Fundamental questions surrounding the integrity of the most core piece of equipment in Major League Baseball – the ball itself – enveloped the league’s key in-season jewel event as a quickly growing chorus of prominent figures believe an unnaturally lively ball is to blame for record-setting offensive figures.
MLB Players Association Executive Director Tony Clark said hours before the July 9 All-Star Game in Cleveland, Ohio, that “I believe the ball suddenly changed, and I don’t know why.” Clark’s comments follow those of Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander, the starting hurler in the All-Star Game for the American League, who said the day before that he believes the balls, which he called “a joke,” are being intentionally juiced to generate more offense.
MLB Commission Rob Manfred denied such a claim, insisting the league has “done nothing and given no direction” regarding an alteration in the ball’s specifications. While declining to respond directly to Verlander’s comments, Manfred went on to say that “how you manipulate a human-dominated, handmade manufactured product in any consistent way is for a smarter being than I.”
The league is more than just a vendor client on the issue. Rawlings, the venerable St. Louis, Missouri-based sporting goods brand that manufactures the official league balls, last year was acquired in a $395 million deal by a private investment firm co-founded and led by San Diego Padres general partner Peter Seidler, with the league involved as a 25 percent equity partner through its Baseball Endowment L.P. Fund.
Chris Marinak, MLB executive vice president of strategy, technology and innovation, said a key goal from the transaction was for MLB “from both a risk management and a forward-looking research perspective to have a more active, vertically integrated role in the company.”
A research study commissioned and released by the league last year found that a decrease in the ball’s drag properties, perhaps from a more centered pill in the middle of the ball, was likely a key factor in the sport’s offensive explosion in recent years. Several independent studies have similarly pointed to a more aerodynamic ball now in use by the league.
Since MLB’s report was issued, baseball’s offensive onslaught has only accelerated. MLB overall is on pace to hit 6,668 home runs this year, a total that would surpass the prior league record of 6,105 set just two years ago by 9 percent, and beat last year’s 5,558 by a whopping 19 percent.
Clark said the union is continuing to press for answers to more substantively explain the sudden changes, and why the ball now has less drag. Manfred said that scientific investigation is ongoing, and he promised transparency from the league on the issue.
“Not only do we need to figure out why, but we need to figure out a process that lets us manage in advance how a ball is going to perform. We’re working on that,” Manfred said. “Pitchers have raised issues about particularly the tackiness and the seams on the baseball. We do believe those could be issues that are related to the ball.”