Rob Manfred And Baseball’s History Of Manipulating The Baseball
There is no doubt there is something up with the baseball this year. Home runs are up across the board, and pitchers everywhere have been frustrated. It is at a point where no one is denying anything. In fact, Major League Baseball readily admits to the baseball being different in years past.
In his All Star Game first half review, Rob Manfred addressed the topic saying, “Baseball has done nothing, given no direction for an alteration in the baseball.” He would also go on to say the owners are not happy with the proliferation of homers or how the game is played.
During All Star Weekend, players have spoken out about it with Justin Verlander being the most vocal outright accusing Major League Baseball of juicing the baseballs to create more home runs. For his part, Manfred tried to make Verlander and others who think like him sound like crazy conspiracy theorists saying, “How you manipulate a human-dominated handmade manufacturing process in any consistent way, it’s a smarter human being than I.”
Before going further, we should revisit Major League Baseball’s purchase of Rawlings, who is the manufacturer of baseballs. When the deal was consummated and announced to the public, Chris Marinak, MLB’s executive vice president for strategy, technology and innovation, said:
MLB is excited to take an ownership position in one of the most iconic brands in sports and further build on the Rawlings legacy, which dates back to 1887. We are particularly interested in providing even more input and direction on the production of the official ball of Major League Baseball, one of the most important on-field products to the play of our great game.
(Fox Business) [empahsis added].
Marinak’s statements about the acquisition of Rawlings fly in the face of what Manfred is currently saying about the baseball. In essence, Marinak is saying Major League Baseball acquired Rawlings to “manipulate a human-dominated handmade manufacturing process” in a way to conform the baseball to act the way Major League Baseball wants it to act.
This is nothing new. As noted by The Atlantic in 2010 Major League Baseball has long resisted using automated machines or stitching, which would arguably create a more uniform baseball. Between the resistance and the inability to actually produce a machine fully capable of meeting Major League Baseball’s needs, they remain in charge of the instruction as to how a baseball is supposed to be stitched.
But it is more than stitching. As noted by The History Channel, throughout baseball history Major League Baseball has experimented with changing the composition and structure of the core of the baseball.One interesting antidote from the article was an experiment conducted in 1943 due to a drop in offense:
Cincinnati Reds general manager Warren Giles, who complained the ball was filled with “ground baloney,” conducted his own experiment by dropping 12 of the new balls and a dozen of the prior year’s from the roof of Crosley Field and found the old balls bounced considerably higher. A more scientific study at Cooper Union found similar results.
While the results of these tests were initially dismissed, like how Manfred is dismissing some of the allegations now, A.G. Spalding did eventually have to admit there was a change in the composition of the core of the baseball.
There have long been complaints about the baseball from year-to-year. Those complaints just don’t go towards it increasing or decreasing offense. As noted by The Ringer, the Astros and Dodgers were complaining of a slick baseball during the 2017 World Series. The end result was not just a difficulty throwing sliders but also an increase in the amount of homers. In fact, one of the things that series was known for was the all or nothing offensive approach of both teams.
In some ways, the current baseball sounds like the baseball we saw during the 2017 World Series. Of note, Noah Syndergaard has described the current baseball as being like a cue ball, and he has had difficulty throwing his slider. The end result was him having a career worst HR/9, BB/9, and K/BB while having to scrap his slider in favor of his curve and four seamer.
With respect to the current baseball, Dr. Meredity Willis, a Harvard educated astrophysicist, described how it has changed in an article for The Athletic. She found the shape and size of the ball has changed, and it has lower seams with smoother leather. There were other noted changes as well, but the main takeaway was this is “a more aerodynamic ball” leading to more homers.
The overriding point here is baseball has long sought to control the manufacturing process even when they did not have actual control over the process. Over time, baseball has sought to change the core of the baseball and make other changes to the ball in an effort to either increase or decrease offense. While not specifically denoting this as the reason for the acquisition of Rawlings, Major League Baseball has admitted they want to direct the production of baseballs.
With respect to Manfred, it’s entirely possible Major League Baseball did not want this proliferation of homers, and it’s even more possible they did not want to see high priced pitchers struggle throwing the baseball. Still, baseball did want something to change because they did in fact change the baseball. Manfred can say he didn’t, but they and the company they own did in fact change it. It’s an undisputed fact.
Overall, it is clear the baseball was changed, and it is very likely not something Rawlings did independently. In fact, it can’t be done independently as Major League Baseball owns it. Overall, what we do not know is if this was the result of unintended consequences or whether baseball wanted this and now just regrets their decisions.
What we should note however is this baseball is very similar to the baseball used during the 2017 World Series. That World Series drew very good ratings, and it featured many homers. Taking everything into account, it is possible what we are seeing has been intentional. If it’s not, baseball can always just go back to the baseball it was using last year. Notably, it hasn’t.