How The Deadened Baseball Could Alter MLB Strategy In 2021
As the 2021 season begins, there are numerous questions surrounding the game.
How will pitchers handle the increased workload of going from 60 games to 162? How will National League teams adjust to not having a DH a year after having one? How did the canceled 2020 minor league season affect the preparedness of young players?
Those questions are among the many unknowns entering the season.
The greatest unknown, however, may be the baseball itself.
Major League Baseball sent a memo to all 30 teams in February outlining changes to the ball for the upcoming season. The changes, which were first reported by The Athletic, were designed to deaden the ball in response to the soaring home run rates of recent years. A record 6,776 home runs were hit during the 2019 season. The home run rate of 6.6% in 2019 decreased only slightly to 6.5% in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
Among the changes, balls are now lighter and the coefficient of restitution—essentially, the bounciness of each ball—will be more consistent. In its memo, MLB said an independent lab found fly balls hit more than 375 feet lost one to two feet of distance with the changes. An analyst contacted by The Athletic estimated the changes will reduce home runs by about 5%.
Pitchers quickly noticed a difference in the balls during spring training. When Padres lefthander Blake Snell hung a curveball that White Sox catcher Yermin Mercedes hit in the air to left field with the wind blowing out, Snell assumed it was gone.
Instead, the ball landed safely in the glove of left fielder Jorge Mateo.
“He didn’t even swing hard, but I’m just used to pop flies are usually home runs,” Snell said. “It’s definitely a different baseball. I can definitely promise you it’s different.”
Pitchers have been vocal in the recent years about how the ball changed during the current home run spike. Most famously, Justin Verlander directly accused MLB and commissioner Rob Manfred in 2019 of altering the ball to boost home run totals around the game.
After the 2019 season, an independent study commissioned by MLB concluded 60% of the increase in home runs could be attributed to lower seam height on baseballs, resulting in less drag and balls flying farther. It was determined the differences in seam height were a byproduct of each ball being stitched by hand.
This spring, with the new balls, pitchers noted a distinct change in the seams.
“The laces are a little bit bigger consistently,” reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber said. “Whereas last year, it was kind of hit or miss. Sometimes the laces were popping out a little bit more. Sometimes not so much. This year I feel like the ball might be a little bit more consistent in terms of laces and just how they feel on the ball.”
“The laces are thicker,” Snell said. “The one thing I noticed from the balls last year and the year before is the laces were a lot tighter. You never got a ball where you had a lace you could really dig your finger into it. You can do that now.”
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If the changes do result in fewer home runs, players and managers expect the strategy of the game to be altered.
If hitting the ball in the air is less frequently rewarded with a home run, the current thinking about lifting the ball may become less in vogue.
“If in fact the ball doesn’t travel as far, that in and of itself will change the analytics of the game,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “Strategically speaking, it’ll put more emphasis on speed. It’ll put more emphasis on hitting the ball the other way, especially with two strikes. Just put more emphasis on putting the ball in play.”
From a pitcher’s perspective, it will mean a difference in the quality of breaking balls they are able to throw.
“The laces are thicker (so) it’s easier to throw curveballs now,” Snell said. “It’s easier to throw sliders that have more movement on them just because I can grab that lace a lot and actually grip it and throw it.”
Of course, that all depends on the new balls being consistently different. While Bieber and Snell said they noticed clear changes, another Cy Young Award winner did not.
“I haven’t felt anything too different,” Dodgers lefthander Clayton Kershaw said. “I guess my first reaction (when I heard they were making changes) was, ‘Does that mean they did something to the ball before to try to make more home runs?’ They’ve denied that throughout. I don’t know. I think I stopped trying to figure that out a long time ago.”
There is a possibility the changes will simply reduce the number of home runs while doing nothing to address the number of strikeouts, which have soared along with the rise in home runs. However, there is some thought that with fewer fly balls carrying out, hitters will adjust to make their swings more geared for contact.
Whether the changes to the ball achieve the desired effects will have enormous bearing on the 2021 season. If the changes prove significant, the effects will stretch for years beyond, and filter down to all levels of the game.
“The number one thing that would occur would be the way analytics are utilized,” Maddon said. “There’d be a shift in that, which then presents different (factors) regarding what kind of player you want, what kind of pitcher you want, how you set up your minor league developmental system, what’s to be emphasized. Everything shifts.
“It’s funny how the game is called baseball, and actually the baseball holds the key.”