By In Stuff

Rabbit Hole: Centering the Pill

This is the first of posts I’m calling “The Rabbit Hole.” It’s pretty self-explanatory. When something catches my interest, I tend to go down the rabbit hole. I go way down it here as I look at the long history of debates about the liveliness of the baseball. 

*  *  *

On Thursday, one of those famed Blue Ribbon Panels — this panel really was the bluest of blues, led by the most excellent professor of physics Alan Nathan — released a detailed report that analyzed just why home runs have been flying out of ballparks at increasing rates since the mid-way point of the 2015 season.

This has been a fascinating mystery. The facts of the case are fairly simple. In 2015 season — Baseball Prospectus has pinpointed July 17, 2015, the first day back after the All-Star Game, as the launch of the home run soirée — the home run revolution suddenly and irreversibly began. Thirty-three homers were hit that day, more than two per game. Thirty-three more were hit the next day. Batters kept hitting homers more or less at that pace the entire second half.

In 2016, they hit even more.

In 2017, even more — hitters smashed the all-time home run record.

The game had fundamentally changed overnight. What made the puzzle even weirder was that it happened just one year after teams averaged just .86 homers per game, a 20-year low. Baseball was in a terrific offensive drought; from 2012-2014, teams averaged 4.16 runs per game, the lowest three-year average since the early 1970s. Now suddenly home runs were flying out left and right (and center)? What was happening?

Freelance studies were attempted. Reports were published. Theories abounded. Juiced baseballs! Free swingers! Launch angles! Exit velocities! PEDs!

Dr. Nathan’s group set out to find the real answer. They did … kind of. They made these four fascinating findings (there are more than four but let’s keep it simple:

  1. The baseball is not quote-unquote “juiced” in that it is not lighter or harder or bouncier than previous baseballs.
  2. The change in hitting approach has not led to demonstrable across-the-board differences in hitters’ launch angle and exit velocities.
  3. The baseball is going father. The aerodynamic reason: There is less drag on these baseballs. They simply have better carry in the air. This difference in drag coefficient alone is enough to satisfyingly explain the home run detonation.
  4. The group could not figure out why this is happening.

One mystery solved leads to another unexplained. Dr. Nathan’s group tested baseballs in as many ways as they could and simply could not target a reason why these carry so far. They did develop a number of theories; the most compelling one to me is that the pill in the baseball might be centered better. You see, if the pill is even the tiniest bit off-center — off by a distance so small you cannot even imagine it — the baseball will wobble ever-so slightly in the air, leading to more drag and less carry.

Why do I like this theory so much? Because, well, wouldn’t it be wonderful if baseball players are hitting more hundreds and hundreds more home runs because the pill is just a nanometer closer to the perfect center of the ball? It shows you the power of tiny, almost invisible things. And it shows you that maybe we’re becoming a more perfect world.

In any case, I decided look a little bit at some of the lively ball discussions of the past. I thought it would take a few minutes. It took a little bit longer than that.

Down the rabbit hole we go to look at a brief history, real and imagined, of the rabbit ball.

Elmer Flick

Best I can tell, the earliest prominent mention of a juiced or lively baseball comes from Deadball star and Hall of Famer Elmer Flick. He’s a rabbit hole himself; his father, Zachary Taylor Flick, was a farmer and Civil War veteran who was fascinated with flying; he apparently attempted to create some sort of flying device years before the Wright Brothers.

Elmer’s point that he was really proud of his high batting averages in the late 1890s and early 1900s because the baseball was a soggy mess. Pitchers cut the ball, spit on it, shined up one side of it. Foul balls were returned into action. By the end of games, as Flick wrote to the legendary sportswriter Red Smith, baseballs were shaped like eggs.

He remarked that later, hitting meant much less to him because by then “the manufacturers had substituted a torpedo for the baseball.”

The Ball Change

There has been one official ball change in baseball history … and that was in 1911. Like every other story we talking about here, it was more complicated than expected.

The idea was to increase offense, plain and simple. In 1910, teams averaged fewer than four runs per game for the seventh straight season, and baseball was stagnating. Attendance was down a million people, which was a huge deal at a time when league-wide attendance was in the six-to-seven million range. Hitters griped about all the things Elmer Flick loved: The baseball was like a wet sock. It went nowhere.

The new ball mixed a rubber and cork center, and hitters thrived. Runs skyrocketed. Ty Cobb hit .420 for Detroit. In Cleveland, Shoeless Joe Jackson hit .408. An outfielder named Frank Schulte hit 21 home runs, the most for anyone since the new century began.

