MLB Analysis: Will this be the season of few home runs? MLB deadens the ball

William Parlee

In the last few years, MLB has been doing a lot of fiddling with America’s summer pastime. Whether it be new rules, healthy protocols, and yes, the baseball itself. Some of these changes have been caused by the coronavirus, but some seem to be changed for no explainable reason. Of course, we can’t hang all of this on the MLB; the MLBPA (players union) has also had their say, often being confrontational with team’s owners.

Last year during the short season, there was not much talk about the baseball itself. Last season the New York Yankee’s Luke Voit won the home run championship hitting 22 long balls in just 60 games. During 2019 Pete Alonso of the New York Mets was the home run king with 53 homers. That was the year that all the talk was about the “juiced” ball. One of the reasons the discussion gained traction was that no one, including the hitters, was aware of the ball’s change but noticed the increase in home runs.

Now the MLB is changing the ball again, ever so slightly. But if history is any indication ever so slightly can make a significant change in the game. During the last two decades, Major League Baseball has fallen off in popularity quite a bit. Regardless of the team, fans like to see home runs and come to the park to see their favorite player slam that ball over the fence or high up in the bleachers. So why would MLB want to cut down on the number of home runs? Neither MLB nor MLBPA gives fans a voice in changes in baseball.

Multiple sources confirm the ball’s construction will change slightly, and five more teams are adding humidors for ball storage — all parts of MLB’s attempt to reduce the wild recent year-to-year swings in home run rates league-wide. I don’t know about you, but to deaden the ball from 2019 and 2020 to a ball that doesn’t carry as far in 2021 sure seems like a year-to-year swing. Why not just leave it alone?

The Athletic obtained an internal memo Major League Baseball sent Friday to general managers, assistant general managers, and equipment managers outlining minor changes that might combine to reduce offense slightly in the 2021 season. The combined effects might seem imperceptible to fans and perhaps even those on the field, but history suggests minimal changes to the ball’s construction can be a big deal.

“In an effort to center the ball with the specification range for COR and CCOR, Rawlings produced a number of baseballs from late 2019 through early 2020 that loosened the tension of the first wool winding,” the memo from the office of the commissioner reads, explaining that this change had two effects — reducing the weight of the ball by less than one-tenth of an ounce, and also a slight decrease in the bounciness of the ball as measured by the COR and CCOR.

I’m not going to get into the scientific composition of a baseball and how it can be changed and still look the same but responds differently. All you really have to know is that this year’s baseball will be less bouncy. Less bouncy means when a hitter hits a ball that should go over the wall, now it will challenge outfielders to catch that same ball three feet short of that wall.

The new balls’ weight will be reduced by less than 2.8 grams. That might seem like no big deal until you compare this situation to what happened in Korea when the Korean Baseball Organization deadened the ball there. On the field, Korean baseball was drastically different from one year to the next. The KBO actually increased the ball’s weight by one ounce in 2018 and its size by 1 millimeter. The result was dramatically fewer home runs.

Dr. Meredith Wills, who has published pieces about recent changes in the ball’s construction, had this to say:

“Unless a decrease in weight can be offset so as not to make the ball smaller, you might expect drag to go down here, leading to the odd situation of a ball that is deader coming off the bat but carries farther. Without greater precision than 1/10 of an ounce (about 2.8 grams, or almost three times the KBO change), any evidence of an aggregate size change could be difficult to detect without a Statcast-sized sample.”

“It’ll be like adding five feet of outfield walls to every wall in the big leagues,” the analyst said. But it’s hard to know the specifics without knowing what the drag difference will be. The memo mentions nothing about the drag, which has been a a major factor in differences in how the ball has performed in the last few years. Drag is more difficult to control than bounciness, one source said. Others felt the drag difference would be negligible.

Owners and players haven’t said much about the change to deaden the ball, but one general manager said:

“It sounds to me as it will result in more ball consistency and a very, very slight deadening of the ball,” said one general manager, referencing the memo’s language about placing the ball in the middle of the ‘specification range.’ When asked if it seemed baseball was deadening the ball on purpose, one general manager agreed: “That’s the desired result.”

One thing that is for sure is that all teams will be eager to get a hold of these new balls when spring training starts in just a few days. They will want to see how the ball responds to both pitchers and players and figure what adjustments will have to be made, if any.