Minneapolis — You can’t blame hitters for being at least a little frustrated by it.
Hitting a baseball is as hard a skill to master as any in sports. So when you do square one up, you’d like to be rewarded with maximum ball flight. And as any hitter will tell you, the balls aren’t flying like they used to — at least not in this first month of the season.
“It’s a huge difference,” the Tigers’ Robbie Grossman said.
But maybe it’s not the worst thing for the game itself.
An article in The Athletic broke down in scientific terms why that might be happening. The cold April weather in a large part of the country is part of it. More stadiums have installed humidors which are supposed to keep balls dry in warm temperatures, but seems to be negatively impacting baseballs in flight in the cold air.
But, the main culprit in restricting distance seems to be the baseball. It’s deader, plain and simple. And it was manufactured to be so. After the home run explosion of 2019, when a record 6,776 balls flew out of ballparks across the league, Major League Baseball decided the ball was too tightly wound.
The tighter balls are wound, the more the seams flatten out. With more loosely-wound balls, the seams are more raised. Raised seams cause drag on the flight of the ball.
That’s a simplistic explanation, but it is also the gist of it. Let Tigers’ reliever Jacob Barnes explain. He broke into the big leagues in 2016, so he’s dealt with every ball modification over the last six years.
“It got to the point where there were no seams on the baseball,” he said. “You were literally holding a cue ball and trying to control it was impossible. Now they finally gave back a little bit. Now there are seams on the ball, but it’s not that much of a difference.
“That little bit has affected the ball, but it’s got it closer to what it used to be.”
That seems to be MLB’s intent. Seeing how the increase in the three true outcomes (strikeout, walk, home run) was choking the life out of the game, commissioner Rob Manfred has pushed measures that would increase action and athleticism.
Keeping more baseballs in play is one way to do that.
“Compared to 2016 when I came up, the seams were bigger than they are now,” Barnes said. “It’s not like we’re going back to the dead ball. All they did now give back a little seam. At the end of the day, that’s all that pitchers wanted. Just give us some grip.”
Over the first 518 games, the 0.89% home run rate is the lowest since 2014. As The Athletic pointed out, balls hit off the barrel with the proper launch angle these first three weeks are traveling eight to 10 feet shorter on average.
“I just think the difference between three years ago and now is astronomical,” Grossman said. “But as long as we’re all going to play with the same ball, it’s something you have to adjust to.”
MLB sent a memo to teams in March saying there will be no manufactural changes to the baseball for the entire season.
“I don’t know if it’s the weather, could be the baseball, could be a variety of different things,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “I’m paying attention to it. But there’s nothing really we can do about it. It doesn’t help us or hurt us to win tonight’s game.
“It doesn’t feel like the ball is traveling that far, but that’s just from watching 12-15 games in a big park.”
The balls will start flying more when the weather warms up. It happens every year. The humidors, too, will be a boon to ball flight in warmer, more humid conditions, too.
But would it be so horrible if there is a regression to the mean with the home run rate? Would it be so bad to go back to the levels of the mid-2010s? If the more loosely-wound baseballs can help avoid what we saw in 2019 where jam shots and balls off the end of the bat were leaving the yard — all the better.
There’s another battle front with his version of the baseball. Although the league is adamant the balls are manufactured the same, in the same place with the same specs, pitchers are complaining there is no consistency.
“The MLB has a very big problem with the baseballs — they are bad,” Mets pitcher Chris Bassitt told reporters in St. Louis on Tuesday night. “Everyone knows it. Every pitcher in the league knows it. MLB doesn’t give a damn about it. They don’t care. We have told them our problems with them, they don’t care.
“There is no common ground with the balls. There is nothing the same, outing to outing.”
Five batters, three Mets, were hit by pitches. On a cold night, pitchers were struggling to find a grip. The same thing happened to the Tigers late in the game Tuesday night as temperatures dipped into the 30s. Relievers Michael Fulmer and especially Gregory Soto had difficulties gripping the ball.
“It’s 2022 and there is enough technology out there to figure out the baseballs,” said former Tiger and current Mets catcher James McCann. “We want to talk about juiced balls, dead balls, slick balls, sticky balls — I mean it’s 2022, we should have an answer.”
McCann is a proponent of letting pitchers use sticky stuff in the cold months to better control their pitches.
“It’s happened to us as hitters, but you can talk to our pitchers and they will tell you there is something with the balls,” McCann said. “The umpires are checking them and they can’t use stuff to grip the ball. As far as I’m concerned, put an on-deck circle behind the mound, give them a pine tar rag, the sunscreen and the rosin and let them use that stick.
“That stuff has proven it’s not going to improve somebody’s arsenal. It’s going to give them grip.”