Major League Baseball did the right thing when it took juice out of the players. It must now do the right thing by putting juice into the ball.
Yeah, I know. The idea of a juiced ball is one that puts baseball fans on high alert. But it's the best way for MLB to revive something that's dying a slow death: offense.
Let's go back to 2006. That was the year MLB's performance-enhancing drug policy got a much tougher upgrade, and offense in baseball has progressed like so since then:
Down, down, down and down some more. And if the especially steep drop of 2014 is any indication, it may not be long before MLB approaches 1968 levels (3.42 runs per game) of offensive ineptitude.
Granted, baseball is still enjoyable. Where we once marveled at outrageous hitting feats, we now marvel at outrageous pitching and defensive feats. And with MLB's revenues going nowhere but up, it's apparent that fans aren't abandoning baseball en masse.
That's one reason why I didn't want to commit to the idea of MLB juicing the ball when I tackled the subject last year in response to a juiced-ball scandal that arose in Japan. Essentially: If it ain't broke, why fix it?
But a lot can change in a year. You can see how much the numbers fell in 2014, and the main reasons for that make for a compelling argument in favor of juicing the ball.
How Umpires Are Killing Offense
Taking bats out of hitters' hands isn't in the job description for umpires. They're there to do things like call out or safe and ball or strike.
That last task, however, is where umpires are increasingly going against hitters.
Jon Roegele recently published a must-read article about the expansion of the called strike zone at Hardball Times. Where the called strike zone was 436 square inches when the PITCHf/x era began in 2008, it's now 475 square inches. It's gone from being small to HUGE in less than a decade.
Obviously, this equals more strikes. More strikes means fewer hitters' counts, and the league's 2014 splits reveal that to basically be a death sentence:
- Batter ahead: .935 OPS
- Even count: .680 OPS
- Pitcher ahead: .508 OPS
Now, you'd think that the easy solution would be for MLB to tell umpires to knock it off. But as data from BaseballSavant.com can show, the called strike zone is expanding not because umpires are getting worse but because they're getting better:
As the percentage of pitches outside the zone being called strikes has gotten smaller, the percentage of pitches inside the zone being called strikes has gotten bigger. This, friends, is how it should be.
OK, so, MLB can shrink the plate, right?
Sure it can. But that wouldn't solve this particular problem.
As Roegele found, the called strike zone isn't getting bigger because umpires are calling more wide strikes. It's getting bigger because umpires are calling more strikes at the knees. Since the knees are a handy reference point, raising the bottom of the zone would be...well, messy.
So this is an "it is what it is" situation. It favors pitchers more than hitters, but there's no practical fix.
Which stinks if you're a hitter because you're well aware that today's pitchers don't need help.
How Pitchers Are Killing Offense
Two things you'd expect with a bigger called strike zone are fewer walks and more strikeouts. Sure enough, pitchers are indeed enjoying the best of both worlds.
As FanGraphs can show, pitchers have set new records for strikeout rates every year since 2008. Meanwhile, their rate of 2.89 walks for every nine innings in 2014 is the best mark since 1966.
But of course, modern pitchers aren't awesome just because they have umpires on their side.
We know they're throwing harder. The league's average fastball velocity just hit a high of 91.8 miles per hour in 2014. With velocity like that, hitters have never been at higher risk of being blown away.
Adding to their misery, though, is that they're also facing more movement.
The league's overall fastball percentage has fallen from 64.4 in 2002 to 57.7 in 2014. Also, the raw PITCHf/x data suggests pitchers aren't throwing as many straight fastballs. That helps explain not only the rise in strikeouts but why the league's ground-ball rate has been increasing.
Then there's the information advantage pitchers have. Scouting reports on all players have become more detailed, but pitchers benefit from this advancement more easily than hitters.
As Texas Rangers hitting coach Dave Magadan told ESPN's Jayson Stark in 2012:
If you're a pitcher, you see an immediate result. You know a guy's got a hole. So you hit that spot, you expose the hole, and you get an out. But if you're a hitter...it takes hours and hours of working on it, and hitting off the tee, and doing soft-toss, and gradually working your way to where either you lay off the pitch or you find out how to hit it.
In short, pitchers have it all. The game has always been skewed in their favor, but it's now skewed ridiculously in their favor.
Those who know history will know about the solution MLB came up with the last time the dominance of pitchers got out of control. That was in 1968, and baseball's answer was to lower the mound.
But yeah, good luck selling today's players on that idea. A lower mound means more effort required to throw the ball. At a time when Tommy John surgeries are already being performed seemingly every day, MLB doesn't want to ask them to put more effort into pitching.
This puts modern pitchers in the same category as modern umpires: a little too good, but there's not much that can be done about it.
Here's one more for that category: defenses.
How Defenses Are Killing Offense
Up until the Kansas City Royals boggled minds with their play in October, the big defense-related storyline of 2014 was the rise of the defensive shift. Once restricted for only the elites, shifts suddenly became for everyone.