And people across America loved it, absolutely loved it. In Baltimore, there was a poll asking if the Orioles, then in the International League, should switch to the new ball. The vote was an overwhelming “Yes!” A poem by someone called “Ros” made the papers:

What makes the fielders run so far?
The lively ball, the lively ball.
What makes the Boston Club run last?
The lively ball, the lively ball.
What makes the pitchers pant and blow?
What makes the base hit column grow?
What makes the swatter the whole show?
Why nothing but the lively ball.

So what was complicated about it? Baseball traditionalists absolutely HATED the new ball. With the new ball, players stopped bunting. Ty Cobb himself, the master of the drag bunt, said ball was too bouncy to bunt and, anyway, “what’s the use of bunting when I’m hitting the ball?”

Cy Young said that pitchers were going to get hurt because “the new ball, when hit back to the pitcher, goes so quickly that he cannot get his hands up to stop it.”

This from the influential Washington Star baseball writer J. Ed Grillo:

“Base ball has been materially changed by the lively ball which is being used this season. It is no longer a sport in which the pitcher holds the center of the stage. The hard-hitting game, which heretofore was a rarity, has become an everyday occurrence … The artistic end of the sport has been set back fifteen or more years, and from a sport which was scientific, base ball threatens to deteriorate to one in which brute strength will count more than anything else.”

Traditionalists like Grillo and Cincinnati president August Herrmann hated it so much that toward the end of the 1912 season, teams actually stopped using it and went to the pre-1911 baseballs. The league announced before the 1912 season that even though the new cork-and-rubber center balls would remain, the liveliness of the ball had been reduced. No one explained how they did this, but everyone seemed satisfied … for a few years, anyway.

Deadball to Liveball

One of the most misunderstood — and confusing — transitions in baseball history happened around 1920 or 1921, when Deadball ended. Between 1918 and 1921, scoring went up from 3.63 to 4.85 runs per games, home runs tripled, batting averages skyrocketed from .254 up to .291.

So what happened? The narrative tends to build around a handful of rule changes (outlaw the spitter; change baseballs more often after Ray Chapman was killed by a pitch) and, much more than that, a new baseball — a jackrabbit baseball, as it was called. The ball’s sudden effervescence was the talk of baseball in 1920 and 1921.

From the Sporting News, July 7, 1921:

Charley Hollocher is out of the game with a broken nose. Charley Deal has just recovered from the same sort of an injury, and Johnny Kelleher was hit in the eye early this spring and still bears the scar. This is what the lively ball has done for the Cub team … the lively ball that has made infielders duck and afraid to tackle mean grounders. I have seen them actually side step balls this season.

And this from a sportswriter named Joe Vila, also in 1921:

“Hitting a home run in the days of sane baseball rules was an unusual feat. Now it is a daily incident and a joke. Safe to say that a large majority of baseball fans would be gratified to learn that the magnates had decided to supplant old-fashioned slugging matches with exhibitions of clever pitching, brilliant fielding and scientific batting. Do away with the lively ball!”

There were a lot of stories like this … sportswriters simply wrote about the new jackrabbit baseball as if it was fact. But it isn’t as simple as all that. Baseball executives insisted that they did not change the baseball, had not changed it since the 1911-1912 switch. Ban Johnson was particularly insistent that his American League had done nothing at all to increase the liveliness of the ball.

So why was the ball soaring in ways it never had before? Well, Johnson had a couple of theories. One was that baseball owners had been able again to secure “good yarns,” which were unavailable during World War I. His thought was that the yarn could be wound tighter which would make the ball travel farther, an interesting theory that really doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. If the yarn was wound tighter, one physicist explained, there would be more of it and that would affect the weight of the ball, which would make it fly shorter.

The other Ban Johnson theory is a good one: He said that the rubber core surrounding the baseball’s cork (or pill) was not always even, meanining that the rubber was thicker in certain places than other. He believed then that when batters hit the ball right where the rubber was thickness it would, as one reporter wrote, “send the ball streaking away in sensational fashion.”

This too is absurd, but it’s fun.

In June of 1921, Chicago Cubs president William Veeck — father of the more famous baseball executive Bill Veeck — decided to get to the bottom of things. This is the first pseudo scientific test I can find. Veeck cut open 1920 and 1921 baseballs in the hopes of finding a substantial difference.

