CLEVELAND — Lord help us with all of this talk about the baseballs.
Come to think of it, no need exists to call on that high a power. Rob Manfred can take care of this on his own.
He must take care of this, to be more precise.
The Major League Baseball commissioner proved gracious enough to receive 37 questions (not including follow-ups) when meeting with the Baseball Writers Association of America on Tuesday afternoon at a hotel near Progressive Field. Ten of those questions concerned the ongoing controversy with the baseballs, which are leaving the yard at record rates and have pitchers generally angrier than Dick Cheney at an ACLU convention.
“We need to figure out a process that lets us manage in advance how a ball is going to perform,” Manfred said. “We’re working on it. We’re trying to get there as fast as we possibly can.”
It needs to be by next season. I’d like to think I speak for 99 percent of us, excluding the hard-core science lovers: If I have to keep invoking terminology like “drag,” “pill” and “tackiness” while covering baseball, I might turn to a more compelling topic like stick-figure art.
The All-Star Game convenes all the game’s bigwigs and organically assesses the state of the game, and veteran pitcher Justin Verlander, who started Tuesday night’s Midsummer Classic for the American League, dove in headfirst Monday with some comments to ESPN.
“It’s a [expletive] joke,” Verlander told the network. He added: “They’ve been using juiced balls in the Home Run Derby forever. They know how to do it. It’s not [a] coincidence. I find it really hard to believe that Major League Baseball owns Rawlings and just coincidentally the balls become juiced.”
(After starting for the AL on Tuesday night, Verlander said he met with members of the commissioner’s office on Monday. Asked whether he still believed his accusations, the right-hander smiled and said, “Good question. I have to dig further.”)
Added Players Association executive director Tony Clark to the BBWAA on Tuesday: “I believe that the ball suddenly changed, and I don’t know why.”
Manfred reiterated his assertion that his office — which along with Seidler Equity Partners, a private equity fund with ties to the Padres, purchased Rawlings last year — did not proactively or intentionally change the baseballs, which, having produced 3,691 homers, are on pace (6,658) to pulverize the 2017 record of 6,105.
“Baseball has done nothing, given no direction, for an alteration in the baseballs,” Manfred said. “… The flaw in that logic is that baseball somehow wants more home runs. If you sat in an owners’ meeting and listened to talk about the way our game is being played, that is not the sentiment among owners for whom I work. There is no desire on the part of ownership to increase the number of home runs in the game. To the contrary, they’re concerned about how many we have.”
OK, so what should be done to eradicate this headache? Even without the benefit of a deep dive — on this topic, you could travel so far down the rabbit hole that you might never make it back — three obvious, somewhat intertwined solutions exist:
1. Tighten the specifications.
A baseball’s coefficient of restitution, which for simplicity’s sake is essentially its bounciness, must range between .514 and .578. A 2000 study by the Baseball Research Center asserted, “Two baseballs could meet MLB specifications for construction but one ball could be theoretically hit 49.1 feet further.” Why not cut that range in half?
“[It’s a] topic under discussion,” Manfred said. “I can’t go any further.”
As long as the balls don’t go any further next year, the commissioner can be as secretive as he’d like right now.
2. Know your balls better.
“As far as going forward, [the goal is] to develop an ability through universities, academic scientists to measure in advance how the ball’s going to perform,” Manfred said. “To check it before it goes out there so that we don’t have to wait until May and say, ‘Gee home runs are up. What’s going on?’ Just get a better feel and more consistency on how it’s going to perform. That’s a tough undertaking.”
How tough? Baseball has acquired a laser to test seam height, to name one example, and factors like humidity and wind obviously evolve from late March through late October.
Yet in light of the increased tension between the owners and players regarding the shunning of older free agents, why not gather a gaggle of those unsigned geezers and/or recent retirees and pay them to scrimmage with the latest batch of baseballs before spring training starts, thereby keeping them in shape, throwing a few bucks their way and also compiling feedback about the balls?
And with so many teams turning to younger managers, how about tabbing some unemployed sages — Buck Showalter would be perfect — to be more intimately involved in the entire process?
3. Go the fake route.
The balls’ variability problem stems from the fact each ball is “a natural product,” Manfred said. “Handmade.”
Each cow (providing its hide) and sheep (its wool) can be slightly different. One subtly changed motion by the sewer will produce a different ball. The task is so complicated that robots can’t do it.
This could be fixed in a moment’s notice by turning to synthetic ingredients, which would in turn create a streamlined and universal manufacturing procedure.
Sure, it would take away the romance of referring to it as “the old cowhide,” and perhaps it would produce its own unintended consequences.
Yet it would be worth seriously considering, no? Anything to end the current nonsense.
The retiring CC Sabathia, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the All-Star Game, said Monday the balls “seem a little different than they used to be.” He sounded nowhere as upset as Verlander, opining that the dramatic increase in homers is “good for the game, though.”
“I’m on my way out,” Sabathia concluded, laughing, “so it doesn’t matter.”
The rest of us aren’t so lucky. The commissioner is on the clock. The goal for a year from now? Thirty-seven questions, none about the baseballs.
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