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Inconsistent seams and player behavior were behind MLB's home run uptick, not juiced baseballs

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Inconsistent seams and player behavior were behind MLB's home run uptick, not juiced baseballs

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Baseballs weren't juiced during a record-setting 2019 regular season, according to a study commissioned by Major League Baseball.

They were just flying farther.

A four-person committee of scientists concluded baseballs this year had less drag on average than in previous seasons, contributing to a power surge that resulted in a record number of home runs. Their report released Wednesday blamed the spike on inconsistencies in the seam height of the baseballs, as well as "changes in player behavior." Batters connected 6,776 times in the regular season, smashing the record of 6,105 set in 2017.

The committee says it did not find evidence that MLB intentionally altered baseballs and believes inconsistencies were due to "manufacturing variability." The balls are hand-sewn by workers at Rawlings' factory in Costa Rica.

"We have never been asked to juice or de-juice a baseball," Rawlings President and CEO Michael Zlaket said. "And we've never done anything of the sort. Never would."

The 27-page report was authored by physics professor Alan Nathan, statistics professor Jim Albert, mechanical engineering and mathematics professor Peko Hosoi and mechanical engineering professor Lloyd Smith.

The committee concluded 60% of the home run surge across 2018-19 could be attributed to an increase in carry, with 40% due to players attempting to hit more fly balls.

Scientists recommended MLB consider installing humidors at all 30 ballparks "to reduce the variability in storage conditions" and install atmospheric tracking systems in each stadium. They believe Rawlings should begin tracking dates that baseballs are manufactured and shipped, and they also suggested a study with a larger sample size to explore the possibility carry is influenced by the rubbing mud applied to bright, white baseballs before they are used in games.

MLB plans to accept those recommendations. Commissioner Rob Manfred said the league does not want to abandon the handmade balls from the Costa Rica factory in favor of an automated manufacturing process with synthetic materials.

"I think we understand the variability in the baseball better today than we did at any point in the history of the game," Manfred said. "The fact that we understand the variability, I don't really see as a motivator to do something drastic in terms of changing the way the game is played."

The committee confirmed suspicions by players and coaches that the "juiced" ball was carrying less during the 2019 postseason. Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said during the NL Championship Series that St. Louis' analytics team believed fly balls were traveling 4 1/2 feet less on average. That backed a study published by data scientist Rob Arthur at Baseball Prospectus showing the balls suddenly had less drag.

The scientists could not determine why the October balls weren't flying as far. MLB has said the postseason balls were pulled from the same batch as the regular-season ones, and Nathan said there was no discernible difference in the seam height among the samples studied.

The aerodynamics of baseballs were found to be notably different within each season. Even during a given game, there could be significant disparity in ball flight caused by shifts of just .001 inches in seam height. The committee cited "ball-to-ball variation in the baseball drag that is large compared to the year-to-year change in the average drag."

Triple-A used Rawlings balls from the Costa Rica factory for the first time this season, and hitters at that level also blew past the Triple-A home run record. Zlaket said that was because the balls from Costa Rica were closer to specifications because they were of a higher quality.

Not juiced balls, but spruced balls.

"The ball we make for Major League Baseball is much more precise," Zlaket said.

MLB owns a minority stake in Rawlings, and Peter Seidler, the San Diego Padres general partner, has chief oversight of the equity firm that owns a majority share.

The study was conducted using laboratory testing of baseballs dating to 2013, as well as data pulled from MLB's Statcast tracking system. The group said it "significantly modified" its lab tests from a previous study released in 2018, which also found that drag in the baseball was decreasing but did not confirm that seam height inconsistencies were the strongest factor.

Changes to the roundness of the ball, surface roughness and the thickness of the laces were found to be "relatively consistent."

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Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia ranked as the Nationals' top prospects

Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia ranked as the Nationals' top prospects

One of the biggest challenges to major-league front offices and scouting departments of winning organizations is to continue developing prospects into contributing players despite picking low in the draft each year.

The Nationals have finished with a winning record in eight consecutive seasons dating back to 2012, never picking higher than 16th overall. Since drafting Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper with back-to-back No. 1 overall picks in 2009 and 2010, Washington has slowly drained its farm system of all the players it acquired while rebuilding in the second half of the 2000s decade.

However, the Nationals have still found a way to replenish its minor-league depth with a couple promising prospects each year. Their farm system has been top-heavy in recent years, but the talent at the top has panned out more often than not.