What he found, instead, was a mess. In one 1921 ball, the rubber surrounding the cork was indeed thicker, but in another it wasn’t. Anyway the corks were all different sizes and the yarn was wrapped inconsistently and, well, he just found the whole thing too confusing.

“It remains a mystery,” he told reporters.

Pitch and Duck

The craziest offensive season in baseball history was not any year in the 1990s or early 2000s. It was, instead, 1930. That year, the National League — the whole league — hit .303 and slugged .448, both records that likely will never be broken.

That year,  Bill Terry hit .401 and 10 other players hit .350 or better. Hack Wilson set the National League record with 56 home runs, a record that would last much longer than Babe Ruth’s 60 homers (Wilson’s record would not be broken for 68 years until the crazy 1998 season).

That was also the year Wilson set the RBI record at 191. Chuck Klein scored 158 runs (still the National League record) and Kiki Cuyler scored 155 runs (second-most in NL history), and Al Simmons scored 152 runs (tied for third in NL history) and so on.

Naturally, talk about the baseball began early in the season. The trouble with the 1930 talk was that people were already convinced that the ball used in the 1920s was the lively ball. So they didn’t even know what to call this new ball.

Former Giants pitcher Al Demaree called it “The new lively ball.”

“The new ‘lively ball,” he wrote, “which I understand is even more lively that the so-called ‘lively ball,’ make a pitcher feel like he is in front of a machine gun.”

In 1930, the lively ball thing seemed like an existential crisis. Connie Mack thought it could ruin the game. Legendary manager John McGraw was so incensed by it that he tried to get leagues together to “manufacture their own baseballs so that they could have constant supervision over the product. … The lively ball situation is a serious one, and I sincerely hope that something will be done about it.”

At least one guy wasn’t buying any of this. And that guy was Babe Ruth.

“I don’t deny that the ball is any livelier now than it was 10 or 15 years ago, it certainly is,” Ruth said. “But I don’t think it’s any more lively right now than it was last season or the season before or the season before that.

“It’s my humble opinion that the so-called ‘lively ball’ is just about the best alibi for a lot of inferior pitchers that was ever heard of. ”

American vs. National

For a couple of decades or so after the Deadball ended, there was a rousing debate about the different balls used in the American and National League. It was generally accepted that American League baseballs were livelier than National League balls.

The key reason seemed to be home runs — there was a perception that there were many more home runs hit in the AL. It wasn’t true. From 1920 to 1937, National Leaguers actually hit more homers than American Leaguers. But the biggest home run stars of the day were all American Leaguers — Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, etc. — so the perception was that the ball flew in the AL.

In 1938, Washington Senators president Clark Griffith decided to find out for sure. He tried two tests, both wonderful in their own way. First, he attempted a live experiment. In January of that year, he brought in an American League slugger (Jimmie Foxx) a National League slugger (Chuck Klein) and an International League slugger (King Kong Keller, who was 21 and was still a season away from joining the Yankees). Griffith had a Baltimore minor leaguer named Johnny Wittig (who would make 39 big league starts) pitch both American and National League baseballs to them.

Seriously, how much would you have loved to be at that test?

The results? Come on, you can’t get results from a test like that. The trio apparently did hit 18 home runs, and Griffith — who, it should be pointed out, was a former star pitcher and actually wanted a DEADER ball — came away believing that the National League ball was better because the stitches were slightly raised and, as such, easier for pitchers to spin.

He wanted something a bit more concrete to go on. Bring on the scientists! Griffith approached Dr. H.L. Dryden, chief of mechanics and sound at the U.S. Bureau of Standards, a totally real thing. When Dryden pointed out that there was no existing way to test baseballs. Griffith challenged him to invent one.

Dryden did. He invented a testing protocol where an air gun fired a wooden projectile (representing the bat) directly at the baseball. Dryden took this gadget out to Griffith Stadium in Washington and tested both American League and National League baseballs.

The gadget worked better than anyone could have hoped. The first ball was hit out of Griffith Park. Nobody — other than Josh Gibson — ever hit a ball out of Griffith Park. While the baseball people stood in awe of the longball, Dryden panicked. He only had a few baseballs.

“We’ve got to tame the machine down,” Dryden said, “or it will bankrupt us.”

He turned down the air pressure to keep baseballs in the ballpark.

The result? Negligible. Dryden thought it was POSSIBLE that the AL balls went a little further, but it was such a slight difference that he couldn’t prove it. He also said that the stitches and covers made little difference. For him, the ball’s carry came down to the core and the core was the same for both baseballs.

