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MLB’s #SlickBall and #JuicedBall Talk Is a PR Problem

With the sport firmly in the spotlight during a thrilling World Series, some of MLB’s most famous figures are openly undermining the product by complaining about the baseball. Even though it’s too soon to say if the latest grip-centric claims are valid, the league needs to take action to reclaim the conversation.

A slick baseball Ringer illustration

Baseball is great, but the baseball is broken.

That sentiment, or something close to it, has been echoed in countless columns, tweets, and texts in the wake of World Series Game 5. The stats we use to access excitement, imprecise as they are, support what our eyes and heart rates told us: Both Game 5 and Game 2 were classics by any accounting. This World Series, whose climax still lies ahead, is the only one other than 1924’s to place two games in the all-time Fall Classic top 20, as measured by total change in win expectancy, a decent proxy for fan suspense. Only Game 6 of the 2011 World Series—the David Freese Game—exceeded Game 5 of the 2017 series in average win probability added per play, which reflects Game 5’s unusual profusion of plays that seemed to put an opponent away or resurrect a team that was heading down the drain.

2017 MLB Playoffs

Yet games 2 and 5 of this series took a combined nine hours and 36 minutes and produced a total of 15 home runs, 37 strikeouts, and 24 pitching changes (in 21 innings). No, not all of the games in this series have looked like that—Game 1, which now feels like a “Mandela Effect” false memory concocted by Clayton Kershaw fans who were desperate for him to pitch well in the playoffs, finished 3–1 in only 148 minutes—but even the relatively low-scoring games have been dominated by dingers. All four of the runs in Game 1, and 60 percent of the runs in this series so far, were scored on home runs.

Let’s leave aside concerns about game length, instant replay, and inconsistent umpiring, all of which perennially resurface in the playoffs, and talk about the ball, which has invited increased scrutiny in this season and this series. Many of the 22 homers hit in the first five games of this series—already a record, in a year that easily set a new regular-season home run record with 6,105—have created comebacks, heightened tension, and spawned displays of emotion that made us smile. Yet there’s an element of unreality underlying it all, a growing sense that baseball’s offense has entered a wild stage that’s distorting the sport.

Postseason hitters in 2017 have homered in 5.9 percent of non-strikeout at-bats; in the World Series so far, that figure has risen to 8.2 percent. Both of those rates dwarf the regular-season baseline of 4.9 percent, which was itself an extreme outlier by historical standards; in 2014, before the big home run influx, the leaguewide regular-season rate sat at 3.3 percent. As Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight found in a piece also due to be published Tuesday, this year has brought the biggest increase from regular-season to postseason home run rate since at least 1995. That increase has been accompanied by some eyebrow-raising fly balls: As exhilarating as Carlos Correa’s and Yasiel Puig’s dingers were in Game 5, neither of them looked like what years of pre-2017 baseball have taught us to expect.

It would be one thing if the sport had arrived at this point organically, through the natural batter-pitcher push and pull. But while velocity gains and swing changes have surely played a part in the record home run rate, both physical testing and statistical research have pointed toward a bouncier, flatter-seamed ball being the primary culprit for the home run rate’s recent surge.

Houston Astro Dallas Keuchel throws a pitch Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

After last week’s eight-homer Game 2, Astros starter Dallas Keuchel, who allowed two homers in Game 1, joined the chorus of players (that included Keuchel’s teammate Justin Verlander) who’ve blamed the ball for the fireworks this year, telling USA Today that the ball is “juiced 100 percent.” But before Game 5, the home run conspiracy grew even more gross-sounding, as “slick balls” joined “juiced balls” in the 2017 sports lexicon. As Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci reported and Yahoo’s Jeff Passan confirmed Sunday, multiple players and coaches from both the Astros and Dodgers have expressed on-the-record reservations about the baseballs being used in this series. The World Series ball, some claim, is slicker and harder to grip than the balls used during the regular season. Supposedly, this slickness has most hampered pitchers who throw sliders, the pitch that relies most on grip and friction to impart spin.

