“Juiced” feels like the wrong word to describe what’s going on with the baseballs currently being put in play and mashed over fences in MLB. Not because what it’s describing isn’t real—it’s real all right—but because it makes it seem like the balls themselves have been injected with some kind of home run serum, when in reality this is about physics. Ask astrophysicist Dr. Meredith Willis, or noted juiced-ball-expert Rob Arthur, or just ask the poor pitchers tasked with throwing these things to big league hitters. The seams on the 2019 baseballs are lower, which makes for a slicker ball, which makes gripping the ball is more difficult for pitchers, which in turn means that not every pitch does what it’s supposed to do.
Anyone that has watched Edwin Díaz serve up homers on what were once unhittable sliders knows what happens when a curve doesn’t quite curve the way it should. You don’t have to be Mike Trout to crush a mistake pitch, and the new balls are making for many more mistake pitches. Between that and the reduced drag on the ball in flight after it’s struck, homers are flying at a historic rate. Or, really, at a more-than-historic rate: The Twins set a new MLB team record for homers in a season, with the record-breaking homer coming in August. There’s a month of the season left during which they could theoretically surpass 300 homers as a team after no other club in the league’s history had ever hit more than 267 in a season.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has mostly admitted that something is different with the baseball, but denies that it’s intentional. It’s difficult to take him at his word given that the ball was also juiced as recently as 2017, and that the attention-grabbing power spike of the Steroid Era tracked with a spike in the game’s popularity. When Manfred took over for longtime commissioner Bud Selig back in 2015, he introduced himself by talking about how much fans loved run scoring, and how more runs would bring in more fans. There’s also the fact that MLB purchased a stake in baseball manufacturer Rawlings last summer in order to have “input and direction” on said manufacturing, but we’ll not speculate on that.
But wow is it ever tempting to speculate on that. It’s not that I want to go all Pepe Silvia on MLB whenever I write about them, but they make it very difficult not to. As it happens, MLB isn’t the first nor the last league to alter baseballs for the offensive boost—Nippon Professional Baseball admitted to doing so earlier this decade, and it’s occurring right now in the Mexican League, where they switched from Rawlings to Franklin for ball manufacturing, with the stated goal of increasing offense. If it seems like this is happening in the big leagues right now, it might just be because it is. But the more interesting questions are why, and what it might change in what is already a seriously strained relationship between labor and management in Major League Baseball.
Any discussion of how the new ball might impact free agency and the like should be prefaced with an acknowledgment that baseball’s economics are, professionally speaking, a goddamn mess right now. The return of the juiced ball is not going to clean that up at all. If anything, the ball leaving the park all the time means that pitchers can easily be viewed as unreliable, or at least more susceptible to giving up runs than they would have been. Less reliability means less of a pay day, and we’ve already seen that play out in a few different ways for arms around the league.
In this spring’s extension flurry, which saw MLB teams commit $1.7 billion to 22 players, most of those players were hitters. That $1.7 billion might look like a lot, but it represents a relative bargain for teams, who are cashing in on the uncertainty they created by breaking the free agent market over the last two offseasons. As Gabe Lacques pointed out for USA Today back in March, those 22 players signed away 71 seasons of free agency for that guaranteed compensation, and $1.7 billion doesn’t begin to cover what could have been if teams actually treated free agency as a viable outlet for player acquisition. It doesn’t cover how much the Braves saved on Ozzie Albies’ horrific extension a couple of weeks later, either.
The dollar figures assigned to each of the pitcher deals were especially concerning. Aaron Nola, who finished third in the National League Cy Young race in 2018, agreed to a four-year extension with just $45 million guaranteed. German Marquez and the Rockies agreed to a five-year, $43 million extension, which seems fair enough until you consider that Marquez understood, as Nola did, that he had no real alternative waiting for him in free agency. Luis Severino was in the same situation: he signed for just $40 million over four years, despite consecutive top-10 finishes for the AL Cy Young and a 137 ERA+ that easily led the Yankees over those two seasons.
Pitchers, even ones this talented and relatively fresh-armed, are being underpaid because free agency is effectively a dead letter below the elite level. It’s not just a matter of those three young pitchers, either. There’s also Dallas Keuchel’s free agency, which extended past the MLB draft in June; Craig Kimbrel, a future Hall of Fame reliever, also sat at home waiting for work for months even as bullpens collapsed left and right through the season’s first third. Veterans like James Shields remain unemployed, as well, because 1) that’s how the system works now if you’re not in your twenties and not elite and 2) once teams realized the juiced ball was in play again, they wanted nothing to do with a 37-year-old, homer-prone starter. Shields has his uses even with his odometer where it is, as he crossed the 200-inning threshold just last summer, and was near league-average in the process. He didn’t want to sign a minor-league deal, and so he never did sign anywhere. Under the best of circumstances, teams don’t want to pay pitchers, which is a risky proposition even on the team-friendly terms that the league has created. And if the ball is indeed juiced, teams might not recoup their investment on the pitchers they do end up paying.
Here’s where this ends up: young pitchers can’t get too rich, because they don’t have the lengthy track record that compels teams to add extra zeros to contract offers. Mid-career pitchers can’t get too much money or too many years, either, because what if the wheels come off suddenly? And veteran pitchers can’t get anything but minor-league deals, because they might turn into dust and blow away mid-game, on account of they’re so old. If this sort of conservative spending is the norm for MLB, how much more conservative might it get when even the good pitchers are cursed by the very baseballs they throw?
“Ah, but at least the hitters will be paid,” you say. Oh, my sweet innocent angel, no they will not. If the ball has made everyone into a power hitter, then no one is a power hitter. Mike Trout has already set a new career-high in homers, will likely do so in walks sometime shortly after you read this—and is still in line to be significantly worse than last year as measured by OPS+, which pegs him at 183 this year following last summer’s career-best 198. That’s because so many other hitters are swatting so many dingers, and I guess also because Trout was already about as good as you can make a baseball player. If anything, everyone else being lifted up has hurt him. Normally, I’m down with a rich guy getting owned by the rising tide of equality, but in this specific case, it’s kind of a bummer.
If so many hitters are hitting homers that they’ve made literally Mike Trout seem relatively worse than he is, then no one is going to go out of their way to shift the dollars unspent on pitchers to hitters instead. We’ve already seen what happens when teams are given a chance not to spend on one thing they used to spend on, and the result is never “spending it on something else.” Power is everywhere, now, and therefore there is no need to pay for it—to pay a premium, or really to pay much more than the middling price that say the Diamondbacks are paying for Eduardo Escobar and his 33 homers. Paying next to nothing for an abundant, readily available resource is what these front offices have trained their entire lives for, and they are so ready to pay J.D. Martinez even less than he’s making now if he decides to opt out of his contract with Boston this November.
So that’s where the juiced ball is taking us. An already vulnerable, screwed-up economic situation is about to be burdened by a juiced ball that makes league-average beefsteaks into legit power hitters and pitchers into marginal figures or unemployed former pitchers. It might not have been the intent of MLB when they didn’t alter the ball on purpose, no sir. But the distortion wrought by that juiced ball is going to make for a pleasant side-effect for the 30 owners looking for even more excuses to avoid paying players what they could and should.
Marc Normandin is the former MLB Editor of SB Nation, and currently writes on baseball’s labor issues and more for Patreon subscribers at marcnormandin.com. His baseball writing has appeared at Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Sports on Earth, The Guardian, and Baseball Prospectus.