'Game of roulette': This season's baseballs are frustrating MLB pitchers and hitters
Miniscule changes to a ball's surface can drastically affect players' performance, says data scientist
There's something wrong with MLB baseballs this season, and some of the players don't like it.
"The MLB has a very big problem with the baseballs," New York Mets pitcher Chris Bassitt said, following his side's win over the St. Louis Cardinals in April.
"Every pitcher in the league knows it. They're bad. They don't care. The MLB doesn't give a damn about it."
The baseballs aren't just affecting the pitchers' play — they're also messing with the batters. Data scientist and freelance journalist Robert Arthur said home runs have gone down drastically this season compared to 2019, when the league's hitters blasted a record-breaking 6,776 home runs.
"In 2019, there [were] about 1.4 home runs hit per game. Now we're down to a little bit under one," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.
"I had some close calls tonight. I've been hit in the face, I don't ever want to do that to anybody ever. MLB has a very big problem with the baseballs. They're bad. Everyone knows it. They don't care. MLB doesn't give a damn about it."<br><br>- Chris Bassitt <a href="https://t.co/KMc0bAhYPx">pic.twitter.com/KMc0bAhYPx</a>—@SNYtv
The Current reached out to the MLB for comment, but hasn't yet received a response.
To get a better sense of what's wrong with this season's baseballs, Arthur and Galloway spoke about baseball aerodynamics, sponginess — and why the league would even change them in the first place. Here's part of their conversation.
What do you make of Chris Bassitt and his comments, that the ball ... keeps changing — in some ways, you know, inning by inning, game by game?
Yeah, I think he's right on both counts. We've been dealing with a baseball that's been varying from year to year for at least the last five years. That's the reason behind some of the record-breaking home run totals that we saw in 2017 and 2019.
That's because the baseball got more aerodynamic — and we can actually measure how aerodynamic a baseball is using some of the data that's coming out from the radar and camera tracking systems that MLB has installed.
Explain this for people who think a baseball is a baseball is a baseball. What is a more aerodynamic baseball? How is the baseball changing?
A more aerodynamic baseball is smaller. It has lower stitches, lower laces. It may be a little bit rougher on the surface — paradoxically, a rougher surface tends to make a baseball more aerodynamic.
Even a tiny, tiny change on the production line could really affect how baseballs fly once they get out into major league action.-Robert Arthur
There's a lot of factors that go into what we call the drag coefficient, which is just a measure of how aerodynamic a baseball is.
But we can actually measure that drag coefficient, and regardless of what the specific causes are, we can track exactly how aerodynamic [it is], how easily a baseball floats through the air from year to year, and even from baseball to baseball.
And there is that much variation in how the baseball is behaving?
People find that hard to believe, but it's absolutely true. Something like about 20 to 30 feet of variation between any pair of baseballs that you pull out of a box of baseballs.
So if you both hit them [in] the same direction, [with the] same velocity off the bat, one baseball might travel 20 or 30 feet further than another.
That's all down to those factors I just mentioned: little tiny things about the surface of the baseball that you wouldn't be able to see or detect with your hands. But they do impact the flight of the ball to such a huge extent.
So if you're Chris Bassitt, the New York Mets pitcher that we just heard, what does that mean in terms of the ball that you are hurling down toward the plate?
I think for the pitchers — and I've heard this in talking to them myself — they kind of have this game of roulette a little bit. Whenever they pick up a new ball, they don't know if it's an aerodynamic baseball or a less aerodynamic baseball. They have no way of telling just when they grab it on the mound.
That really affects their tactics. You want to do different things depending on whether a baseball is going to be more likely to fly for a home run or not.
So they're kind of taking a gamble every time they pick up a ball. "Do I throw it high in the zone and risk a home run? Or do I try and keep it on the ground?" That's sort of what they're up against.
What about on the other end of it? The Toronto Blue Jays, who were a home run-hitting machine last year… [are] less so this year. Why is that?
We've had a huge change in just a few years, and that is because the baseball is less aerodynamic. To the extent that we can measure it, it's all down to the fact that the current baseball that we have now is travelling maybe 10 feet less than baseballs a couple of years ago, on average, on those well-hit fly balls.
So that's going to affect the Blue Jays … maybe more so than most because they were such a potent home run-hitting team. If you get a lot of offence from home runs to start with, then you're going to get that offence cut down more when they disappear.
What about this notion that some of the baseballs are spongy? This is what batters have been complaining about. What are they talking about?
There is another big change to the baseball this year that we do know about, which is that MLB installed humidors in all ballparks to make sure that the baseballs are getting maintained under consistent circumstances. So always the same humidity, always the same temperature.
That's great. That's something that some of the scientists that study baseballs and aerodynamic performance have recommended for years.
However, the downside to that … is that they may have created this thing where baseballs may have absorbed excess moisture that could have caused the texture to change or … [the] inside of the baseball to change. That could create some sponginess.
That's just a hypothesis at the moment ... I don't know if that's true or not, but if you have a baseball that has a little bit of extra moisture and then you smack it, you know, you could put a dent in it, or you could change the surface characteristics of the ball a little bit.
That's going to potentially affect its flight, and that's going to make it harder to hit, possibly. So there's some idea that that could have created the sponginess that the hitters are complaining about.
People love home runs. The big horn honks and there's fireworks and people get excited. Why would you mess with the baseball to cut down on the number of home runs?
Typically in the last few years, we've seen MLB deny having purposefully messed with the baseball at all. But last year there was an exception to that.
They [said] that they were going to try and turn down the offence of the home runs on the baseball a little bit by making some small changes…. It's possible this year they wanted to do the same thing.
It's also possible that this is an accident. Baseballs have a lot of natural components in them. They're handmade in some steps of the process. Even a tiny, tiny change on the production line could really affect how baseballs fly once they get out into major league action.
Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Howard Goldenthal. Q&A edited for length and clarity.