Inconsistent seams, player behaviour behind home run uptick

The Associated Press
Jake Seiner

SAN DIEGO–The baseballs weren’t juiced during a record-setting 2019 regular season, according to a study commissioned by Major League Baseball.
They were just flying farther.
A four-person committee of scientists found that baseballs this year had less drag on average than in previous seasons, contributing to a power surge that resulted in a record number of home runs.
Their report released yesterday blamed the spike on inconsistencies in the seam height of the baseballs, as well as “changes in player behaviour.” Batters connected 6,776 times in the regular season, smashing the record of 6,105 set in 2017.
The committee says it did not find evidence that MLB intentionally altered the baseballs and believes the inconsistencies were due to “manufacturing variability.” The balls are hand-sewn by workers at Rawlings’ factory in Costa Rica.
“We have never been asked to juice or de-juice a baseball,” said Rawlings President and CEO Michael Zlaket. “And we’ve never done anything of the sort. Never would.”
The 27-page report was authored by physics professor Alan Nathan, statistics professor Jim Albert, mechanical engineering and mathematics professor Peko Hosoi and mechanical engineering professor Lloyd Smith.
A series of recommendations were provided. The scientists say MLB should consider installing humidors at all 30 ballparks “to reduce the variability in storage conditions,” and install atmospheric tracking systems in each stadium.
They believe Rawlings should begin tracking dates that baseballs are manufactured and shipped, and they also have suggested a study with a larger sample size to explore the possibility that carry is influenced by the rubbing mud applied to bright, white baseballs before they are used in games.
Former pitcher and current MLB executive Chris Young said the league will accept those recommendations.
“We choose to use a piece of equipment in our game that is made of natural materials and is hand-stitched,” added MLB vice-president Morgan Sword. “That introduces a lot of variability.”
The committee also confirmed suspicions by players and coaches that the “juiced” ball was carrying less during the 2019 post-season.
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said during the NL Championship Series that St. Louis’ analytics team believed fly balls were travelling 4 1/2 feet less on average.
That backed a study published by data scientist Rob Arthur at Baseball Prospects showing the balls suddenly had less drag.
The scientists could not determine why the playoff balls weren’t flying as far.
MLB has said the post-season balls were pulled from the same batch as the regular season ones, and Nathan said there was no discernible difference in the seam height among the samples they studied.
The aerodynamics of the baseballs were found to be notably different even within each season.
The committee cited “significant ball-to-ball variation in the baseball drag that is large compared to the year-to-year change in the average drag.”
The committee concluded that 60 percent of the home run surge across 2018-19 could be attributed to an increase in carry, with 40 percent due to players attempting to hit more fly balls.
For the first time, Triple-A used Rawlings balls from the same Costa Rica factory this season, and hitters at that level also blew past the Triple-A home run record. Zlaket said that was because the balls from Costa Rica were closer to specifications because they were of a higher quality.
Not juiced balls, but spruced balls.
“The ball we make for Major League Baseball is much more precise,” Zlaket said.
The study was conducted using laboratory testing of baseballs dating to 2013, as well as data pulled from MLB’s Statcast tracking system.
The group said it “significantly modified” its lab tests from a previous study released in 2018, which also found that drag in the baseball was decreasing but did not confirm that seam height inconsistencies were the strongest factor.
Changes to the roundness of the ball, surface roughness and the thickness of the laces were found to be “relatively consistent.”