It’s difficult to test this contention. The evidence for the regular-season ball being juiced stems from laboratory testing and stats accrued over highly significant, multiseason samples. The case for the World Series ball being slick rests on uncharacteristic struggles by a few especially slider-reliant pitchers (particularly Astros closer Ken Giles and Dodgers starter Yu Darvish, although Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, and others have thrown sliders they’d like back) and the opinions of some (but far from all) pitchers. A five-game statistical sample simply isn’t enough to isolate the slickness of the ball from any number of factors that could lead to small variations in slider measurements, including disparities in heat and humidity, Statcast calibration differences, and normal game-to-game performance variation. And while one would think that major league pitchers have spent enough time gripping baseballs for us to trust their testimony, no pitcher in a high–home run environment is an unbiased source.

From a PR perspective, though, it doesn’t much matter whether the whistle-blowing pitchers are right about the World Series balls being slick. Either way, it’s a bad look for baseball that the public’s and the players’ trust in the sport’s most important piece of equipment has eroded enough for distrust of both the ball and the league to overcome most macho athletes’ ingrained reluctance to blame external factors for their own poor performance. During the week when baseball is closest to the cultural spotlight, some of the game’s most famous figures are openly undermining the implicit promise that the league makes to fans: that the contests are played under reasonably consistent conditions, and that the World Series will be won or lost by a combination of players plus luck, not by decisions (or mistakes) made by baseball manufacturers.

With Verducci’s story circulating and being brought up on Sunday’s broadcast, watchers had to wonder whether the ball was a confounding factor influencing events on the field. When Kershaw threw a flat fourth-inning slider that Yuli Gurriel crushed for the first of Game 5’s three three-run homers, the thought crossed my mind that the ball’s slickness could have caused it to stay up. And one inning later, when Kenta Maeda surrendered the third three-run homer—this one on a fastball—Fox announcer John Smoltz questioned whether a lack of faith in his slider had discouraged the righty from throwing that pitch.

Neither of those things had to be true: It’s perfectly plausible that Kershaw threw a fat pitch through no fault but his own, and that Maeda had other reasons for staying away from a pitch that he throws only 10 percent of the time (and had already delivered twice in that plate appearance). But the possibility that the ball is hurting some players and aiding others in an unpredictable way will be stuck in our heads until MLB does something to dislodge it.

To this point, MLB’s public comments about the ball have done little to defuse suspicions. Throughout the high-homer era that began in 2015, commissioner Rob Manfred and various MLB reps have repeatedly denied that the ball is behind any rise in home run rate, proposing an array of alternative explanations, some of which (such as different bats and batting orders) strain credulity. Manfred has consistently cited testing conducted by an MLB-sponsored research facility that he says has shown that the ball is within the league’s specifications.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during a press conference Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Manfred’s assurances have failed to convince the juiced-ball believers for a few reasons. First, MLB hasn’t publicly released the results of that testing, even though the league did release a ball-testing report in 2000. Essentially, Manfred has told fans to take his word for it that the ball hasn’t changed, even as home runs have continued to fly over fences at unprecedented rates. And although MLB did share the results of some 2016 and early 2017 testing with me this spring, the data presented within that report didn’t necessarily seem to support its conclusions in the estimation of sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman, my coauthor on a June article about the ball’s effect on offense. Moreover, physicist Alan Nathan, a consultant whom MLB paid to review the league’s 2016 testing data and who initially concluded that the resulting report’s “not juiced” conclusion was correct, has subsequently authored a conflicting study that found that “the aerodynamic properties of the baseball can account for a considerable fraction of the increase in home [run] production from pre-All-Star Game 2015 to 2016.”

