Who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory? I know I do, though the constant bombardment of them makes it difficult to discern which have merit and which are just cockamamie drivel. For the record, a vast majority are the latter. But when it comes to MLB and what they’re doing with the baseballs they use, we’ve already established a great deal of legitimacy.
Even Commissioner Rob Manfred had to admit that something was different with the balls, though it was only after multiple independent tests had concluded as much beyond a shadow of a doubt. And even then, he’d only cop to the “pill” at the ball’s core being more centered. Then there’s the fact that MLB actually owns Rawlings, the manufacturer of all their baseballs, which kinda makes a direct correlation difficult to deny.
That the balls are meaningfully different is indisputable at this point even without knowledge of lab tests, what with home run records falling all over and pop flies leaving the yard on the regular. Or at least that was happening, since something appears to have changed with the advent of the postseason. Unless you’re hitting against Playoff Clayton Kershaw, there just doesn’t seem to be quite as much carry of late.
Now, we could chalk that up to better pitchers, cooler temperatures, and any number of other factors, but Rob Arthur of Baseball Prospectus laid out a different reason ($) for why “the rocket ball has disappeared in October.” As you can see from the chart below, pulled from Arthur’s tweet promoting the article, the average drag coefficient of the baseball has shot up precipitously since the end of the regular season.
“Air resistance in the playoffs has shot up to the highest level since 2016, causing fewer homers,” Arthur wrote. “Multiple lines of evidence suggest that the postseason baseball is totally different than the one used in the regular season.”
You may be wondering how that’s evidence that the juice has been squeezed from the ball, which is fair. Beyond having a tighter, denser, more centered core, pitchers have been complaining for the last two or three years about a difference in the seams. Lower seams mean less drag on the ball, which means less movement on breaking pitches and more carry on hits.
While that could just be a product of the new run of playoff balls being different from the regular-season versions for no reason other than a manufacturing flaw, do you really think MLB would allow that? If there was a conscious effort to produce balls that led to more homers, you have to think the same intent would have been involved in a change back to more traditional balls. And that’s where the conspiracy comes in.
There were rumors circulating at the start of the playoffs that MLB was going back to older baseballs, with one from Twitter user @incarceratedbob citing length of games as the reason. I’ll forgive you for being very dubious of information from someone named “Incarcerated Bob,” but the pieces all fit together really nicely when you dig into it.
Source: Rumors are circulating that MLB Baseball is going back to older baseballs for playoffs (non juiced ⚾️) Seems like MLB is worried about length of games.
— IB 🔌 (@incarceratedbob) October 1, 2019
I’ll spare you my thoughts on social media credibility in general, but Bob has a lot of followers and is clearly very knowledgeable when it comes to gambling. That leads us to believe he/they most certainly have friends and other connections in and around said industry. Speaking from experience, you get to know people and you start hearing things as your credibility and publicity grow in a given market.
Now, that might all be completely superfluous were it not for the fact that MLB established a direct relationship with MGM Resorts International last November. Under the terms of that deal, managers are required to submit their daily lineups to the commissioner’s office at least 15 minutes prior releasing them to the media or the public. The league says this is a matter of integrity, but it’s pretty obvious that it’s about getting the information to Vegas in time for sportsbooks to set gambling lines early.
Per MLB's gambling deal, managers have been told their daily lineups must 1st go to Commissioner's Office, not to PR, not to media. "I'm really bothered by this," one manager says. It's OK to not field he best team, for service time reasons, but lineups 1st must go to Vegas.
— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) March 6, 2019
So have you picked up on what I’m putting down yet? If MLB requires that lineups be submitted to Vegas first for the purpose of setting lines, it only makes sense that the league would want to let their partners know about a fundamental change to the baseballs being used in games. And when you think about how that would enable Vegas to make big money, things really start to come together.
Early knowledge that the juiced balls were out of play would allow bookmakers to set more accurate lines ahead of any public knowledge or speculation. So bettors, still believing the juiced balls were going to lead to more homers and higher scoring, might aggressively bet the overs and Vegas ends up winning. MLB presumably wins as well, whether that’s from additional revenue, shorter games, or both.
I want to walk that last part back just a bit, since I don’t want to suggest that MLB made any changes in order to profit directly or even to help their partners profit. While that very well could be the case, I’m not trying to conclude that here. Rather, it’s a matter of changing back to older balls and then alerting Vegas of the change in order to keep them in the loop. Even if you don’t subscribe to any of the conspiratorial aspects of the matter, the empirical data appears to support the conclusions.
I’m not sure Dodgers fans will be happy to hear about all this, but they only started reading after the third paragraph and left prior to the end, so it may not impact them. As for the rest of you, any thoughts on the legitimacy of the claims that the balls are different in the playoffs? Think MLB did it with pace of play or betting lines in mind? Let’s discuss below.
Update: Per Maury Brown of Forbes, MLB has issued a statement to address the idea that different balls are being used.
BREAKING: MLB issues statement on baseballs used in postseason. “Balls that are used in the Postseason are pulled from the same batches as balls used in the regular season…. only difference is the stamp placed on the ball.” Additional comments: pic.twitter.com/SX9NqfykiY
— Maury Brown (@BizballMaury) October 10, 2019
“The baseballs used by Major League Baseball are manufactured in batches,” the statement reads. “Balls that are used in the Postseason are pulled from the same batches as balls used in the regular season. Regular season and Postseason balls are manufactured with the same materials and under the same processes.
“The only difference is the Postseason stamp that is placed on the ball. As has previously been acknowledged, however, the drag of the baseball can vary over different time periods.”
If the drag can randomly vary over different time periods, how come the results are so wildly different in the playoffs? Maybe it’s a small sample, but the difference has been too immediate and too great to be purely a fluke. Then you’ve got the rumors.
What say you, Mr. Arthur?
here's another thing that doesn't make sense about MLB's statement. It's not like previous postseasons have seen big increases in drag. This is the first time anything like the above chart has unfolded in at least the last five years. So, what did they do different in 2019?
— Rob Arthur (@No_Little_Plans) October 10, 2019
MLB’s statement actually makes me believe even more strongly than before that they swapped the balls. I still don’t really understand why, maybe wanting to mitigate backlash over all the cheap homers and trying to shave a little time from nationally televised games. Either way, it’s shaping up as another in the long line of I’ll-conceived blunders the league has made under Manfred.