If what Zach Eflin said earlier this week about the baseballs is true, it could be the biggest non-cheating-related story in baseball early this season.
The season we just experienced was unlike any in MLB history. The major-league ball was rock hard and flew farther in the air than anyone anticipated. It would be like if the NBA increased the size of the hoop. Or if the NFL wiped offensive pass interference from the rule book. It only benefited offenses and it watered down the meaning of 30 home runs.
In 2019, there were 6,776 home runs in the majors, beating the previous record by 671. The league-wide home run record for any month was set in May 2019, broken in June 2019 and broken again in August 2019. Half the league — 15 teams — set their franchise record for homers in a season.
Nobody knows yet what to expect in the 2020 regular season. However, earlier this week Eflin expressed optimism and confidence about the feel of the ball, saying it felt more like it did in 2018.
“I think it’s awesome,” Eflin told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “To me, they feel a little softer and you can definitely notice the seams a little more. Last year, it was like throwing a cue ball.”
The Phillies in 2019 allowed the most home runs in franchise history but were far from alone with that dubious record — 13 other clubs did it as well.
Which Phillies pitchers were most affected? Interestingly, Eflin was among those least affected.
Nola’s rate of home runs allowed per nine innings increased by 33% from 0.9 to 1.2.
In practical terms, that’s a difference of six home runs over the 202 innings Nola pitched.
Arrieta’s inability to throw his cutter or curveball for most of last season because of the bone spurs in his right elbow also played a large role in his poor 2019 season. It wasn’t just the baseball.
But Arrieta also allowed home runs at a far higher rate than ever before. Even including his unsuccessful four-year run with the Orioles at the beginning of his 10-year career, Arrieta had allowed 0.9 home runs per nine innings through 2019. Last season, his rate increased by 56% to 1.4.
That’s a difference of 8 home runs in Arrieta’s 136 innings.
Velasquez has always been extremely homer-prone. He throws a ton of four-seam fastballs and, particularly last season, his command of that pitch up in the zone was shaky. If you throw a mid-90s fastball high but not high enough, look out.
That said, even Velasquez, who entered 2019 with the highest home run rate of any Phillies pitcher ever, experienced a huge increase. His HR/9 rose from 1.3 to an obscenely high 2.0. For a lot of pitchers, allowing two homers per nine innings is a first-class ticket to DFA-land.
The Phils are giving Vinny Velo yet another chance, though. His home run increase last season was by 54% — a difference of 9 home runs in his 117 innings.
Velasquez will likely claim a bullpen spot with the 2020 Phillies if he doesn’t win the fifth starter’s battle. His career-long home run problem would be just as worrisome in that role.
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Between just Nola, Arrieta and Velasquez, that’s already 23 more home runs allowed last season than those pitchers’ previous track records would have suggested.
Add in the 27% increase for Nick Pivetta and we’re at 27 additional homers from just four pitchers. Obviously, their own lackluster command at times played a role too.
One pitcher who did not have this problem in 2019 was Zack Wheeler, who allowed just 22 home runs in nearly 200 innings, barely an increase over his career rate.
Last 2 seasons, Zack Wheeler allowed 36 home runs in 377⅔ innings. The only pitcher in baseball with as many innings and so few HR allowed is Jacob deGrom.— Corey Seidman (@CSeidmanNBCS) February 13, 2020
Think that factored into the $118 million price tag? Wheeler makes his Phillies spring training debut on Saturday.
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