MLB Should Fully Embrace Its Growing Juiced Ball 'Problem'

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 3, 2019

Cody Bellinger would probably agree that the home runs aren't the problem.
Cody Bellinger would probably agree that the home runs aren't the problem.Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Major League Baseball's juiced ball "problem" has never been as, well, juiced as it is right now.

You might suspect as much just from looking at the 2019 season's early numbers. The weather hasn't even warmed up, but teams are already averaging 1.29 home runs per game. That's on track to top the 2017 season's all-time record of 1.26.

Heck, MLB will gladly tell you not one, but two guys are hitting dingers at an all-time pace:

As for whether the ball is actually juiced, some anecdotal evidence has already emanated from the mouths of the guys who have to throw it for a living.

Baltimore Orioles right-hander Alex Cobb told Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post:

"I'm amazed the question is even being asked. The ball is juiced. We're in the entertainment industry, and if fans really do enjoy watching [home runs], then that's what’s going to be done. And that's fine. It's just frustrating to have to answer the questions, as if it's performance-based, when I've been working on my craft with a certain type of ball my entire big league career, and then all of a sudden it's changed. It's hard to talk about it because as pitchers, it just sounds like sour grapes."

And Boston Red Sox left-hander David Price to Bob Nightengale of USA Today: "Come on, just tell us. We all see it. Just come clean and say it."

To this end, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has typically done his best Frank Drebin impression. He was "absolutely confident" the ball wasn't juiced amid a barrage of homers in the 2017 playoffs. Likewise, he expressed confidence in February that the proliferation of power comes down to "non-ball factors."

According to Nightengale, however, Manfred did waver a bit by acknowledging a 2018 report that modern baseballs have less "drag" (i.e., resistance) on them while in the air: "When the drag goes down, the ball goes further, and you’re going to have more home runs."

Which brings us to Rob Arthur, who was first on the case of balls having less drag for FiveThirtyEight back in 2017. Writing for Baseball Prospectus, he's already done a new study that found nothing has changed in 2019.

The short version is that something is up with the baseball. And anyone who wants to witness the phenomenon firsthand can just as easily go the nearest Triple-A stadium for proof.

In what sure seems like an overdue change, Triple-A clubs are finally using the same type of ball used in The Show. Well, go figure that homers in the Pacific Coast League have jumped from 0.94 per game in 2018 to 1.38 per game so far in 2019. In the International League, the leap is from 0.80 to 1.18.

This complicates things for scouts and prospect hounds. As J.J. Cooper of Baseball America noted, they must now contend with how "the difference between the offensive environment in Double-A and Triple-A is so significant that significant allowances will have to be made in evaluating players."

From a broader perspective, there's the more existential question of whether so many juiced-ball-aided homers are good for baseball as an institution.

Jim Mone/Associated Press

Home runs are one of the three true outcomes (TTO), after all, and the ball is technically no more in play on a home run than it is during a walk or a strikeout. These three events now account for an all-time high 35.8 percent of all plate appearances.

According to Ken Davidoff of the New York Post, the degree to which baseball has fallen under the TTO spell is something that sticks in Manfred's craw. Between that and his less-than-secret desire to speed up the pace of play, he's presumably not happy that the 2019 season is mixing a record level of TTOs and an average nine-inning game time of three hours and three minutes.

But if we're all going to back away from the ledge together, we should begin by granting that the home run "problem" isn't actually a problem.

Pitchers won't agree, but the home run is certainly the most exciting of the three true outcomes. No matter the shape, size or general weirdness of the homer in question, the crack of the bat and flight of the ball remain satisfying on a visceral level that few (if any) other plays in sports can reach.

And even in their allegedly all-too-common state, home runs are still exceptionally rare compared to walks and strikeouts. That's always been the case, and it's especially the case now:

It's really strikeouts that are driving the TTO bus. They've steadily risen throughout history, and they've come in record-setting bunches ever since 2008.

Due to a variety of factors—the specialization of youth sports, pitch counts and better conditioning—pitchers throw a lot harder and with generally nastier stuff than in the past. To boot, the rising influence of analytics has made the strike zone friendlier to pitchers, who can likewise use data to get a complete picture of hitters' weaknesses.

It wasn't long ago that pitchers were threatening a hostile takeover of Major League Baseball. The 2014 season featured not only the latest record-setting strikeout rate but also a drop to 0.86 homers and 4.07 runs per game. The latter was the lowest since 1981.

A juiced baseball actually sounded like a good idea at that point, so we're in no position to complain about what's become of it. Moreover, it makes just as much sense to credit the home run boom to how hitters have changed.

As Craig Edwards of FanGraphs covered, the league's batsmen have adjusted to the strikeout era by becoming models of efficiency. They're not expanding the strike zone as often, and they're taking the easy route to power by pulling the ball in the air more frequently. 

An alternative would be for hitters to shorten their swings and aim for holes in the defense, a la the Tony Gwynns and Ichiro Suzukis of yesteryear. But that's easier said than done when every other pitch is a mid-90s heater. Teams' fondness for defensive shifts also ensures the holes are never in fixed locations.

So, muscling up and hitting the ball over the fence is the way to go. And while livelier balls have certainly helped hitters accomplish this mission, many have helped themselves by making good use of what Statcast hath wrought. Terms like "launch angle" and "exit velocity" have entered popular discourse since Statcast's inception in 2015, in no small part because hitters have treated them as serious pursuits.

"You see guys talking about it constantly now. Kris Bryant talks about exit velocity and launch angle. Mark Trumbo has talked about his launch angle," MLB.com's Mike Petriello told Alex Speier of the Boston Globe in 2017. "It's informing the way the game is being talked about and also [how it's being played] on the field."

Compared to what was happening in 2014, baseball has progressed toward something resembling an equilibrium. Pitchers have their strikeouts, hitters have their home runs and there's a nice, comfy average of 4.61 runs per game. Thus, fans aren't stuck watching lopsided contests.

This is not to suggest baseball can rest easy where fan interest is concerned. Games do take a long time. And as Edwards also covered for FanGraphs, April attendance numbers didn't quite mark a step forward from last season's disappointing figures.

However, the solutions to these problems have nothing to do with home runs. Want to speed up games? Get increasingly slow-working pitchers (an average of 24.8 seconds elapse between each pitch) to hurry up. Want people to show up? Bring ticket prices more in line with the cost of living.

The home runs? They can stay. By all accounts, that's what they're here to do anyway.

                        

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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