Remember when the NBA tried new basketballs, and the response was so overwhelmingly negative that the league switched back to the old balls midseason? If you fall into the Venn diagram of baseball and basketball fans, you probably recall this story, but if you’re strictly a baseball person, what happened is the ball bounced less, it weirdly cut players’ hands, and was more slippery when wet than its predecessor.
It was a widely panned experiment that thankfully went the way of the NBA’s sleeved jersey fad. The reason why I bring it up is the response to these new baseballs has been every bit as negative. My coworker Sam Fels recently wrote about the balls being deflated again, and the Mets took umbrage with it over safety concerns after three batters were plunked in a game against the Cardinals on Tuesday night.
New York pitcher Chris Bassitt, who’s taken a line drive to the face, spoke out about how much everyone hates the new balls and basically accused the MLB of negligence.
He doesn’t specifically state what’s wrong with them, so allow me. Apparently, the new balls, combined with the crackdown on illegal substances, are a lot harder to grip to the point that fastballs are getting away from pitchers. Pete Alonso has been hit in the head twice this season, including again Tuesday night.
The Mets in general have been hit by pitches more than any other team this season. It could be that opponents are annoyed that the Mets actually appear to be good and are beaming them out of spite, but when players and managers are more upset with the balls than the guys hurling them, there’s a problem.
Buck Showalter and catcher James McCann were similarly critical of the new equipment, with McCann suggesting the league works with the players to figure out a solution (per USA Today).
“Sit down with players and see what players want,” McCann said. “Don’t take opinions of people that aren’t the ones on the mound trying to throw it. Don’t talk to somebody who’s not trying to stay in the box when a guy’s throwing 100 miles an hour and doesn’t have a feel for the ball. That’s the answer is talk to the players and see what the best result is.”
While that’s a good idea, it’s the middle of the season, so there’s not a ton of down time to conduct R&D to dial in carry rate and seam height. The reason I brought up the NBA is because when it was evident that the rollout was a failure, they just went back to the old ball. Baseball doesn’t have one old ball, they have at least a handful of old balls (hehe), so it’s hard to decipher which one they’re supposed to bring back.
Max Scherzer said he felt like he was throwing a cue ball after a particularly cold night in San Francisco on April 19. And a new experiment is not unusual for Scherzer, who last year told NBC Sports that there has been a number of variants in recent seasons.
“The ball has been changing for me the past five years. So who knows what the ball is gonna be. They say it’s gonna be deader, there’s been times it’s been livelier, who knows. We all are gonna have to deal with it so for me, mistakes are always gonna get hit. Whether it’s a home run or not, you’re still paying for it. You gotta be on top of your game and worry about what you do with the baseball, how you’re delivering the baseball vs. what the nature of the baseball is.”
See, that makes sense: Worry about not making mistakes and live with the outcome when you serve up a meatball. When the issue becomes more than how far a ball flies and seeps into the territory of toying with pitches traveling 100-plus miles per hour, a change is necessary. Any option is better than the current one, so pretty much take your pick and play out the remainder of this season with it.
There are a ton of archaic rules in baseball, but perhaps the most egregious is that there’s no standard for the ball. We talk about them in eras like they’re the 3-point line or the forward pass. This is the one aspect that should be a constant.
Imagine if the NFL was like, we need more verticality, and implemented one of those Nerf footballs with the tails on it. Everyone would rightfully lose their shit. There was a report that the MLB switched balls in the middle of the season last year. The league doesn’t know what it wants; its desires are subject to change more than a child walking through Toys R’ Us and often dictated by logic on par with that of an 8-year-old.
I agree with McCann’s idea that the players and the league should collaborate to find a logical standard. (I also agree with his take on foreign substances. If the MLB is going to insist on this unpredictable orb, at least allow pitchers to use products naturally occurring in baseball like sunscreen and rosin to get better command.)
Bring in a group of veteran pitchers, batters, and catchers and provide them with a variety of choices, and let them pick out their favorite. No one has a better feel for what should or shouldn’t be a home run, or how much spin is borderline criminal than the players.
Debating which ball is the best ball is an argument typically reserved for a group of people trying to discern which basketball is ideal for a game of pickup — and they’re able to come up with a winner after a few dribbles and a couple jumpers. I know baseballs are a different subject entirely, but if eight strangers can decide that the slightly used Spalding is the best choice and still play a game in less than an hour, then a bunch of people who are paid to figure out which baseball is ideal can do it in less than 150 years.