“The science of the home run,” Dryden said, “is hard to pin down. Give me the baseballs, and I can prove almost anything. The emphasis should be on the batter, not the ball.”

Ty Cobb and the 1950 Jump

In 1950, batters hit 369 more homers than they had in 1949, which was dramatic because 1949 had been the greatest home run season in baseball history.

This led everybody in 1950 to talk about a livelier ball — there were more stories in 1950 about juiced baseballs than there had been in 1930 or during Deadball. The papers were FILLED with rabbit ball stories. Pitchers insisted that the ball was coming off the bat like never before. Hitters insisted that everything was fine. It was right around 1950 that teams began  putting nets in front of pitchers during batting practice.

“It’s absolutely necessary,” Tigers manager Red Rolfe insisted, “for it would be dangerous for batting practice pitchers without one. … “You can’t tell me that the ball isn’t more resilient than it was as recently as a year ago.”

“Maybe I’ve lost my stuff,” Bob Feller said, “but the ball seems to be going father for fellows who never hit before.”

“I’ve got a new name for the game,” Yankees manager Casey Stengel said. “Let’s call it helium-ball instead of baseball.”

Joe DiMaggio spoke on behalf of the hitters “Could it be that they pitch the old dead ball to me and the lively one to everyone else?”

But, more than anyone, Cobb had some things to say. Cobb always had things to say about the livelier ball. He hated them when he was playing (he couldn’t bunt anymore). He hated them just after he finished playing. And now, while in his 60s, he was as sure as ever that this jackrabbit ball was ruining the game.

“Restoration of the old ball is the answer to high scores,” he said. “Get a dozen balls made before 1918 production. Pitch only fastballs and see what present top sluggers can do. … The lively ball has eliminated the value of one run, use of the squeeze play, sacrifice, hit and run and base stealing. It also has eliminated the importance of pitching effectiveness. Baseball is a game to be played in the confines of the fences. Today, the outfield is not a proper part of the defense.”

One interesting Cobb hypothesis: The livelier ball forced pitchers to throw with much more dramatic violence, which he insisted would lead to ever-increasing arm injuries.

“I think the palm ball, slider, screwball, sinker and other unorthodox pitches of today are a contributing factor to the great number of sore arms pitchers suffer today. Take your all-time pitching standouts and they practically all used nothing more than a fastball, curve and change of pace.”

Bring on the scientists! There were numerous experiments done on 1950 baseballs. The one that stood out: Ralph Nottingham of a Cleveland testing laboratory called Brush Development, dropped four baseballs — two from 1949 and two from 1950 — from a roof 120 feet high so that they would land on concrete. He measured the bounce, yes, but more he recorded the sounds and tried to pick up the ball’s vibrations. This was a unique way of looking at things.

The results were not unique: He found that the balls bounced roughly as high as the others, and his recordings picked up no measurable differences between the balls.

But he was convinced that something had changed in baseball.

“Let’s talk about the bats players use,” he said.

The Year After the Year of the Pitcher

In 1969, unlike years past, more or less everybody wanted a livelier baseball. This was because 1968 had been such a bummer. We look back on it now with nostalgia and a bit of wistfulness, that was the famous “Year of the Pitcher” when Bob Gibson had his 1.12 ERA and Denny McLain won 30 and Carl Yastrzemski was the only American Leaguer to hit .300. There were so many 1-0 games. Baseball purists love 1-0 games.

Back then: Only panic. Attendance was way down across baseball — more than two million from 1966.  Attendance per game was at just 14,217, roughly the same it was 10 years earlier and more than two thousand LESS than in it was 20 years earlier in 1948. The game’s executives thought baseball might be in real trouble.

There were numerous rule changes before the 1969 season intended to create more runs and excitement. The mound was lowered five inches. The strike zone was made considerably smaller, supposedly taking away the high strike (above the armpits) and the low strike (below the top of the knee).

And during spring training in 1969, yes, baseball experimented with a livelier baseball. Nobody liked it much. Read this quote from National League president Warren Giles and remember that it was said in 1969:

“We tried to pep up the hitting without changing the ball. We felt changing the ball would make home runs easier and then everybody would swing for home runs and that would have an adverse effect on hitting.”

Again that was 1969. Pretty prescient there Warren.

So baseball executives decided to go with the old baseballs.

“Take my word for it,” Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn announced as the season began, “the one we’re using today is the standard ball.”

And, because that’s how this story goes, absolutely nobody took his word for it.

