Three-ball blues

The Ball

This is the baseball I landed during batting practise before Opening Day at Angel Stadium this year. (I gave it to my son who attended with me.) Who knew if it was juiced or drained?

Signing with the Mets for two years and $86 million was good with and for Justin Verlander. But it may not be the most important thing he did outside pitching the decisive World Series Game Six. The most important thing the future Hall of Famer did this year was buttonhole a baseball official before a game against the Yankees in June and demand, “When are you going to fix the [fornicatin’] baseballs?”

It’s not the first time he complained. In 2017, Verlander was just one of several who noticed and complained that balls used that postseason were a little too smooth for comfort. And it got worse instead of better. By 2021, Major League Baseball had two kinds of baseballs, one slightly heavier than the other, and thus containing a little more life than the other.

With a lot of help from Meredith Wills, an astrophysicist and baseball fan whose passion is examining the makeup of baseballs and who’s discovered the Show can’t get it straight or consistent, Insider exposed 2021’s two-ball tango. The Insider reporter who delivered Dr. Wills’s discoveries and alarms, Bradford William Davis, has now seen and raised: in 2022, baseball played its own version of “Three Ball Blues.”

That vintage blues song discussed pawn shops, the traditional sign for which is three golden balls. The lyrics include the old joke inside the pawn business: “It’s two to one, buddy, you don’t get your things out at all.” Baseball’s three-ball blues may mean it’s two to one on getting its integrity back after engaging its own kind of cheating—still inconsistent and often juiced balls.

Not necessarily in the final game scores. Davis and Wills suggest powerfully that baseball’s government wanted a little more oomph on behalf of a lot more hype, with certain events such as the Home Run Derby, the postseason, and maybe even Aaron Judge’s chasing and passing Roger Maris as the American League’s new single-season home run king.

Verlander was far from the only player to complain. Davis says Giants outfielder Austin Slater fell upon that 2021 Insider story, sought to collect balls to send Wills for analysis, and was ordered by “a top executive in the commissioner’s office” to back off.

“The warning,” Davis says, “sent in the form of text messages that Insider reviewed, came via a [Major League Baseball Players Association] official who was relaying the league executive’s displeasure.” Displeasure over what? Being caught red-handed delivering inconsistently-made baseballs about which the game’s own commissioner seems distinctly under-alarmed?

Rob Manfred told reporters before the All-Star Game that, yup, we had two balls in 2021, but it was the fault of a pandemic-times issue in Rawlings’s Costa Rica manufacturing plant: closues and supply chain issues, as Davis translates, meant MLB’s plan to stay with a new, lighter, deader ball was compromised when it had to “dip into a reserve stock of the older, heavier, livelier balls for some 2021 games.”

MLB claimed random distribution between the two 2021 balls. Davis’s 2021 reporting via Dr. Wills brought forth suspicions that MLB wasn’t just doing it randomly, that at times they were sending balls to certain places for certain series depending on what they thought might be the gate: say, a game between a pair of also-rans might get the deader ball but a game between a pair of big rivals or contenders might get the livelier ball.

Now Manfred told that July conference think nothing of it, we’ve got it knocked, we’re sticking to the deader ball, and every ball made for 2022 will be consistent. Not so fast, Dr. Wills discovered, according to Davis: “Major League Baseball did not settle into using a single, more consistent ball last season, Wills’ research suggests: the league used three.”

By the time Manfred made that statement in July, Wills had already found evidence that at least a handful of those older, livelier, “juiced” balls — the ones that the “new manufacturing process” purportedly replaced — were still in circulation. Though these juiced balls are from 2021 or earlier, according to manufacturing markings, they were in use in 2022; Insider obtained two of them from a June 5 Yankees match against the Tigers.

Over the next few months, Wills and Insider—with whom Wills exclusively shared her research—worked together to collect game balls for her to painstakingly deconstruct, weigh, and analyze. What she found was striking: In addition to that small number of older juiced balls and the newer dead balls, Wills found evidence that a third ball was being used at stadiums across the majors.