As the evidence of the ball being different has mounted, MLB has declined to address or refute any of the published reports’ specific findings. Instead, MLB sent teams a seemingly disingenuous memo that claimed that the 2017 ball is no different from the 2016 ball, conveniently skirting the more pertinent question of whether the 2016 ball was different from the 2014 or early 2015 ball. Manfred has also continued to repeat the party line about the ball being within allowable limits, even though the 2000 report distributed by MLB admitted that those limits were so loose that “two baseballs could meet the specifications but one ball could be hit 49.1 feet further than the other could be hit.”

In an earlier era, MLB’s statements might have been the last word. In 2017, though, the analytical community has too many investigative tools at its disposal to take the league’s assurances on faith. Ironically, the data that MLB has distributed—most notably the information provided by ball-tracking technologies PITCHf/x and Statcast—has cast doubt on the data that the league has largely kept to itself.

In that sense, the “slick balls” discussion that’s making us look askance at every wall-clearing fly in the World Series is the byproduct of the past two-plus years of debate about the baseball. If the ball can be bouncier and flatter-seamed, as previous research has suggested, then why can’t it be slicker, too? And if MLB’s denials about the ball being juiced aren’t convincing, then why should we believe the league when it dismisses the latest (or next) player complaints, especially if the science supports them?

Right now, every new height that the home run rate reaches, and every new quote about a juiced or slick ball by the game’s most visible ambassadors, makes it look like the league is lying—or, maybe more disturbing still, that the league has lost control of its equipment. That’s not fair to teams and players, who have futures and fortunes riding on a predictable ball that behaves more or less like it has in the past and may favor certain skill sets and strategies. And, in the long run, it’s not friendly to fans, many of whom have expressed frustration with what appears to be a capricious product.

Admittedly, MLB’s popularity hasn’t noticeably suffered so far from the ball’s artificial inflation of offense. The game has survived, and thrived, throughout innumerable equipment alterations and stylistic changes; as I wrote in June, “it’s a large leap from ‘baseball is different’ to ‘baseball is doomed.’” The World Series, allegedly slick balls and all, has been both an unforgettable spectacle and a ratings success. Maybe, as Manfred claims, fans simply like dingers and don’t care where they came from.

But even if MLB approves of this brand of baseball, the league should take action this winter to reclaim the conversation surrounding the ball, lest the players’ concerns spill into next season and continue to conflict with the commissioner’s message. Even from a safety perspective, it’s concerning that some pitchers are claiming that they can’t control the ball.

If the league is lying—which I’d still consider unlikely, if only because the commissioner is well aware of the risks—it’s too late for it to come clean without costs. But if MLB believes what it’s saying, or suspects that the ball may have been altered unintentionally, then there are a few steps that the commissioner can take.

If MLB stands by its testing, it could release the reports and let readers draw their own conclusions about whether the data is trustworthy and the conclusions correct. And if the league believes that the juiced-ball findings by multiple independent parties are misleading or inaccurate, it could make that case concretely. Lastly, it could tighten the ranges to which Rawlings, the official manufacturer of the baseball, is supposed to conform. Although some might interpret a tweak to the specs as an admission that the ball was out of bounds before, Manfred could sell such an update as a proactive improvement to an outmoded standard that predated his tenure. The current allowable limits for the ball’s coefficient of restitution—its bounciness—are laughably, almost suspiciously lax. And if standards for seam height exist, they aren’t described in the report MLB provided.

There’s some hope here. In July, Manfred told reporters (including The Wall Street Journal’s Jared Diamond) that, as Diamond put it, MLB was “considering tweaking the standards for how baseballs are manufactured so the standards aren’t so broad.” Manfred also noted that “these are handmade products,” adding that “there has always been some variation in the baseball, and we want to make sure that we don’t have too much.” One way to do that might be to launch another attempt to automate the manufacturing process so that the balls aren’t as subject to human error. Bring on robot balls.

For two glorious games buoyed by built-in World Series stakes, MLB’s record home run rate was a feature, not a bug. But during the less suspenseful regular season, fans may grow weary of the weirdness that worked in a limited dose. This is the time for MLB to restore confidence in the baseball, before its audience—and its players—make up their own minds for good.