“I know the ball is livelier than it was last year,” pitcher Sam McDowell said. “I can tell when I take batting practice because I’ve hit home runs one-handed.”

“I sure think it is livelier,” said Ted Williams, then managing Washington.

“I’m beginning to believe there’s a difference,” Frank Robinson said. “You just see too many balls go too far.”

So, well, you know what happened next. Bring on the scientists! Kuhn didn’t just want to test the balls to see if they were livelier. He wanted to create baseball’s first set of standards for the resiliency of baseballs. Up to that point, the only rules about the baseball were:

  1. The weight shall be between 5 and 5 1/4 ounces.
  2. The circumference shall be between 9 and 9 1/5 inches.

That was it. Kuhn announced that he would have baseball devise a set of “bounce standards.” This shocked many people across America because they were sure baseball ALREADY HAD a set of bounce standards, like other sports did.

“I’m really amazed baseball hasn’t done something like this long before this,” PGA Tour commissioner Joe Dey said.*

*Here’s a fun paragraph in the United Press International story:

“Golf has had bounce standards for years. So have basketball and tennis, among the big sports. Football is less dependent on bounce than the shape of a ball but insists, nevertheless, on a standard inflation pressure.”

I wonder if Michael Schur saw the last part of that and went into another Deflategate blackout rage.

From Spalding to Rawlings

If you look at the biggest single-season home runs jumps in baseball history, well, it isn’t the last couple of years. It isn’t 1987, which was famous. It isn’t 1930 or right after Deadball.

Here’s the list:

1977: Home runs up .29 per game.

1969: Home runs up .19 per game

1993: Home runs up .17 per game

1982: Home runs up .16 per game

1950, 1953, 1987, 2015, 2016: Home runs up .15 per game

Yep, it was 1977. Disco! Fonzie! Star Wars! Pele! A lot was happening in 1977 baseball. Two expansion teams — the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners — and home run explosions are often triggered by expansion. Reggie Jackson went to the Yankees. The Big Red Machine added Tom Seaver. But the baseball was at the center of it all. That was the year MLB officially changed from Spalding baseballs to Rawlings baseballs.

The funny thing is, Spalding and Rawlings were part of the same company. And it wasn’t like this was the first time Rawlings had made baseballs for MLB; they had done so as recently as 1973. The balls had simply been stamped as “Spalding,” because, as mentioned, same company.

From 1974-76, though, Spalding handled the baseball business. They had the balls wound in Chicopee, Mass., wrapped in Haiti … and players thought the baseballs were dead as Generalissimo Francisco Franco. They just loathed the Spalding baseball. “Like hitting a dead fish,” one batter said.

Home run totals showed they were right. In 1976, fewer home runs were hit per game than at any point since the end of World War II. That was the year Graig Nettles led the American League with 32 home runs (he was the only player in the AL to hit 30; three National League players hit 30).

The baseball was of such poor quality that a legend build around Dave Parker when he hit a line drive over the second baseman’s head that exploded into a mess of yarn, not unlike Roy Hobbs hit in “The Natural.” Jeff Burroughs was not impressed. He said that he knocked the cover off the ball four or five times.

“The ball we used was a disgrace to the game,” Burroughs said.

So baseball gave the baseball contract to Rawlings and gave them the mission to return the baseballs to 1973 quality. Before the season even began, people were saying the new balls were bouncier and traveled farther. Seattle coach Don Bryant cut up some baseballs and found “the center of the old ball was pure cork. The new one is a cork and rubber mixture. When I bounced them, the new one bounced twice as high.”

Was the ball really that different? Players and managers fought about it all year. Sparky Anderson said there was no comparison between the two balls while while Johnny Bench said they were the same. Tommy John said yes, teammate Ron Cey said no.

Numbers told a story: Home runs skyrocketed. Batters hit 1,400 more homers than they had in 1976 — the 3,644 total home runs was a record. But, there were two mitigating factors. One, yes, of course it was a record, there were two new teams added.

But more importantly  the .87 home runs per game, while a massive jump from 1976, were right in line with historical norms. Batters had hit more home runs per game as recently as 1970, and they had hit more homers per game throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.

“We did envision this kind of controversy,” Rawlings PR director Mike Kavanaugh said. “Because the other people (Spalding) were making a turtle ball. … We are not making a livelier ball. We are making a better ball.”

He then explained the science. Bring on the scientists!

“There’s this animcal called ‘coefficient of restitution,'” he said. “That means when you take the initial velocity and compare that to the rebound velocity, the rebound velocity has to be a certain percentage of the initial velocity.”

