Should MLB Kick-Start Offense Again by Juicing the Ball?
As soon as I saw the news, I couldn't help but wonder: What if Major League Baseball did that?
"The news" in this case is the latest from Japan. According to the Bangkok Post (h/t Hardball Talk), the powers that be in Nippon Professional Baseball have come clean about adjusting the ball to add more offense and, thus, excitement to the game.
Yes, this actually happened. Baseball officials ordered juiced balls and admitted it. If you haven't done a double-take yet, do one now.
This got me to thinking about the decline of offense in MLB over the past few years. I've already written in depth about how Steroid Era power is long gone, and it doesn't look like it's making a comeback any time soon. According to Baseball-Reference.com, both home runs and slugging are down this year from where they were in 2012.
Whether this is any fun is in the eye of the beholder. I'll speak for myself and say that I rather dig it. After watching hitters dominate for so many years, it's a nice change of pace to see the pitchers have the upper hand. Especially the young guys, who are oh so good.
So it's my personal opinion that baseball is just fine as is. You're welcome to disagree with it because it's an opinion, but I'll warn that there are more reasons why juicing the ball would be a bad idea than there are why it would be a good idea.
But first I'll say this: Of all of the ways MLB could breathe some life back into the league's bats, juicing the ball would certainly be the most practical way to go about it.
The league doesn't want to indirectly encourage PED use again, as it did in the 1990s and early 2000s. Ordering all clubs to move in their outfield fences would be costly and complicated. Switching out wood bats for aluminum bats would be a joke. Lowering the mound—a notion that I wrote about last month—could irreversibly screw up a lot of innocent pitchers.
But juicing up the ball? All that would take is a few ideas on paper and some nipping and tucking on the manufacturing front. It wouldn't be costly or complicated, and nobody would be the wiser so long as baseball kept its mouth shut.
And yes, juicing the ball likely would lead to an increase in home runs.
SI.com's Jay Jaffe dove into the numbers and found that NPB home run rates took a tumble back when the league decided to change the ball to be more like the baseballs here in the States, which are a little larger and a little heavier. The home run rate per team per game in 2010 was 0.93. With the new balls in play, it fell to 0.54 in 2011 and 0.51 in 2012.
But in 2013, Jaffe notes:
This year, the rates are back up to 0.75 per team per game, an increase of 47 percent but still well shy of pre-tinkering rates. From 2001 through 2005, they were above 1.0 per team per game, with a high of 1.25 per game in 2004.
So while the home run rate in Japan isn't quite back up to where it used to be, it is higher than it was in 2011 and 2012. The juiced balls have made a difference.
They've been known to do that, and Jaffe's a guy who can tell you all about it. Part of his essay on juiced baseballs from Extra Innings was excerpted by Deadspin last year, and it contained this little nugget:
According to [a] study, "two baseballs could meet MLB specifications for construction but one ball could be theoretically hit 49.1 feet further," which breaks down to 8.4 feet attributable to being on the light side of the tolerance for weight (5.0 ounces, as opposed to 5.25 ounces) and another 40.4 feet attributable to being on the high end for the coefficient of restitution (.578). Given that finding, it's not difficult to imagine how the slightest differences in the balls from batch to batch or year to year could lead to a plethora of towering 425-foot home runs instead of 375-foot warning track fly balls.
It's long been suspected that the ball was juiced in 1930, when the league's slugging percentage rose to an absurdly high .434. Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk (see above link) noted that 1987 is another year considered to be a suspicious one, and it definitely looks suspicious seeing as how it was the only year between 1978 and 1992 in which the league's slugging percentage was over .400.
And as easy as it is to blame the Steroid Era on, well, steroids, a juiced ball may have played a part in the offensive explosion that first revived baseball following the 1994 strike and then killed the sport's integrity once the stars of the era started getting called before Congress.
We're never going to know for sure. Not until one of MLB's suits comes out and says, "You see this year, this year, this year and that year? Yeah, the ball was juiced in those years. Now stop asking."
Probably not going to happen. Just a guess.
I'll also venture a guess that MLB won't be juicing the ball in the near future, and for good reasons.
Offense is down, but it's hardly on the verge of extinction. Hitters are not experiencing 1968 levels of futility, and there's no hint that things are heading in that direction.
The league-average slash line has been staying relatively steady since 2010. Like so:
- 2010: .257/.325/.403
- 2011: .255/.321/.399
- 2012: .255/.319/.405
- 2013: .253/.317/.402
There's also the reality that pitchers aren't so clearly in control just because hitters aren't as PED'd-up as they used to be. Strikeouts have become a huge part of the game, and that's because A) pitchers have gotten really good at getting them, and B) hitters don't mind them as much anymore.
Juiced balls can go as far as they want. But a hitter has to make contact first, and that's where a juiced ball likely wouldn't help them. More balls would be going over the fence, but the league's pitchers would still be a fine match for the league's hitters.
Elsewhere, there's little indication on the business front that the league really needs noticeably more offense.
Despite any taunting to the contrary, baseball's popularity is just fine. A Harris poll released earlier this year revealed it to be the second-most popular sport in America behind the NFL and college football, which made yours truly pump his fist with glee.
Not surprisingly in light of that, the league's revenue stream is also fine. As Maury Brown of BizofBaseball.com reported in December, it's actually going nowhere but up.
And yes, attendance is fine too. Baseball had one of its best attendance years in 2012, and the decline this year is nothing to panic about. As Tom Verducci of Sports lllustrated kindly pointed out, 40 percent of MLB's attendance decline can be chalked up to those blasted Miami Marlins, and things like bad weather and the funky new interleague schedule have also had an effect.
Point being: The league doesn't need a boost as much as the hitters need a boost.
Could boosting offense potentially boost the league's already good business anyway?
Possibly, yeah, but the thing I would fear is fans rejecting increased offensive levels due to suspicions about PEDs.
Baseball has gone far to clean up its image when it comes to PEDs, but a poll conducted by ESPN's SportsNation back in January made it pretty clear that John and Jane Q. Sports Fan aren't convinced. The public still thinks MLB is riddled with PEDs.
Would you like to see more offense in MLB?
And this was before the Miami New Times told the world about Biogenesis. Only a handful of players have been linked to the now-shuttered Miami wellness clinic, but it might as well be a thousand players. Baseball isn't as juiced as it used to be, but the Biogenesis mess isn't helping it win the perception battle.
As such, now wouldn't be a good time for the league to juice the ball and potentially drive up the league's home run and overall offensive production. If that happens, fans aren't going to cry "Juiced ball!" They're going to cry "'Roids!"
Major League Baseball should play it safe. Keep the ball un-juiced, let the hitters figure things out for themselves and hope the fans keep forking over the dough.
Now, on the off chance the ball is already juiced...uh...um...
[Sirens sounding. Lights flashing. Automated voice saying: "THIS MIND WILL SELF-DESTRUCT IF CURRENT LINE OF THINKING IS PURSUED."]
Yeah, I don't think I can handle that notion right now.
If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.
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