Break out your tin foil hats, because we’re diving into the Major League Baseball conspiracy well. All the talk around baseball’s proverbial water cooler lately has been about pitchers using sticky substances to increase their grip on the baseball. However, according to 2019 NL Rookie of the Year, Pete “Polar Bear” Alonso, it’s not the sticky stuff we should be worried about. It’s MLB itself doctoring balls (either juicing or deadening them) every year depending on the upcoming free agent class.
Later during his press conference, Alonso explained that this theory — or “fact” according to Alonso — is widespread among the league’s players. He claims that in 2019, several pitchers were set to hit the free agent market, so the league juiced its balls in order to improve offensive numbers and drive down the market for pitching. Now in 2021, with several star position players set to hit the market this offseason, the league has been deadening balls.
Alonso’s assessment of the upcoming free agent class is accurate. Several of the game’s young stars are set to hit the market including Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, Freddie Freeman, and Marcus Semien among many others. After Francisco Lindor set the new market standard for young shortstop contracts in MLB, it makes sense that the league would try to limit offensive numbers ahead of an offseason where six former All-Stars — four of them under the age of 30 — at the position are set to become unrestricted free agents. Per Tim Dierkes, six of the top seven upcoming free agents are position players.
It’s been no secret that offensive numbers in Major League Baseball have been down this year. The league is currently on pace for its lowest league-wide batting average since 1968, its lowest slugging percentage since 2014, and its highest strikeout rate of all-time. But are those numbers a product of doctored balls or a product of the way the game has changed recently?
Well, in 2019 — when Alonso claims the league was juicing balls — the league saw its highest OPS since 2006 and highest slugging percentage since 2000 (third-highest mark ever). Hitters were smacking the ball all over the yard. Did the game change so drastically over the last two years to cause such a drop in hitter production? Unlikely. There’s been a lot of talk about pitchers using sticky stuff to increase their grip. Could that have something to do with it? It’s been well-documented that pitchers have been using sticky stuff like pine tar, sunscreen, and Spider Tack for years at this point. It was definitely going on in 2019 and was happening for years before then as well, so once again... it’s unlikely.
The most likely reason for the uptick in offensive numbers in 2019 is, in fact, MLB juicing its balls. At least in 2020, the balls were almost undoubtedly juiced. Per Sports Illustrated: “After deconstructing and measuring [the ball’s] components, [Dr. Meredith Wills] found that a significant percentage of the 2020 balls were constructed in a way that would likely make them fly farther — and that the changes could have only been deliberate.”
MLB has been under fire for juicing its balls ever since the league’s home run rates started to skyrocket around 2015. When pitchers started to call out the league for using a ball that felt different than normal in 2019, MLB launched its own investigation and determined that the balls were not intentionally juiced — crediting the uptick in home run rate to launch angles and lowered seams on the balls used. Now, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, that study is fishy. MLB investigating their own scandal? That’s certainly not a conflict of interest. Still, MLB admits in its 27-page report that the balls were different from years past.
What makes the study even more suspect is the fact that Rawlings has been the official baseball of MLB since 1976. However, MLB purchased Rawlings in 2018. Therefore, it’s even more likely that the sudden change of game-used baseballs was ordered by MLB. In their study, MLB claimed that the reason for the change in seams on the balls could not be identified. However, if the company manufacturing the balls was owned by MLB, and most of MLB’s game-used balls were different from years past (when MLB didn’t own the company) — if you’re following me here, I think we can all connect the dots.
Moving back to Alonso, I think he’s absolutely right... in half of his statement. Major League Baseball is undoubtedly juicing or deadening their balls every year, but I don’t believe it’s for the reason Alonso states. In 2019, when the league was juicing its balls. Only five starting pitchers set to hit the market were considered top of the line: Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Madison Bumgarner, and Zack Wheeler. There were some other mid-tier veterans who’d been solid in previous seasons like Dallas Keuchel and Cole Hamels, but both those players were far past their primes by the time the 2019 offseason rolled around.
The league saw an increase in home run rates every year between 2015 and 2017 before a slight decrease in 2018. However, over the course of those four years, the offseason with the highest concentration of free agent pitchers was arguably 2018 when players such as Clayton Kershaw, Patrick Corbin, Craig Kimbrel, J.A. Happ, Andrew Miller, and Charlie Morton were all hitting free agency. That does not line up with Alonso’s theory.
So, why then would MLB decide to alter its balls every year? A much more likely answer would be that MLB is trying to find a sweet spot between strong offense and pitching. The league is testing different seam heights and ball interiors to find a Goldilocks zone where pitchers can still dominate games, but hitters can also make great contact consistently. They have not found that zone in 2021. They did not find that zone in 2019.
Is it wrong for MLB to do this? Maybe. Should the league just leave the game alone and let it play out as intended? Probably. Will they? Probably not. That’s the unfortunate truth.