Kavanaugh might have used the word “velocity” a bit too much in that explanation, but the point was that Rawlings was watching closely the resiliency of the baseball. “Our ball meets big-league specifications,” he said. “But it is true that within those specifications you can doctor the balls, wind them tighter. We simply think our ball is fair.”

After the Strike

I was unaware of the 1982 home run surge, but it turned out to be fairly significant, the fourth-biggest single-season jump in baseball history. It came after the 1981 season that was split by the player’s strike.

Baseball announcer Tony Kubek was one of the leading voices in the rabbit baseball talk. Several players agreed.  The talk went far enlugh that NBC and New York University combined to … bring on the scientists!

The NYU test involved a metal ram striking a baseball on a tee. Physics professor Robert Brandt tested 12 baseballs and said the five of them had higher coefficients of restitution than the standard. He said this made it likely that baseballs were somewhat livelier in than a year earlier, but he was quick to say that his test was limited.

“As a scientist, I’d like to test 1,000 balls,” he said. “That would reduce the margin of error to one percent. The margin of error on 12 balls is about 30 percent. … At this point, I would say the balls look more lively, but I wouldn’t stake my scientific reputation on it.”

Stan Hochman at the Philadelphia Daily News found the whole thing ludicrous:

“Yo, NBC, if home runs were up dramatically, if little guys like Larry Bowa were breaking up the bleacher seats, if three dozen guys were hitting .300 in each league, it might make sense to carve up a couple of dozen baseballs to see if they’ve been wound too tight.”

“The Moon Could Be In the Wrong Place”

The first year I ever became aware of a serious juiced ball controversy was 1987. I was 20 and had just started working — part-time — at The Charlotte Observer when home runs started flying out of parks at record rates. The home run surge began right away, right from the start, and by early May everybody seemed convinced that something crazy was going on with the baseballs.

I remember that Stan Olson, who covered baseball and numerous other things for the paper, suggested that the paper start running a chart of players who were on pace to hit a certain number of home runs, I think it was 40 homers. They did that all season, though in the end only four players ended up actually hitting 40 (Mark McGwire and Andre Dawson each hit 49, coming within a homer of becoming the first in the 1980s to hit 50).

On May 15, there were TWELVE such players. And it wasn’t just the number of players, it was their names. Ozzie Virgil was going to hit 40 home runs? Brian Downing? Larry Sheets? Kids like Mike Pagliarulo, Matt Nokes, Wally Joyner, Cory Snyder were just mashing home runs. Wade Boggs hit more than he had the previous three years combined. Dale Sveum hit 25. It was madness.

“I think some of the balls, instead of having one rabbit have three or four rabbits,” said Bert Blyleven, who had set a record one year earlier by allowing 50 homers in a season.

“I do believe the ball is juiced up,” Pete Rose said. “I’ve seen more tape-measure home runs this year than ever before. I’ve seen more opposite field home runs.”

“I saw check swings go to the wall,” Jack Morris said.

“They’re going to have to raise the insurance rates on pitchers,” said a Kansas City scout named Tom Ferrick.

As usual, there was no shortage of theories about the cause of it all.

“There is one thing that explains the unusual power better than the lively ball theory,” Pete Pascarrelli wrote. “Lousy pitching.”

“It could be anything from the atmosphere, the deterioration of the ozone later to sloppy pitching,” pitcher Jerry Reuss said. “Or it could be hitters are just stronger.”

“The moon could be in the wrong place,” pitcher Bill Gullickson said.

Peanuts caught the national mood with comic on May 23:

Charlie Brown (1).jpg

Tests? Oh, you bet: There were a lot of tests. A great one was done by Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, who cut open a 1986 and 1987 baseball, pulled the cores and dropped them both from eye level. He said the 1987 core bounced at least 12 inches higher.

“It’s like a superball,” he said. “I’ve done it 100 times, and every time it’s the same thing.”

Then it was time to, well, you know, bring on the scientists! USA Today went to the Haller Testing Labs and dropped 116 baseballs from numerous years 26.8 feet on to a steel slab. The Haller lab had done the exact same test in various other years; the last test had been in the big home run year of 1977.

The results:

1963 baseball: 8.31 feet

1970 baseball: 8.26 feet

1973 baseball: 8.34 feet

1977 baseball: 8.46 feet

1987 baseball: 8.39 feet

Roger Haller, who did the test, said that it was proof that the 1987 baseballs bounced “just about as high as the balls tested in 1977, if anything they were a little deader.”

