It’s time to seriously ask if today’s baseballs are “juiced.” These can’t be the same baseballs that was used during the 2014 season, could they? This may be one of the greatest World Series of all time, but pitchers on both the Astros and the Dodgers are complaining about how “slick” the balls are, making it harder to throw a slider. Moonshots have ensued.
Something’s up. There’s been a record setting 103 home runs this postseason, which includes 24 this World Series: also a new ceiling. Then again, what did you expect after a new single season league wide home run record?
But it’s been ramped up even further this Fall Classic. On average, there’s been a dinger once every 17 at-bats. To look at it another way, everybody on both teams combined has a better at-bat-to-home run ratio than Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson and Ernie Banks had in their 500+ home run careers.
It’s been damn fun to watch, at least. The sky-high ratings would agree. We love our dingers and sliders were getting in the way of it. Sliders don’t attract fans, unless they hang and get blasted into orbit.
If you would allow me a moment to put on my tinfoil hat, I wouldn’t be surprised if baseball has been looking for a way to nerf the snapper. I wrote a few months ago about how the Pirates’ bullpen should become slider happy because the league is doing so poorly against it. What better way to squash the problem before it gets out of hand than to make pitchers re-learn how to throw the pitch? If the best pitchers on earth can’t throw it, why would a 29 year old journeyman? These balls could dial the ridiculous home run rates of the regular season to 11.
So let’s assumed the ball is juiced and/or this slicker ball becomes the norm. Would the Pirates benefit? (Again, disclaimer: there’s nothing that indicates this ball will be the new norm, and Major League Baseball has denied that they are different. But it’s a long offseason starting tomorrow. What harm could a little fun do?)
The Pirates’ offense wasn’t exactly the ‘27 Yankees this year (though they ironically did come within seven dingers of matching that Bronx Bombers’ team home run total). They finished with the second fewest home runs in baseball with just 151. That’s five fewer than they had in the dong dark age of 2014. They were one of just eight teams that did not have a 30 home run hitter. To put that in perspective, the offensively inept Padres, Royals and White Sox had one. 30 home run hitters aren’t even that rare anymore. Forty-one players reached that plateau, including Rougned Odor. Odor finished the year with a .649 OPS and -1 WAR.
And this problem goes into the farm system, too. Statcast’s Daren Willman pointed out the two teams with the most home runs among all levels of the organization are in the World Series. The Pirates had the third fewest.
— Daren Willman (@darenw) October 31, 2017
There isn’t much of a cavalry coming. Indianapolis finished 10th in dingers in the 14 team International League. The Curve finished ninth in the 12 team Eastern League. The Indians’ top four home run hitters were Eric Wood, Danny Ortiz, Max Moroff and Jason Rogers. Moroff is in the majors and Wood is too raw for the bigs right now. Ortiz is at best a depth piece who will make cameos in the majors. Rogers is in Japan.
Assuming a “juiced” ball would help make sliders more hittable, at first glance, the Pirates could benefit. Going by Fangraphs’ weighted run model, the Pirates were the fourth-worst hitting team against snappers last year, combining to be worth -32 runs. Let the league solve their problem. Here’s how the normal starting eight did against the pitch last year:
Harrison mashed against sliders. Bell and Polanco held their own, and to a lesser extent, so did Marte and McCutchen. Mercer, Freese and Cervelli struggled and could use the most help.
The problem is Freese, Mercer and Cervelli are ground ball hitters. The league average groundball percentage for hitters is 44.2%. Fly balls are hit at a 35.5% clip, meaning there are 1.24 ground balls per fly ball across baseball. Freese put 57% of his batted balls on the ground: the ninth most in baseball among batters with at least 300 at-bats. Cervelli hit a grounder 52.3% of the time, finishing 23rd in the same parameters. Freese hits 2.52 ground balls per fly ball, while Cervelli hits 1.93. That’s a worse ratio than the team’s other notorious ground ball hitters, like Adam Frazier, Chris Stewart and (brace yourself for this one) Phil Gosselin.
And if you look at the Statcast radial charts for Cervelli and Mercer against sliders, there weren’t a lot of missed opportunities. Between the two of them, there was only one barrelled ball.
A ball that makes hitting sliders easier isn’t going to make as big of a difference for ground ball hitters than it would fly ball hitters. Sure, the players could adapt, the club could pick up a different hitter or give extra playing time to guys who put the ball in the air more often (Moroff and Luplow, for example), but the guys who already hit well against sliders will probably hit a little better, while those who struggle won’t get as big a boost. So yes, it would create some more offense, but it would for the rest of the league, too. The extra production might not match the rest of baseball’s. If anything, a loaded ball could potentially widen the gap between the Pirates and the best hitting teams.
But the physics of a slicker baseball may play to the Pirates’ pitchers advantage. Yes, it’s allegedly harder to throw a slider because it messes with a pitcher’s grip. It could also travel less in the air. Jeremiah Robert Dwight ran a series of experiments on how drag coefficients change on altered baseballs for his ASU thesis (cap tip to Rob Arthur’s recent article on 538 for bringing this to my attention). He found that decreasing the length of the stitches actually increases drag. Getting a hold of a certain pitch may be easier, but batted balls on other pitches may not go as far.
Granted, this was on a non-spinning, 3D-printed ball, but if it’s a matter of grip, this might not have as big an effect on the Pirates’ staff as the rest of baseball’s. Only four rotations threw fewer sliders than the Pirates last year (10.2%). They also threw more fastballs than anyone (65.1%), but their weighted pitch value for heaters was -14.8 runs. The 69 home runs Cole, Nova, Glasnow, Taillon, Kuhl and Williams home runs surrendered last year has a lot to do with that (38 coming from Cole and Nova alone). A little more drag on barreled balls in the pitcher friendly PNC Park would cut down on that home run total.
The bullpen, like the rotation, has an above average GB/FB ratio and is 24th in slider usage. It was the relievers’ collective most valuable pitch, but they were fastball heavy, too. Neal Huntington has been gun-chasing for awhile. This shift would play right into his hands.
Now there of course could be side effects to a new ball. If pitchers can’t throw sliders, they’ll just abandon the pitch. Is the slickness being overblown because it’s the World Series? Could pitchers adjust after an offseason and spring with the new ball? And again, this is all hypothetical. Baseball is catching flack over baseballs. The very safe money is they’ll go back to the totally-100%-cross my heart-not juiced-balls we had last year again in 2018. You know, the same baseballs we had in 2014.
But if the ball next year does hamper sliders, it could help the Pirates’ pitchers more than their hitters.