That once again will be the approach in 2020, as the Nationals only had two players who appeared on the top-100 prospect rankings that were released over the past few weeks.

Carter Kieboom, who will have an opportunity to compete for the starting third base job in Spring Training, came in at 11th (Baseball Prospectus), 15th (Baseball America) and 21st (MLB Pipeline). Joining him on Baseball America’s list (91st) and MLB Pipeline’s rankings (97th) was infielder Luis Garcia. He was unranked by Baseball Prospectus.

Washington gave Kieboom a taste of the big leagues last season, but he struggled to the tune of a .128 batting average with 16 strikeouts and four errors in 11 games. He spent the rest of the season with AAA-Fresno and prepared all offseason to make the switch from his natural position of shortstop over to third base.

“I’m as ready as I possibly can be,” Kieboom said at the Nationals’ annual WinterFest event. “I think as a player if you get an opportunity to go up there and it doesn’t work out and you get another opportunity to be able to go up there, you can’t really beat that. So I’m really excited, this is the best I’ve ever felt in an offseason.”

On the Baseball America podcast, evaluator Kyle Glaser explained that Kieboom was originally slated at No. 13 but was moved back behind Casey Mize (Detroit Tigers) and Brendan McKay (Tampa Bay Rays) “based on some front-office feedback.” However, Kieboom was ranked 41st by Baseball America in 2019, so the 15th-overall spot still represents a sizeable jump.

Garcia, 19, was a unanimous top-100 prospect last season, ranking as high as 61st and as low as 81st between the three evaluators. He made his first stint at AA-Harrisburg in 2019 and struggled both drawing walks and hitting for power. His .280 on-base percentage was a steep dive from the .336 mark he posted between High-A Potomac and A-Hagerstown the year prior, while he hit just 30 extra-base hit (four homers) in 129 games.

But given his young age, Garcia still presents plenty of upside if he can take a step forward in 2020. Washington sent him to the Arizona Fall League in October and he showed signs of improvement, posting a .276/.345/.382 slash line in 87 plate appearances.

He’s rated as a good fielder, grading out at 60 for both his arm and his glove on the 20-80 scale by MLB Pipeline. Although a natural shortstop, Garcia played 38 games at second base last season and didn’t record a single error. If Trea Turner remains entrenched at short, Garcia will likely be moved over to second long term.

With Kieboom representing the Nationals as the lone consensus top-100 prospect, the Nationals joined the Colorado Rockies, Houston Astros, Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds as the only teams with just one consensus top-100 player. The Milwaukee Brewers were the only team with none.

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Nationals' Aaron Barrett says sign stealing 'affects people's lives'

Nationals' Aaron Barrett says sign stealing 'affects people's lives'

Not every Major League Baseball player has a direct path to the show. Some spend a couple years before getting called up, while a large percentage spend five or more seasons in the minor leagues and may not ever make it. 

And if you get called up, there's no guarantee you stay. Few players know the trials of making it to the majors more than Nationals pitcher Aaron Barrett, who after getting drafted by Washington in the ninth round of the 2010 MLB Draft, spent four years working toward the big-league roster. 

Once Barrett made it, he pitched for two seasons before suffering career-threatening injuries in his throwing arm. He then spent another four years in the minors before his memorable call-up at the end of the 2019 season. 

A baseball player's career is a fragile thing. So when teams like the Astros use technology to steal signs and a number of pitchers fall victim to an unfair advantage, you have an issue where someone's livelihood is being negatively impacted. 

"I think sign-stealing has been part of the game for a long time," Barrett said in an interview with Carol Maloney. "But when you bring technology into it and take it to the next level I think that's a whole other can of worms.

"You are affecting people's lives, there's no doubt about it," he said. 

Barrett points to Kris Medlen, a pitcher who broke out with the Braves in 2012 with a 10-1 record, 1.57 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 138 innings. 

Medlen had multiple surgeries and was out of baseball from 2013-15 and then again from 2016-18. Once he came back on May 4, 2018 with the Diamondbacks, Medlen got the start against the Astros.

He gave up nine hits and seven earned runs over four innings and has not pitched in the majors since. 

"He ended up having to retire after that game because he didn't do well," he said. "You affect people's lives. This is more than just a game, and what I've been through over the last four years has really shown me that."

Much has been said about how the Astros cheated the Dodgers out of a World Series, or the Yankees out of an AL pennant.

But Barrett, thanks to his experiences the last nine years, is focusing on pitchers who were cheated out of a career because the Astros felt the need to take sign-stealing to the next level. 

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