Of course, 1977 had been another year when people said the balls were juiced so it’s not entirely clear what any of this proved.

In any case, my favorite scientific home run experiment that year came from Philadelphia outfielder Greg Gross, who tested the ball’s resiliency by hitting his first home run in nine years.

“If there was any doubt about the lively ball,” he said, “I guess me hitting a home run dispels it.”

The Nineties

We all think we know the story of 1990s baseball by now. Even though two decades have passed, the names Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro and others inspire powerful feelings, vicious arguments, Hall of Fame drama and ultimately unsatisfying feelings of whatever’s the opposite of nostalgia.

The offensive spike is generally thought to begin in 1994, though it was actually 1993 that saw that biggest home run surge. There were 1,000 more home runs hit between from 1992 to 1993, a jump of .17 per game, third highest in baseball history.

But 1994, was when things blew up. Ray Lankford led off the season with a home run. A Chicago Cubs player named Tuffy Rhodes became the first to smash three homers on Opening Day. Later that same day, Carlos Delgado smacked a ball against the window of the Hard Rock Cafe in the Skydome.

In the first week of the season, 18 different players had multiple home run games — Cory Snyder, who was on his last legs as a ballplayer, had three in a game as did Tim Raines. When Gary Gaetti hit an opposite field pop-up that sailed over the fence, Detroit manager Sparky Anderson said, “If that’s a home run, I’ve got to stop working in baseball and go into something else.”

Cue Rawlings:

“The materials we use, the manufacturing process, the standards we use — it’s all exactly as it always has been,” said Scott Smith, the PR director.

“The ball hasn’t changed,” said former ballplayer Ted Sizemore, who worked for Rawlings.

And then, yep, bring on the scientists! “I’m hearing about the ball everywhere I go,” commissioner Bud Selig said. “When people say, ‘What about the ball?’ I want every bit of empirical data we can find as to how the baseball is produced. Is it different or not different?”

Jim Sherwood, a physics professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, was brought in to test 2,000 baseballs. He found the results inconclusive; the ball seemed to be the same. In 2000, after he opened the baseball research center, he again tested the balls. Again he found the ball to be essentially the same.

“We test and re-test,” Sherwood said. “That’s all we can do.”

Where the Story Ends

We end this Rabbit Hole with a story of a league that secretly that saw a huge decrease in offense and wanted a solution. They decided to tinker with the baseball. The league, as you no doubt guessed, is not MLB. It’s the Nippon Professional Baseball League in Japan.

In 2011, Japan switched baseballs to make it more like the baseballs used in the United States. The NPB asked Mizuno to create a ball with a similar pill to the Rawlings ball and with wider seams. They thought this would help Japan when playing in international competitions like the World Baseball Classic.

The new Mizuno ball was dead. It’s unclear why, but it was dead — nobody could hit the thing. Japanese baseball is mostly not about power; it’s much more of a speed and defense game, not unlike American baseball in the 1970s. But there has always been a special place in Japanese fans’ hearts for the home run hitters. The league hit 700 fewer home runs in 2011, the first years of the new ball. The next year, the total went down again. It was a disaster.

And so the NPB quietly asked Mizuno to, in the word of NPB commissioner Ryozo Kato, “adjust” the ball so that it had a bit more bounce. The key word was, “quietly.” They didn’t want the change to go public.

“We thought it would cause confusion if we let it be known,” NPB secretary Kunio Shimoda told the Bangkok Post.

The ploy worked … too well. Home runs jumped 40% overnight. This was a much bigger jump than the NPB wanted or expected.

“Our understanding was that it would be a matter of fine-tuning,” Shimoda said.

Instead, Japanese baseball was turned upside down and everyone KNEW that there was something different about the ball. For months, officials denied that there was anything different about the baseball. But it couldn’t last. There were tests. In the end, they came clean. People were angry; they felt duped. Players were angry — they had been paid based on the performance using the old ball.

Kato resigned at the end of the season.

“I caused a lot of problems,” he said, “over the ball.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

17 Responses to Rabbit Hole: Centering the Pill

  1. Cliff Blau says:

    “he apparently attempted to create some sort of flying

    it was something he griped about as early as 1907.”

    “On foul balls, fans with throw it ball. ”

    “Ty Cobb himself, the master of the drag bunt, said he ball was too bounced to bunt and, anyway, “what the use of bunting when I’m hitting the ball?””

