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Justin Verlander thinks MLB has intentionally juiced baseballs

T-Mobile Home Run Derby

CLEVELAND, OHIO - JULY 08: Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros and the American League looks on during the T-Mobile Home Run Derby at Progressive Field on July 08, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

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All-Star Game starter Justin Verlander made some headlines yesterday, accusing Major League Baseball of intentionally juicing the baseballs. Here are Verlander’s comments, made to ESPN:

“It’s a f---ing joke . . . Major League Baseball’s turning this game into a joke. They own Rawlings, and you’ve got Manfred up here saying it might be the way they center the pill. They own the f---ing company. If any other $40 billion company bought out a $400 million company and the product changed dramatically, it’s not a guess as to what happened. We all know what happened. Manfred the first time he came in, what’d he say? He said we want more offense. All of a sudden he comes in, the balls are juiced? It’s not coincidence. We’re not idiots.”

Asked if he believed the balls were intentionally juiced by the league, Verlander said, “Yes. 100 percent. They’ve been using juiced balls in the Home Run Derby forever. They know how to do it. It’s not coincidence. I find it really hard to believe that Major League Baseball owns Rawlings and just coincidentally the balls become juiced.”

UPDATE: Rob Manfred had this to say about the accusations this afternoon:

I suppose whether one believes that is a topic for another day, but for now that qualifies as a denial of Verlander’s accusation.

Anyway: before we talk about Verlander’s accusations, let’s be clear about something: the balls are different now than they were a few years ago. They have lower seams and less wind resistance and jump off the bat more readily and fly farther than the old balls did. If you want to call them “juiced” or “lively” or whatever that’s fine, but the study after study has shown that the balls are different and even Rob Manfred has grudgingly admitted that.

What is not clear is whether this is an accident or, in keeping with Verlander’s accusations, the change in balls is intentional. That’s the explosive element of this which, I imagine, Rob Manfred was happy to see get buried last night thanks to an exciting Home Run Derby.

The accident theory is not silly, even if it’s a tad misleading. Rob Manfred and others in the league note that the ball, whatever its variations, is within normal and proper specifications or tolerances, so to suggest MLB has done anything funny about it is wrong. What’s misleading about that line of argument is that there can be some INSANE variation on ball flight within those “normal tolerances,” with some studies showing that a ball can fly 15 or 20 feet farther and still, technically, be within specifications. As such, one might ask Major League Baseball -- which, as Verlander notes, owns the ball’s manufacturer -- if it might could maybe tighten up those specifications and maybe not imply that they are as precise as they like to portray them as being.

That aside, we do know that there is a long and rich history of leagues making intentional changes to the baseball which has had the effect of either boosting or suppressing offense:

  • The Deadball Era wasn’t uniformly dead. There were ebbs and flows. For example, in 1911, the league began using a cork-centered ball, as opposed to rubber. That year the number of total home runs went from 361 to 514;
  • The Deadball Era ended for a lot of reasons, but it didn’t end simply because Babe Ruth started to swing with an uppercut. Due to the death of Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, who was hit by a dirty, spit-soaked baseball he could not see coming at his head in the twilight, baseball (a) outlawed the spitball; and (b) began substituting in new, fresh, white balls far more often than they had in the past. A new ball that has not been deadened with use flies farther;
  • There were many around 1920-21 who likewise believed that changes to the yarn with which the ball was wound made for a so-called “rabbit ball” that was harder to grip for pitchers and which flew father when struck. The data on that is somewhat conflicting, however;
  • A few years ago Jay Jaffe talked about baseball construction extensively in his book, “Extra Innings.” He noted that following two insanely overheated offensive years in 1929 and 1930, the American League switched to a “cushion cork"-centered ball, which saw offense immediately dip. The National League -- concerned about attendance in the midst of the Great Depression -- lagged in making the change and NL offense did not drop for several more years;
  • Jaffe also noted that, in 1977, Major League Baseball switched from Spalding to Rawlings as its official baseball provider. The change coincided with a 50 percent jump in home runs across the two leagues;
  • In Japan, in 2013, NPB commissioner Ryozo Kato admitted that the league had doctored the baseballs in order to generate more offense. Kato resigned as a result.

None of this is offered as evidence that Major League Baseball has intentionally juiced the baseball now. It’s simply to note that given (a) Verlander’s accurate statement about how baseball wanted to boost offense when it was at a low circa 2014-15; and (b) Major League Baseball’s clear awareness that even slight variations in the ball can mean big offensive changes, the accusation cannot be dismissed as ridiculous. Verlander and those who agree with him don’t have proof that MLB has intentionally manipulated the ball -- and anyone advancing that claim needs more than home run totals and suspicion to make that case -- but it’s not insane or irrational speculation either. It has happened before.

In light of all of that, I expect this little episode to end rather quickly. Verlander has said his piece, some players agree with him and some don’t, and the league will no doubt continue to deny that anything other than random variation and some sketchy quality control at some offshore baseball manufacturing facility are to blame for all the dingers flying out of ballparks lately. The only thing that would change the parameters of this debate is if someone on the inside has some information suggesting that something more nefarious was going on.

In totally unrelated news, if any of y’all wanna shoot me a 100% confidential email, feel free to do.

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