Juiced Baseballs Clouding the Joy in Elevated Home Run Rate

At this point, it’s accepted that there’s something up with the baseballs that are being used by Major League Baseball this season. We see home run totals on record paces, seemingly every pitcher’s HR/FB rate is up, and pitchers are basically telling us they’re throwing Slazengers and can’t get quite the feel they used to.

And for the first time, I question what I’m seeing and whether it “counts.”

This has been a problem, in a different sense, with football and hockey and instant replay. We watch what we think is a great play—a wide receiver making a seemingly great catch or a goal in hockey—and then instant replay tells us that either the ball was still rolling five seconds later or a skate was fractionally off the ice and therefore some dude was offside 30 seconds before the goal was actually scored. So every time something happens, we have to ask ourselves “does it count?”

Baseball doesn’t have that problem with replays, at least not to the extent of the two other sports. Some great defensive plays are nullified when it turns out the runner was actually safe, but that’s pretty black and white. The one weird one is when a runner pops off the base after sliding in safely, and that’s annoying.

This is the same problem that some people had during the PED Era or Steroid Era or Schwarzenegger Era or whatever you wanted to call it. We watched the homers pile up, and most of us didn’t know what was driving it, or we did and ignored it or simply didn’t care. And as we’ve gotten farther away from it, it feels like we care even less about that.

But for some, they definitely were wondering “is this real?” Batters artificially swollen into John Cena levels and some pitchers too, all through chemicals. But I don’t recall that I ever thought it wasn’t “real” or “didn’t count.” I’m fairly sure I knew what was going on, and I still felt it was something of an even playing field.

I say something of an even playing field because we know some pitchers also dabbled, and both batters and pitchers both decided they didn’t want to. It was open to them, even if it was “illegal” while Bud Selig either looked the other way or continued to have his head shoved somewhere it’s anatomically not supposed to go. My bet is the latter. Still, every player had their decision to make.

Now? I mean, Aaron Judge home runs are a ton of fun. And he’d probably be hitting a lot of them anyway. But 30? Before the break? A 41.7 percent HR/FB rate? How far away is that from farce? 15 guys have a HR/FB rate over 25 percent this year. Five did last year. Five did the year before. Clearly, something is up.

And it feels… artificial. Maybe the steroid era did to you too. I wouldn’t say you’re wrong if it did. Look, I don’t like John Lackey any more than any of you, but I don’t think every mistake he makes should be landing out where the white-walkers are. Is it that the hitters have really been clued in this season more than they ever have? Or is it because they’re getting to basically hit a golf ball? If any of this is a result that is out of the players’ control, then to me it doesn’t feel “real.” At least not totally so. I watch a Yankees game and see a Judge homer and my eyes kind of roll. And I shouldn’t single him out. That’s not fair. Cody Bellinger comes up for the Dodgers and has a 30.1 percent HR/FB rate. He’s hit one less homer in 70 major league games this year than he did in 117 minor league games last year. Are we to believe that the MLB game is easier for him than Triple-A? His HR/FB rate had DOUBLED since last year in the minors. Am I really supposed to believe that it’s because of a swing adjustment? I can’t get there.

And the other thing is there’s no recourse. I’m certainly not advocating that back in 2001 every pitcher should have been pumping themselves full of cheetah blood (yes I did just watch “Tour de Pharmacy,” why do you ask?) But we knew that there were pitchers who did and because we didn’t really know which ones it felt like the playing field was even.

Now? We have pitchers who can’t spin the ball quite as well to hitters who can get an extra boost from these things. It’s not like they can throw them harder. And were they to go old school and bring some sandpaper or nail files out there with them, they’d get suspended in a heartbeat and be a laughingstock. It doesn’t feel like the playing field is quite as even.

I shouldn’t be watching the amazing numbers that Judge, Bellinger, Springer, Goldschmidt, etc and thinking, “it’s the ball.” I should be marveling at their skills only. And yet I’m not. And maybe that’s not a problem to anyone but me, but I think it is.

You don’t want to watch sports and feel like everything isn’t on the up and up or wonder if it’s real or counts. It kind of sullies the theater of it, and I wonder how much longer it would go on before more people feel the same way. We know football had some ratings issues earlier in the season, for whatever reason, but some of it was this phenomena I’m sure. I’m not anywhere near not watching baseball, but I just watch it with a touch of side-eye right now.

Lead photo courtesy Aaron Doster—USA Today Sports

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