record. This year, teams are hitting 0.73 home runs per game and scoring 4.7 runs per game, meaning that the league is seeing just 60 percent of the home runs it saw last season.
Sometimes the changes have been somewhat unintentional. Before the 2019 season, the Mexican League decided to switch from Rawlings to Franklin as its supplier of baseballs. At the time, the decision was seen as a business move that was not expected to make a significant difference on the field.
Two months into the season, that one tweak had turned the league topsy-turvy. The new baseball has proven significantly livelier. Felix Pie, the one-time Cubs prospect who is now 34, entered June hitting .489. The average hitter in the league was hitting .307/.378/.493, and 21 players were hitting .350 or better.
The league decided it had too much of a good thing.
Mexican League president Javier Salinas said in late May that he was asking Franklin to develop a new, softer baseball to switch to in June to try to take some air out of the offenses, only to learn that such a switch cannot be made on a moment’s notice. The league will look at the baseball again in the offseason, but for now, it’s using a baseball that provides much more offense than previous versions.
And then there is Triple-A baseball. Before this season, the two International and Pacific Coast leagues adopted the same baseball that is used in MLB. What that switch proved is what was expected—the MLB ball is dramatically livelier than the traditional minor league ball.
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For a clear example, look no further than El Paso, who have turned the entire season into a home run derby. Through July 9, El Paso had hit a Pacific Coast League-best 190 home runs. For reference, that total, through just 90 games, is more than any Triple-A team had hit last season and is more than all but one Triple-A team had hit this decade.
This year has given everyone a chance to see more clearly the differences between the traditional minor league ball and the MLB version, which is now used in Triple-A. In Class A and Double-A, hitters are hitting home runs at a slightly lower rate this year than they did last year. Home runs typically pick up during the summer in the hottest weather, so that’s to be expected.
In Triple-A baseball this year, home runs are up 55 percent. Last year there were 7 percent more home runs in Triple-A than Double-A. This year, there are 79 percent more home runs in Triple-A than Double-A.
If MLB is happy with the current trend, then the new ball is a perfect fit.
But if, like the KBO, Major League Baseball decides that the power-heavy approach is too much of a good thing, it has the ability to make changes by just changing one small aspect at the very heart of the game.