Something is definitely up. There is data, and it points in a specific direction, but also there are some long shadows and heavy circumstances and longstanding and well-founded suspicions in play as well. But we might as well start with the data.
There is copious evidence that the people in charge of Major League Baseball, which now also owns the company that makes the baseballs, have pretty vigorously messed with the aerodynamics of those balls. The balls used during the regular season spun less and flew farther even than they did in 2017, when the league last juiced its baseballs egregiously enough that people noticed. Rob Arthur wrote what still looks like the definitive story about all this at Baseball Prospectus just six days after the 2019 season began. The whole of the baseball season, which was lit up by a record number of homers and various attendant fluke-o outcomes, proved Arthur’s argument out.
In April, Jorge Soler was yelling “coño” in frustration after hitting what he thought was a just-missed-it fly ball to left, then looking surprised when it landed four rows back in the seats. By early September, when Soler hit his 40th homer on the same day that the Twins broke the sport’s all-time record for home runs by a team in a season, it was ... well, honestly still pretty freakish, but familiar in the way that even the most freakish things can become.
Teams noticed that the ball was different and adjusted their approaches accordingly over the course of the season, with hitters aiming to punish the bottom half of every pitch they saw and teams tweaking pitch design and defensive positioning in hopes of mitigating the chaos that this juicy new ball first introduced and then made the guest of honor in the sport. (The league, naturally, has steadfastly denied the ball is either new or juiced.) But there was only so much that could be done, and the result was a season that was uniquely and deliriously warped in many ways. The raw numbers regarding homers are so big and so lurid—the Twins hitting a record 307 homers as a team, the league hitting a record 6,776 homers as a whole—that they’re hard to parse. In smaller samples, the randomness pops harder and the effects of the ball look more unnatural and outsized. Josh Hader, the best reliever in baseball last year, was roughly as unhittable this year, but of the 41 hits that he allowed in 75-and-two-thirds innings, 15 were home runs; that’s more than he allowed in his previous 129 innings, and 36.5 percent of the total hits he allowed all year. Edwin Diaz, another reliever coming off a historically dominant year, was much worse, but while natural regression and various Mets-related supernatural effects might explain why he was suddenly easier to hit, it doesn’t explain why 25 percent of the hits he allowed landed over the fence compared to 15 percent over his first three seasons.
This sort of ball-related hijinks, or something like it, has happened in the past. It will happen again whenever baseball’s power elite, a crew of pink billionaires wearing pale blue shirts under blazers who are always either extremely dusty or jarringly damp, next take it upon themselves to fix something. It will be done in secret and denied in public, because these are not people who like the kind of attention that might invite accountability. It will be done in a clumsy and overstated way, because these are generally not people who do things subtly or well. While it is obviously not ideal that the number one topic of conversation among players and fans alike during this postseason has been the palpably de-juiced baseballs that replaced the ones in play during the regular season, this is finally just more of the overdetermined and unchecked executive dipshittery that has become like the weather, in baseball and elsewhere.
The bigger concern, by far, is how neatly this bit of oafishness fits into the broader pattern of escalation and arbitrariness from the league’s most powerful people that has eroded the fundamental points of consensus that hold the league together. A juiced ball or a de-juiced ball can warp baseball from one game to the next, but it can’t break it. The problem is that it’s not just the ball.
During a late August game on MLB Network, Astros third baseman Alex Bregman asked Ken Rosenthal a question instead of the other way around, about why public defensive metrics graded his teammate Yuli Gurriel as just an adequate defender. “I think he’s a top-three defensive player at first base in the big leagues,” Bregman said. “He’s basically a shortstop playing first base. I want to know, I just think the defensive metrics are completely messed up and skewed.”
