Ronald Acuña Jr. dropped his head, slammed his bat on the dirt and began his obligatory trot toward first base. But the ball the Atlanta Braves star thought was just a pop-up in September 2020 kept carrying, and carrying, and carrying.
And pretty soon, Washington Nationals center fielder Victor Robles found himself at the wall, leaping and coming up empty on the unexpected home run. Since 2015, homers have risen around MLB. Some of that can be chalked up to more players valuing power over average and launch angles becoming a way of life.
But there’s another explanation, too. Subtle changes to the ball in recent seasons have led to a home-run surge — from 4,186 hit in 2014 to 6,776 longballs in 2019, the most ever clubbed in a season.
The league is now walking that back, hoping to strike a balance to quell the year-to-year jumps in home run numbers. Acuña and other batters didn’t seem to mind when their balls flew out of the park on their own volition, but the changes to the baseball this season should offer a slight reprieve to pitchers.
“The ball’s been changing for me for the past five years, so who knows what the ball is going to be,” Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer said. “They say it’s gonna be deader. There’s been times it’s been livelier. Who knows? We all are going to have to deal with it.”
According to an internal memo The Athletic received earlier this month, the league plans to deaden the baseball by reducing the weight of the ball by less than one-tenth of an ounce and slightly decreasing the bounciness of the ball. How that will impact the game will remain to be seen, but initial testing showed that balls hit over 375 feet lost one or two feet of distance when the new ball was used.
That doesn’t sound like much, but ballparks will play larger. According to Tom Tango, the online alias used by the baseball sabermetric analyst, every additional foot increases a hit’s chances to be a home run by 3%.
“If there’s a ball that you hit well and you feel like should go and it doesn’t, then obviously that’s a little frustrating,” Nationals shortstop Trea Turner said. “But I’m sure that pitchers have the same thought process that they thought a ball shouldn’t have went on and it went out.”
The Korean Baseball Organization altered its ball in 2019, moving the coefficient of restitution — the relationship of incoming speed to outgoing speed — by 0.01 while also increasing the weight of the ball by less than one-twentieth of an ounce. Home runs decreased by 33% as a result.
MLB has decided to decrease the weight of the ball rather than increasing it, though, so there could be differences in how the two situations play out.
In a perfect world, a slight reduction in home runs will return baseball to a time when strikeouts and walks were less frequent. The average home runs per team hit per game in 2020 was 1.28, down from the record-high 1.39 per game in 2019. Those numbers are still both far above the 0.86 homers each team hit per game in 2014, before teams began to live and die by the longball.
“Strategically speaking, it will put more emphasis on speed, on hitting the ball the other way, especially with two strikes, on contact,” Angels manager Joe Maddon told the Los Angeles Times. “Strikeouts will be more disdained, like they were in the past. Pitchers might challenge hitters more because they want the ball in play, and they won’t walk as many guys.”
Even if there’s slightly less pop in the baseball than past years, though, Washington pitcher Stephen Strasburg emphasized that poor pitches won’t go unpunished.
“For me, it’s my job to go out there and compete, whether I’m throwing a Major League baseball, tennis ball, Wiffle ball, whatever,” Strasburg said. “I’ve still got to go out there and try to get the hitter out.”
Scherzer — who saw his home runs allowed per nine innings rise to a career-high 1.3 in 2020 — echoed his teammate.
“Mistakes are always going to get hit,” Scherzer said. “Whether it’s a homer or not, you’re still paying for it. You got to be on top of your game and worry about what you do with the baseball, how you’re delivering the baseball, vs. what the nature of the baseball is.”
Still, the slightly deadened ball should — if all goes according to plan — prevent the kind of home run explosion seen in 2019. MLB released a study after that 2019 season, maintaining that balls hadn’t been juiced. Instead, a slight difference in the baseball’s seams and a focus on launch angles caused the eruption.
However the new ball pans out, consistency going forward is key. Even if that means a few extra dingers for hitters.
“As long as the game is healthy and players are enjoying it and having fun, I’m not going to debate over a home run here or there,” Turner said. “But obviously, I want the ball to go as far as possible because that helps me jog a few more times a year.”
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