Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Juiced - Verlander's Claim & Rule 3.01 - The Ball

Is Major League Baseball juicing its balls for more offense? Astros All-Star pitcher Justin Verlander thinks so and blamed MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, deeming the alleged offensive ploy "a f*ing joke." But what does the official rule say and what is an umpire's action for an accusation of "juicing"?

In summary, Verlander thinks MLB is doing something to juice the ball (quick definition of "juice": manipulating the ball's physical properties, such as reducing drag, in order to induce greater offensive output): "Yes. 100 percent. They've been using juiced balls in the Home Run Derby forever. They know how to do it. It's not coincidence. I find it really hard to believe that Major League Baseball owns Rawlings and just coincidentally the balls become juiced."

Meanwhile, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred acknowledged the balls have changed, and blamed decreased drag for any difference year-over-year: "They [Rawlings] haven't changed their process in any meaningful way. They haven’t changed their materials."

SIDEBAR: A lower drag coefficient is associated with greater offensive results such as lift, speed, and distance traveled. It's also amusing that Manfred would use the pronoun "They" to describe Rawlings, given that Major League Baseball owns Rawlings, having acquired the company in 2018.
Verlander has put Manfred in the jackpot.
Instead, Manfred described the problem as "man-made" (sound familiar?), positing a few potential causes for diminished drag: "It’s hand-stitched, where it’s stored after it’s made, where it’s stored at the ballpark, who puts the mud on the ball, how much mud they put on the ball. So it’s really difficult to isolate any single cause, but we do think it’s a drag issue."

Manfred hypothesized that scientists had gotten better at "centering of the pill," or making the ball more symmetrical and closer to a perfect sphere with equal weight distribution, thus reducing its wobble and drag.

Meanwhile Dr. Meredith Wills discovered a statistically significant increase on the order of 9% in lace thickness between pre-2015 baseballs and 2016-17 balls, correlating with an increase in league-wide home runs (as stated earlier, Manfred maintains that Rawlings hasn't changed its process "in any meaningful way").

Has average ball size or weight changed?
As far as the Official Baseball Rules are concerned, consider OBR 3.01, which defines the ball: "The ball shall be a sphere formed by yarn wound around a small core of cork, rubber or similar material, covered with two strips of white horsehide or cowhide, tightly stitched together. It shall weigh not less than five nor more than 5¼ ounces avoirdupois and measure not less than nine nor more than 9¼ inches in circumference. No player shall intentionally discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil, rosin, paraffin, licorice, sand-paper, emery-paper or other foreign substance."

The rulebook also lists a plethora of actions a pitcher cannot effect upon a baseball (defacing the ball in Rules 6.02(c)(2) through (6) range from filing the ball to applying a foreign substance) and the penalties for malfeasance: "The umpire shall demand the ball and remove the offender from the game. In addition, the offender shall be suspended automatically for 10 games" (Rule 3.01) and "If, after warning by the umpire, such delaying action is repeated, the pitcher shall be removed from the game" (Rule 6.02(c) Penalty).

Justin Verlander thinks MLB is juicing its balls.
Verlander doesn't buy Manfred's explanation and spoke to the press about increased offense in baseball ahead of Tuesday's All-Star Game: "Major League Baseball's turning this game into a joke. They own Rawlings, and you've got 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."

As a rookie Commissioner, Manfred notably said he desired increased offense in baseball: "We're really in the phase of trying to decide whether the decline in offense is a persistent problem or an aberration that will self-correct" (2/23/15). In recent years, several proposed rule changes have appeared to play to the goal of increasing offensive production.
Related Post2019 Rule Change Proposals - Pitch Clock & NL DH? (2/6/19).

Maddon thinks MLB's balls are too hard.
In accusing baseball of juicing baseballs, Verlander has suggested that MLB has taken correcting the "persistent problem" into its own hands, or balls.

There are several other ways to affect game ball characteristics, such as placing the baseballs in a humidor. In 2018, MLB mandated that all 30 teams store balls the same way, in an air conditioned and enclosed room at a temperature of 70 degrees and 50% humidity. Lack of moisture (low humidity) tends to produce batter-friendly restitution in baseballs.

In 2016, the Arizona Fall League experimented with mud-less baseballs, with less prominent seams. MLB claimed that the new balls' features would increase benefits for pitchers, while several UEFL'ers noted that lower seams tended to favor hitters, contrary to the League's claims.
Related Post: Arizona Fall League Experiments with Mud-less Baseball (11/13/16).

It's not just Justin. Other pitchers are taking umbrage with a harder ball (said Joe Maddon, "you could just have stamped Titleist on the sides of these things," referring to the golf ball brand), less prominent seams and purportedly less flexible leather.

Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman agrees with Verlander, but has a different outlook: "It's clear. I've just come to terms with it. It is what it is. You can't control it, so why even think about it?"


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