Decades ago, “Saturday Night Live” featured an occasional comedy sketch with a fictional retired Major League Baseball player from the Dominican Republic, Chico Escuela (Garrett Morris), responding to almost every question in his limited English, saying, “Baseball ... been berra berra good ... to me.”
In 2018, it seems that the baseballs themselves have been very, very good to batters.
As the National Pastime next month has its 89th All-Star Game July 17, followed 10 days later by the National Baseball Hall of Fame weekend, fans and sportswriters, owners and players may be second-guessing batters’ home-run achievements – but also past condemnations of “inflated” home-run statistics.
Baseballs actually have been getting extra lift for at least a few years, and it’s not from the celebrated “launch angles” of sluggers’ swings, new research says.
Major League Baseball’s average of home runs per game (for both teams combined) climbed from 1.90 before the 2015 All-Star break to 2.17 in the second half, then increased to 2.31 in 2016 and a record 2.51 last year. So far this season, with about 40 percent of games played (many in chilly weather), the 30 MLB teams average 1.14 home runs per game, according to MLB stats, with the Yankees leading with 1.67 HR/G and Marlins just 0.75 HR/G. Therefore, a game between, say the Cubs (1.06 HR/G) and Cardinals (1.22 HR/G) results in a 2.28 pace, and that’s sure to increase with warmer temperatures.
The study’s 10-person committee included experts in math, mechanical engineering, physics and statistics, but they couldn’t definitively determine a cause.
“The aerodynamic properties of the ball have changed, allowing it to carry farther,” said committee chair Alan Nathan, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“We have to admit that we do not understand it,” he told the Associated Press. “We know the primary cause is the change in the drag, but we just simply cannot pinpoint what feature of the ball would lead to it. It was probably something very, very subtle in the manufacturing process. If it weren’t, we would have found it.”
In response, MLB said it’s taking five small steps to examine the integrity of the baseball – and the game:
• update production specifications with Rawlings and add specs for aerodynamic properties;
• develop aerodynamic tests;
• monitor temperature and humidors if necessary;
• create standards for using the traditional Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud from New Jersey, for umpires to enforce; and
• form a scientific advisory council.
MLB didn’t resort to an exhaustive study of home runs during the Decade of Doping, roughly 1993-2003. A few independent commentators have, notably data analyst Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, which “documented the home-run surge in detail last year, testing every hypothesis for its cause, including weather, performance-enhancing drugs, and the fly-ball revolution. Each theory was rejected, leaving a solid trail of statistics that only a change in the ball would seem to explain.”
Instead, owners, sportswriters and fans all assumed Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, et. al., using performance-enhancing drugs was the cause. But it’s now feasible that – even if the players were “juiced” – so were the baseballs.
Also, MLB’s league expansion diluted the pool of good pitchers, weakening what batters faced. Plus – as anyone watching pitches hit catchers’ mitts from a center-field camera perspective – MLB umpires flat ignore the book’s Rule 2.00: “The strike zone is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.”
After the 84-page report’s release, baseball analyst Joe Sheehan commented, “In 2000, there were no drug tests and 5,693 home runs. In 2017, there were 10,237 drug tests and 6,105 home runs. Maybe it was never the drugs after all.”
The way it used to be, as 1920s-’30s sportswriter and columnist Heywood Broun wrote, “‘Get up and hit a home run,’ has never been a part of the usable technique of any manager.”
Today, it’s different. The odds are better that a homer could happen. But as we enjoy home runs, may we forgive flawed assumptions from before and concede that owners like the increased attention, attendance and revenues homers help create.
Baseball(s) been very, very good.
Contact Bill at Bill.Knight@hotmail.com. For archives, visit mayflyproductions.blogspot.com.