I haven't been able to find the final number of defensive shifts used in 2014. But it was about midway through the season that Doug Mittler of ESPN The Magazine projected there would be over 14,000 shifts by year's end. For perspective, there were well fewer than 10,000 in 2013.
And as Steve Moyer wrote in the The Wall Street Journal in September, the shifts worked:
Shifts have saved a net of 390 hits this season through [Sep. 8]. If we were to add those 390 hits back into the grand total, the overall MLB batting average would rise to .254 from .252—a significant increase considering we're talking about 146,785 at-bats.
This is yet another product of baseball's data-rich environment. Teams have batted-ball heat maps available for everyone, and it makes total sense to use them. If you know where a guy is most likely to hit the ball, why not put your defense in the way?
And since shifting works, the only way it's going away is if MLB outlaws it. That's an idea Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated famously rallied for, and even I have to admit that it's an intriguing one.
But practical? Maybe not.
You'd have to come up with specific zones for fielders to be in before every pitch, and that could get messy. Umpires having to police fielders on a pitch-by-pitch basis could slow the game down significantly. Also, where do you draw the line between a shift and a fielder slightly adjusting his position?
So between how umpires, pitchers and defenses have changed, you're looking at three barriers in the way of the league enjoying an offensive revival. What's more, each barrier is trending toward getting more formidable. It would be nice if there were direct solutions for each, but there's not.
So let's talk about what juicing the ball could do.
On Juicing the Ball
For starters, I suppose the big question is this: How do we know the ball isn't already juiced?
We don't, but we have some strong indications that it's not.
Noted baseball physics expert Alan M. Nathan was part of a 2011 study that looked into whether contemporary baseballs were more lively than baseballs from the late 1970s. That study failed to find "any significant difference" between the two groups of baseballs.
We can also return to BaseballSavant.com for a glimpse at how infrequent long drives—I set the bar at 375 feet—have become:
The drop in 375-foot fly balls and line drives is eye-popping, and it definitely catches the eye that the percentage of 375-foot drives has been cut in half since 2008.
Part of this can be chalked up to how it's become harder to square pitchers up. Maybe the players themselves have gotten smaller. But the other thing that appears to be going on is indeed something that's not going on: The ball isn't more lively.
How hard would it be for baseball to juice the ball? Hypothetically, maybe not that hard at all.
Jay Jaffe, who writes for Sports Illustrated, wrote a chapter in Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers from the Team at Baseball Prospectus that addressed the possibility that baseball's steroid era was actually a juiced-ball era. An excerpt at Deadspin in 2012 includes some useful information.
One such fact is how MLB has pretty loose standards for how lively balls can be. MLB balls must have a coefficient of restitution ("bounciness" to you and me) between .514 and .578.
That may not seem like a large margin for error, but Jaffe referenced a 2000 study that found the following:
According to the study, 'two baseballs could meet MLB specifications for construction but one ball could be theoretically hit 49.1 feet further,' which breaks down to 8.4 feet attributable to being on the light side of the tolerance for weight (5.0 ounces, as opposed to 5.25 ounces) and another 40.4 feet attributable to being on the high end for the coefficient of restitution (.578).
So that seemingly small margin for error? It's actually pretty big.
As Nathan put it to Jaffe: "The specs on major league baseballs, they almost don't deserve to be called specs, they're so loose that the range of performance from the top end to the bottom end is so different."
Which leads us to ponder:
- Maybe MLB could tighten up the requirements for the coefficient of restitution of its balls.
- Hypothetically, that change could be skewed toward the more lively end of the spectrum, thereby increasing the flow of lively baseballs onto the diamond.
If this were to happen, we'd very likely see baseball's percentage of long fly balls rebound back and, thus, more dingers and extra-base hits. Presumably, we'd also see more good, old-fashioned hard-hit balls beating shifts. The result, naturally, would be more offense.
Worried about things getting way out of control like they were in the 1990s and early 2000s? Don't be.
For one, juiced baseballs wouldn't be combining with juiced players. We can assume that the league isn't 100 percent clean, but it's not as overwhelmingly dirty as it once was. If it was, offense would be alive and well, and players wouldn't be agreeing to even harsher PED penalties.
For two, juicing the balls isn't going to stop umpires from calling strikes, slow down pitchers' radar gun readings, convince pitchers to throw more fastballs or disallow both pitchers and defenses from benefiting from advanced scouting reports.
So while juicing the ball would help revive offense, there would still be checks and balances in place to keep it under control. The result would thus be a fairly balanced game: One that allows for dominant pitchers and stifling defense but also for dangerous hitters.
If I have a major concern, it's that a more lively ball wouldn't help the problem of pitchers being at risk of serious injuries inflicted by comebackers. But with protective headgear becoming available for the first time in 2014 and the research for more advanced solutions ongoing, a needed innovation might follow closely on the heels of a drastic measure. A fair trade, that.
It will still be possible to enjoy baseball even if it continues to become an increasingly low-scoring game. But juicing the ball is the best way for MLB to welcome offense back into the mix and create a game that, rather than a whole lot of run prevention, features a little bit of everything.
And that, to me, sounds like a good time.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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