“They say baseball isn’t like it used to be. They’re right.”
This is the beginning of the voice-over of the 2019 Major League Baseball Postseason promo, entitled “We Play Loud.” It features stars of today like Cody Bellinger and Ronald Acuña Jr. jacking home runs and flipping their bats, superimposed onto black-and-white archival footage of America’s Pastime. This superimposition is fitting, but not for the reasons the MLB intended. The promo is intended to get fans excited about the postseason, yet the 2019 MLB playoffs have featured few home runs and low scoring. While these statistics do match up well with the black-and-white footage of baseball’s past, they don’t meet the standards of modern baseball viewers, who are looking for more action than the sport’s currently serving.
The culprit of this decreased action might be the change of the physical baseball in the postseason, which is different than the one used in the regular season. There’s more drag and air resistance in the postseason baseball, causing baseballs to fly without their previous vigor. Rob Arthur of Baseball Prospectus first wrote about this development.
He tracked air resistance by using data from the MLB’s pitch tracking system and showed a week-to-week spike in air resistance of playoff baseballs, with vectors significantly larger than those of the regular season.
The St. Louis Cardinals’ analytics department has found that, in the postseason, the baseball has traveled about 4.5 feet shorter than average. In a playoff season largely comprised of the MLB’s best offenses, four-and-a-half feet might not seem like much but, in fact, can make a huge difference in scoring. Skeptics might also note the fact that the ball acts “deader” in colder weather, and it’s the coldest time of the season. The result, according to Arthur, is a home run rate that is 10 percent lower than the regular season’s.
These quantitative results can also be felt anecdotally, as supposed no-doubt home runs have been reeled in without much fuss.
In Game 3 of the ALCS, Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius hit a moonshot off of Astros Pitcher Gerrit Cole to the notoriously short right field of Yankee Stadium. Gregorius, believing he hit a homer, celebrated accordingly, as he admired the ball and trotted slowly out of the box.
But something strange happened. The ball lost its carry and fell into the glove of Josh Reddick.
Similarly, Dodgers catcher Will Smith hit a ball with all the accessories of a home run. Announcer Ernie Johnson Jr. gave an enthusiastic call, Smith gave an enthusiastic bat flip, and members of the Dodgers bench enthusiastically leapt out of the dugout to celebrate. The outcome, however, was decidedly uninteresting, as it was caught by Washington Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton.
Several questions arise from this research. Why would the MLB do this, and does the general baseball watching audience care?
Whether or not the MLB made these changes deliberately seems relatively cut and dry. Since 2018, Rawlings, the company that produces the official baseball, has been a subsidiary of the MLB. As such, the league likely has some control over its state.
A dramatic change might be motivated by the transition from the regular season to the playoffs.
With more eyes on the game, the prospect of a cheap home run deciding the outcome of a playoff series would be embarrassing. The juiced ball has already been responsible for the yearly shattering of home run records over the last couple of seasons.
As avid readers of The Argus will recall, Assistant Sports Editor John Vernaglia recently wrote an opinion lamenting the current state of baseball, specifically the rise of “Three True Outcomes” play; that is, a proclivity for strikeouts, walks, and home runs. This move by the MLB might please purists like him. If the state of the physical baseball persists into future regular seasons, the game will adjust. With home runs more difficult to hit, teams will value players who put the ball in play rather than “feast or famine” players who sell out looking for homers.
The cost of this change, however, is a decrease in baseball’s most exciting plays. What will the highlights of the 2019 MLB Playoffs look like? Will it be Aaron Judge bat flipping after a single up the middle? Will Max Scherzer stalk around the mound after giving up a lazy flyout rather than a strikeout? The MLB, through the composition of its baseballs, must make a choice between showcasing its star players and stunning plays, or attempting to better the state of the game as a whole.
Andrew Simard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.