Davis says Wills’s data indicates production on the third ball began six months before Manfred promised 2022 as a single-ball season. “This new third ball’s weight,” Davis writes,

centers somewhere between the juiced ball the league phased out last season and the newly announced dead ball: It is, on average, about one-and-a-half grams lighter than the juiced ball and one gram heavier than the dead ball. According to the league’s own research, a heavier ball tends to have more pop off the bat, meaning the third ball would likely travel farther than a dead ball hit with equal force.

Aaron Judge

Aaron Judge had no clue whether he’d be pitched a dead, lead, or Super Ball while chasing Roger Maris this year.

Wills calls it “the Goldilocks ball: not too heavy, not too light—but just right.” But this isn’t the Three Bears we’re talking about here. This is about the possibility that hitters didn’t know going in when one hefty swing would send a ball over the fence but another such hefty swing with the same square, powerful contact might result in a sinking line drive, a dying quail, or a long out.

In other words, Judge—who’s just signed a nine-year/$360 million deal to remain a Yankee, after betting big on himself during his contract walk year—had no clue just what he was going to hit, and I don’t mean fastball, curve ball, slider, cutter, or sinker. Nobody knows for certain whether or how many such Goldilocks balls Judge sent into the Delta Quadrant. And that’s allowing for him being strong enough to hit a clump of seaweed into the second deck.

“But we do know,” Davis writes, “that the league keeps track of information that would permit it—if it wanted—to know which balls get used in each game. According to two sources familiar with MLB’s ball shipment process, the league not only directs where its balls are sent, it also knows which boxes its game compliance monitors–league employees tasked with ensuring each team adheres to league rules–approve and use before each game starts.”

Baseball government people were handed the net results of Dr. Wills’s reseach and all but waved it away with an all but run-along-girlie-you-bother-me statement:

The 2022 MLB season exclusively used a single ball utilizing the manufacturing process change announced prior to the 2021 season, and all baseballs were well within MLB’s specifications. Multiple independent scientific experts have found no evidence of different ball designs. To the contrary, the data show the expected normal manufacturing variation of a handmade natural product.

Rawlings itself, co-owned by MLB since 2018, issued a similar statement:

This research has no basis in fact. There was no ‘3rd ball’ manufactured and the ball manufactured prior to the 2021 process change was fully phased out following the 2021 season. All balls produced for the 2022 season utilized the previously announced process change.

While storage conditions during research can easily impact ball weight measurements, a one-gram difference in ball weight would be within normal process variation. We continue to produce the most consistent baseball in the world despite the variables associated with a handmade product of natural materials.

Davis demurs. “While lighter and less bouncy than the balls used before Rawlings switched up its manufacturing in 2021,” he writes, “the Goldilocks balls have a weight profile that makes them livelier and more batter-friendly than the dead balls that the league says it now uses exclusively.”

To which Manfred says, essentially, Integrity of the game? Shut up and get back to shortening the times of games without even thinking about cutting down the broadcast commercials. Any time Manfred comes up with something reasonable—the universal designated hitter, slightly larger bases, the advent of Robby the Umpbot—he comes up with or allows about five or more unreasonable things to counteract.

Differing baseballs aren’t just “unreasonable.” They strike at the very core (pun intended) of competition at least as profoundly as something like Astrogate did, on both sides of the ball. Pitchers who don’t know whether they’ll be given a grippable ball to pitch have just as much skin in this game as hitters who don’t know whether they’ll square up a dead, lead, or Super Ball.

The men who play the game, the fans who pay to see them play, the team builders  tasked with putting the teams on the field, and the managers who have to run the games and make the moves that mean distinction or disaster, deserve as level a field as possible.

The era of actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances was considered criminal for undermining the level playing field. Tanking teams are considered criminally negligent for providing something less than truly competitive product. Likewise, when it comes to honest competition, inconsistently-made baseballs should be considered weapons of mash  destruction.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s