In the sixth inning of Wednesday’s game against the Boston Red Sox, Blue Jays DH Zack Collins saw a fastball over the plate and put a big swing on it. Off the bat, it looked good.
“I felt like that ball should’ve been gone,” he said.
Collins’ fly ball soared high and deep all the way to the warning track, where Red Sox right fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. nonchalantly flipped his glove up and made an easy catch, sucking the excitement out of the Rogers Centre crowd.
Zack Collins Flyball: 94mph, 33 degree launch.
Pulled Flyballs 92-94mph, 32-34 degree launch
2019-21: .380 average, 1.423 slug%, 45 HR, 357ft avg distance
2022: .000 average, .000 slug%, 0 HR, 343ft avg distance
How is this good for baseball? pic.twitter.com/tcVDKdHAUY
— Chris Black (@DownToBlack) April 28, 2022
That non-homerun, which left Collins’ bat with a 94 mile-per-hour exit velocity and 33-degree launch angle, would’ve been gone last season. As Sportsnet’s Chris Black pointed out, from 2019 to 2021, fly balls exactly like Collins’ (92-94 miles per hour with a 32-34-degree launch angle) accounted for 45 home runs and a 1.423 slugging percentage. In 2022, that same piece of contact has accounted for zero home runs and a 0.000 slug.
The Collins flyout example from Wednesday is just a small part of a much larger trend in MLB. Across the league, offence is way down. In 2021, hitters averaged a .411 slugging percentage and a .728 OPS. In 2022, slugging is down to .366, and OPS has toppled to an ugly .672. It’s hard to say for certain what’s causing this troubling phenomenon, though an altered baseball is high on the list of suspects.
For pitchers, however, a constantly changing baseball is nothing new.
“The balls have definitely changed over my career, from my debut to now,” Blue Jays starting pitcher Kevin Gausman said. “They've changed pretty drastically.”
A big-league pitcher since 2013, Gausman explained that the baseball he’s throwing in 2022 doesn’t feel the same as the one from years ago. The issue seems to be amplified this season, and Gausman agreed with comments from New York Mets pitcher Chris Bassitt, who recently sounded off about the lack of uniformity surrounding the quality of baseballs from inning-to-inning within any single game.
"I had some close calls tonight. I've been hit in the face, I don't ever want to do that to anybody ever. MLB has a very big problem with the baseballs. They're bad. Everyone knows it. They don't care. MLB doesn't give a damn about it."
- Chris Bassitt pic.twitter.com/KMc0bAhYPx
— SNY (@SNYtv) April 27, 2022
“Like Chris said, [baseballs] are definitely better earlier in the game, but I think that's because those are the first ones they rubbed up,” Gausman said. “By the 100th ball that they rub up, maybe they're not as locked in on what they're doing, or they just don't care as much. It needs to be consistent.”
Before every game, an MLB official in the umpire’s room “rubs up” more than a hundred baseballs with a special type of rubbing mud. This soil-like substance, which according to some sources was first applied to baseballs in the 1930s, helps remove the gloss off new balls and is the only foreign substance allowed on a ball before it’s put in play.
The problem is that baseballs are rubbed up by hand before every game, meaning there’s bound to be some discrepancies in how “dark” certain baseballs are. A ball with more mud on it often gives the pitcher an advantage.
“My split definitely moves more sometimes, and I think that's because the balls are inconsistent,” Gausman said. “Some games I can really make it move, and other days it's a challenge.”
MLB has already enhanced its protocols towards creating a more universal baseball. Starting this season, the league mandated a humidor — a climate-controlled chamber which stores baseballs at an average humidity — be used in all 30 ballparks. After the balls are taken out of the humidor and rubbed in the special mud, an MLB official takes a photo of them to ensure they’re fit for play.
Since drier baseballs fly further, the implementation of the humidor offers one explanation for MLB’s offensive downturn. Another thing Blue Jays pitchers have noticed is that the seams on the baseball this year feel a little higher than usual — higher seams traditionally allows pitchers to throw sharper off-speed pitches and subsequently makes it harder for hitters to square up the baseball.
If the pre-game treatment of the baseball or the make of the ball itself is going to change yet again, there are some potential solutions pitchers think could make things better.
“In Japan they have a little tack on the ball,” Gausman said. “You touch the ball, it's a little tacky.”
Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and the Korean Baseball Organization both use pre-tacked baseballs, and that style of ball was mentioned as a possible solution during MLB’s sticky stuff crackdown in 2021. For inconsistent rubbing of baseballs, the league has reportedly been working with a company called Ball Mudder since 2020 on an automated way to apply the mud to baseballs, per a USA Today report.
“Major League Baseball owns Rawlings,” Gausman said. “That's something people forget. So they can do whatever they want.”
Indeed, the league owns Rawlings (the company that manufactures the game balls), so it’s within MLB’s power to make changes to even out the consistency of its baseballs. For now, though, there’s nothing players can do. Even if offence is harder to come by and the baseball feels a little different, pitchers still need to pitch, and hitters still need to hit.
“It's just another obstacle you gotta climb,” Collins said. “But at the same time, you're not really worried about that. You’re just looking to make hard contact every time and whatever happens, happens.”
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