The 2020 Season Should Bring an End to MLB's Juiced Ball Experiment

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 3, 2020

VARIOUS CITIES,  - MARCH 12:  A detail of baseballs during a Grapefruit League spring training game between the Washington Nationals and the New York Yankees at FITTEAM Ballpark of The Palm Beaches on March 12, 2020 in West Palm Beach, Florida. Many professional and college sports, including the MLB, are canceling or postponing their games due to the ongoing threat of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Something was indeed amiss with the ball during last year's Major League Baseball playoffs, though that shouldn't be construed as a bad thing.

Before we carry on, anyone who's already forgotten about October 2019 is forgiven. The baseball headlines have long since been hijacked by gargantuan contractscheating scandals and, oh yeah, the delaying of the season amid the coronavirus crisis.

Yet there has been a development in the curious case of the seemingly de-juiced baseballs used during the '19 playoffs, courtesy of Bradford William Davis of the New York Daily News:

The key part of Davis' full report concerns testimony from sports data scientist Dr. Meredith Wills. She got ahold of a batch of balls used during the 2019 playoffs and found that, while some were consistent with balls used during the '19 regular season, others were from "no later" than the 2018 regular season.

This is an important distinction because of how the ball acted during the 2019 regular season. Specifically, they were hit for home runs in record-setting bunches: 6,776 overall and 1.39 per game.

By contrast, the 2018 season featured "only" 1.15 home runs per game. So if balls from then (and perhaps even earlier) were in play last October, that helps explain why the ball's performance was so darn inconsistent. And why the home run rate slipped to 1.28 per game in the postseason.

Going forward, the biggest question facing Major League Baseball is when play will resume. Though there's talk of a possible 100-game season starting in July, it shouldn't be taken for granted that baseball will return at all in 2020.

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But since MLB owns Rawlings, the company that manufactures the league's balls, it's fair to pose the question of how the ball will play when games resume: like it did in the 2019 regular season, or more like it did in the postseason?

We're hoping for the latter.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Granted, this is in contrast to our previous stances about the ball. Juicing it sounded like a darn good idea after offense basically evaporated in 2014, and we were still on board as of last May.

But at the time of the latter, the leaguewide home run rate was a relatively modest 1.29 per game. Somewhere between there and the final rate of 1.39 per game was a line marked "Overkill."

It's not so much that the home runs themselves were the problem. Rather, it's that they were an integral part of the larger conundrum that is the proliferation of the three true outcomes.

Those are walks, strikeouts and home runs, which are lumped together because they take fielders out of the equation. The sum of the three on a per-game basis has been on the rise for a long time, but especially so over the last four seasons:

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference

The severity of this issue is in the eye of the beholder. But in the context of how the average time per game is also on the rise, the basic translation here is that baseball games are becoming less action-packed and longer.

To be sure, such things as replay reviews, frequent pitching changes and, above all, increasingly slow-working pitchers are contributing to the sluggish pace of play. And nothing is propelling the rise of the league's three-true-outcomes rate more than strikeouts.

For the purpose of speeding up games, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred devised the new three-batter minimum and 20-second window for manager challenges for 2020.

Otherwise, there won't be a pitch clock until at least 2022. Even if that makes pitchers work more quickly, they'll likely keep the strikeouts coming courtesy of their escalating heat and swing-and-miss stuff. As such, there are no quick-and-easy fixes for those issues.

But if viewed as a sort of proof of concept, the 2019 postseason hints at readily available benefits from proceeding with de-juiced balls.

For reasons relating to the heightened quality of competition and variations in the weather, the three true outcomes tend to become even more common in the postseason than in the regular season. Though that was the case even last year, it notably wasn't to the degree that might have been expected:

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference and MLB.com

From 2015—the season in which home runs began their mysterious comeback—to 2018, a rise in the three true outcomes in the regular season tended to beget another in the postseason and another in the subsequent regular season and so on. Had that pattern continued into the 2019 playoffs, the far-right red bar inevitably would have become the highest in the graph.

Instead, the three true outcomes were no more prevalent in the 2019 postseason than they were in the 2018 postseason.

It helped that the two best contact-hitting teams in the league went all the way to Game 7 of the World Series, but that leveling-off simply would not have happened if the ball had played like it did in the regular season. To wit, fly balls turned into home runs 18.4 percent of the time in October, compared to 19.9 percent in the regular season.

This particularly made life easier for starting pitchers. In the 2018 playoffs, there were only 19 instances out of 66 games that a starter lasted at least six innings. In 2019, there were 33 in 74 games.

Ultimately, this contextualizes a fundamental difference between the 2018 playoffs and the 2019 playoffs. Even though there were more total games in the '19 playoffs, fewer of them (42 to 46) lasted longer than three-and-a-half hours.

If this fails to convince anyone that de-juicing/normalizing the ball is an avenue to faster, more action-packed games, well, just consider basically every season before 2019. Every one of them had both lower home run rates and faster game times.

Will Major League Baseball still have problems even if it alters the baseball for 2020? Absolutely. But as far as solutions go, this one is a relatively straightforward means to welcome changes.

                  

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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