Sports

MLB used different baseballs in 2022, and juiced ones showed up at Yankees games

When we think of competitive balance in sports, a lot of things pop to mind. There’s the salary cap, draft lotteries, and equipment standardization — all designed to promote parity. Normally we don’t think about the league-supplied elements, because theoretically they should all be identical, but in MLB there is a major problem that hasn’t been addressed, and it’s the baseballs themselves.

A widespread study of over 200 baseballs used during the 2022 season showed massive variance, pointing to a “juiced ball,” a “dead ball” an a “Goldilocks ball.” The study was conducted by astrophysicist Dr. Meredith Wills who does work for the Society for American Baseball Research, and aided by Insider — who published the report on Wednesday morning.

This isn’t the first time there have been questions raised about using different baseballs inside a single MLB season. Dr. Wills previously found in 2019 that MLB was using a new ball, which contributed to baseball’s scoring explosion. In response to this, and similar studies MLB announced it was moving to a new, more dead baseball construction. These balls would be lighter, and more consistent — but come off the bat with less velocity, which was aimed to stem the scoring explosion.

It’s here where variance problems reared their head. In 2021 MLB was forced to use two different ball constructions for the season due to production difficulties due to Covid-19 of the new baseballs. Supply chain issues in caused MLB to dip into its “reserve stock” of balls, which were the old construction. These notably lighter balls came off bats with more velocity than their newer counterparts, imparting a definite element of randomness to the season. The new and old balls were distributed at random, but it didn’t mean players were happy.

“They’re all different,” Mets pitcher Chris Bassitt said on TV to SNY, “The first inning they’re decent; the third inning they’re bad; the fourth inning they’re okay; the fifth inning they’re bad…there’s no common ground with the balls.”

This prompted MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to acknowledge the ball issue, admitting at the 2022 All Star game that MLB was forced to use the different balls — the first public acknowledgement of the issue from the league. At the time he assured fans that for 2022 there was no issue, and that every baseball in circulation for the season was of the new construction, seemingly putting a nail in the issue.

We now know that Manfred was wrong, at best — lying, at worst.

The Wills and Insider report shows that of the 200 baseball they tested from the 2022 season the majority were from the new “dead” ball stock, which MLB said would be every ball for the season. However, they also found instances of the old “juiced” balls, as well as a third construction which fell into the middle — and is being dubbed the “Goldilocks ball,” for being the perfect mix of weight and velocity. More alarming is that there appears, at least from the initial data, to show huge inconsistencies in the ball distribution across MLB ballparks.

Wills and Insider found that 35 Goldilocks balls only appeared in four distinct situations:

  1. Special commemorative balls used on team anniversaries (6)
  2. All-Star week (3)
  3. Postseason (14)
  4. Yankees home games (10)

It’s that final point that’s going to be the most contentious. Finding 10 baseballs is far from a smoking gun, but it is very curious that Goldilocks balls ramped up in use in Yankees home games as Aaron Judge was chasing Roger Maris’ AL home run record. In August only two of the different balls were found, jumping to six in September, before dropping back off in October back to two. Judge broke the record on October 4.

MLB is vehemently rejecting this study, outwardly telling Insider that it’s wrong.

“The 2022 MLB season exclusively used a single ball utilizing the manufacturing process change announced prior to the 2021 season, and all baseballs were well within MLB’s specifications,” the statement read. “Multiple independent scientific experts have found no evidence of different ball designs. To the contrary, the data show the expected normal manufacturing variation of a handmade natural product.”

The issue is less that there’s variance, which is to be expected because of how baseball are made — and more that there appears to be a pattern in which a different baseball construction was used. If there were 35 Goldilocks balls distributed across 20 different ballparks it would be problematic, but not a big issue. The fact that this study has shown a notable preference for higher scoring baseballs in New York during Judge’s home run pursuit is a problem.

MLB is not admitting there’s a problem, but that’s par for the course. They didn’t admit there was a baseball variance in 2021 until 2022 and it could be months until they own up to the three balls in 2022, if at all. We are talking very small differences in weight here, but it does contribute to the erosion of trust in baseball. It would be better if MLB just owned up to the mistake now, instead of letting this drag out.

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