On its own, this isn’t much—some banter at the tail end of the season’s dog days, a player sticking up for a teammate. But time and again this season, players expressed a wide-ranging skepticism about how business gets done in the league that extended to things held up as objective and absolute. Vinegary oldsters are free to bemoan The Nerds With Their Spreadsheets because they don’t have to play a game that is becoming tighter and more difficult as a result of all that new knowledge, but virtually every active player in the sport is hanging on by his fingertips and so can’t afford to ignore it; they’ll see those numbers held up as proof of their worth or lack of it in arbitration and free agent negotiations. It’s not that Bregman has a conceptual problem with defensive metrics; it’s that he doesn’t believe that information is being used or shared in anything like good faith.
It’s not a philosophical dispute, but a labor one. “There’s a lot of uncertainty right now with the relationship between ownership and players,” Nick Castellanos told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale around the same time, “just the way that we’re being evaluated. It’s something I can’t control.” At the time, Castellanos was the best hitter on a team that looked bound for the postseason. He is now watching from home and facing an ambiguous future in free agency. He is a very good hitter and a pretty lousy fielder; his presence would improve just about any lineup in the game and he won’t turn 28 until next March. Players with this sort of profile get very rich in free agency, or did until owners began their soft sort of capital strike two offseasons ago. Some numbers make a case for Castellanos and others unmake it, but the uncertainty that he and his peers—not just rising free agents but players wondering why metrics don’t align with what their eyes are telling them, or why the literal baseball itself is suddenly so different in all these unexplained new ways—runs deeper and colder than that. This is because it’s not just about things that are supposed to be constants suddenly becoming shifting and subjective, but about the darker possibility that none of it really matters.
Castellanos is not shy about making his own case—Nightengale notes elsewhere in the story that Castellanos has his own custom spray charts, which purport to demonstrate how much better his numbers would be had he not played most of his season in Detroit’s roomy and desolate ballpark—but he is also smart enough to know that it won’t really matter if owners have other numbers that they believe above his, or plain don’t want to bother paying a player who might help their team win a few more games. “It sucks when you feel you can help a team win, but there are only eight teams out there truly trying to win,” Logan Morrison told FanGraphs back in August, when he made it back to the bigs with the Phillies after failing to get a big-league offer during the offseason. “You look at rosters and know that you’re better than guys, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter because of the economic situation. Having someone under control for six years is more important than them actually being good.”
Morrison is a serial talker of shit and hardly a disinterested party, here, but that doesn’t mean that he’s wrong about any of that any more than Castellanos or Bregman or anyone else is right to question everything up to and perhaps past the point of paranoia. MLB’s owners, who have refused to acknowledge that the balls used in the regular season were different from those used last year or that the balls used in the postseason are different from those used during the regular season, are engaged in something entirely too lazy and brazen to qualify as gaslighting. There is no real campaign to speak of here, because the people that have broken baseball in recent years—that have wrecked the free agent marketplace out of greed and spite, and normalized unapologetic tank jobs and rationalized every reason not to try to improve a team and looked the other way at something very much like human trafficking in the international free agent market—are not organized or focused enough for that sort of thing.
This isn’t to say that they’re not together, but their unity is more about class solidarity, and their pursuit reflects that penthouse-bound super-class’s dedication to extracting as much as possible from even their most immediate downstairs neighbors. They will absolutely find some sort of way to use the distorting effects of the juiced ball against the players in free agency and arbitration, but that is not really why the ball ended up juiced. It seems likelier there that it was some dopey consensus that Fans Love Those Homers that, after snaking through an oafish game of executive telephone, resulted in the Twins hitting 39 more homers than any baseball team ever has.
This all feels more like a casual idea that metastasized into something that still falls far short of a plan, and which doesn’t really fit into anything like a strategy. The reason that baseball’s baseballs are different, and the reason that they are different now than they were six weeks ago, is fundamentally the same reason why so many other things about the sport are broken or breaking. That reason being, at bottom, that the people in charge of baseball, a big and beloved American thing, don’t seem to care about it very much. At the very least, they don’t take that responsibility seriously enough to stay their hand for even a moment when confronted with the idle temptation to mess with it. Owners know that they will not and effectively can not be held accountable for failing to uphold their end of baseball’s fundamental deal, and so instead are just doing what they want. Sometimes that means messing with the baseballs. Always, eventually, it means messing with the game.