    “Chuck Klein scored 158 runs (still the National League record) and Kiki Cuyler scored 155 runs (second-most in National League history), and Al Simmons scored 152 runs (tied for third in National League history)”

    Not up to your usual standard.

    • James says:

      Not to promote an unfriendly tone in what is generally a very jovial corner of the internet, but…. what the hell is wrong with you man? Your response to a lengthy, entertaining, informative post, presented for free by one of the best sportswriters in the business is to get nitpicky about editing? You do realize this is a solo act correct? Go find a paid site with compensated editors to impress the world with your proofreading prowess. This is not the place. I for one would rather Joe spend his time writing about whatever he wants to write about than ensuring his blog posts please the grammar nanny of the internet.

      • Pat says:

        Well, now I feel sheepish about making my comment about this bit:

        “a record that would last much longer than Babe Ruth’s 61 homers”

        Babe Ruth’s record was, actually, 60 homers.

        But this whole post is awesome, just terrific. My nit-picking is born of mere jealousy.

        • Picky Thon says:

          There should be a period following “Babe Ruth’s 61 homers,” you disgusting hateful monster.

      • Rob Smith says:

        I’m of the opinion that the grammar police should be ignored. They are despised by 95% of posters, so let their grammar posts stand on their own merits. The poster thinks it’s great, while everyone else thinks it’s idiotic. That’s as it should be. Also, trying to shame them into silence doesn’t work. They will always believe they are performing some sort of public service.

        • Dan says:

          FWIW – I came to this article just today, and the errors noted have been fixed. I assume that is because Joe read the comment, wants to put quality writing up here, and took the time to fix things. So… in fact, the “grammar cop” IS performing a public service, and one that Joe found valuable.

          If the author being corrected can take the comment in that vein, I see no reason why anyone else would need to object to it.

          That being said, the “Not up to your usual standard” line struck me as unnecessary.

  2. Frog says:

    Great stuff, love a good rabbit hole.

  3. Kuz says:

    Baseball, what a great game. Deflategate is child’s play compared to the centuries old debate concerning the quality of baseballs.

  4. Cuban X Senators says:

    My own rabbit hole around this took me to the Commando Ball of the Mexican League of 1984. While I remembered its occurrence, what I didn’t know was that it immediately followed a strike after the initial organization of a players union. The union itself was born out of an incident where the entire Puebla team was arrested after a dispute with an umpire in Veracruz.

    Sorry not to have more specifics . . . I’ll still need to rabbit hole on this again.

  5. JayJay says:

    It seems a little odd to me that none of the accounts of the comparisons of balls from different years even raise the possibility that a ball that’s been sitting around for a few years might lose some of its bounce just because of the effects of time. Isn’t it possible that a ball would become less tightly wound over time, or the material might deteriorate over time.

    Which would, of course, make the value of some of these tests questionable.

  6. Richard says:

    Hmm… What about stadium dimensions? If a home run is a ball that goes over the outfield wall in fair territory, it’s not just the ball that’s involved. We need a breakdown of home run rates in specific stadia over a period of time.

  7. What fun! Now let’s get crazy.

    Could it be that the home runs go farther (and thus there are more of them) because pitchers are throwing the ball faster? Try this argument: we no longer have complete games, meaning pitchers no longer need to feel the compulsion to save a little extra to get through the game (digression: for some reason, I’m reminded here of the wonderful story in Joe Buck’s book about how Curt Schilling asked his catcher to tell Bob Brenly to take him out of a game in the 2001 World Series, but when Brenly came to Schilling and told him he was done, Schilling screamed about wanting to stay in because he knew Fox had miked Brenly and he wanted to the world to think he wasn’t a quitter, and Brenly was stuck because he wasn’t going to out his pitcher; interesting contrast to when Johnny Podres would tell Walter Alston to take him out because he was losing it).

    Not only do we not have complete games, but we have pitchers who know they are going to pitch only one inning. They throw harder. Might that help with exit velocity and all of those things?

    Another possibility: go back to a great Lee Allen essay, “A Study in Suet,” which discusses how players have been getting taller and heavier. Now they’re even taller and heavier than more than half a century ago, when Allen wrote it, and they’re working out constantly as opposed to just getting in shape during spring training.

    Now to my insane suggestion that can’t be proved: the Lena Blackburne mud. For years, umpires have rubbed up baseballs before the game with mud bought from the same company, which gets the mud from the Delaware River. What if the mud is different? What if climate change is affecting the river, which affects the mud, which affects the baseballs?

    And what if it just happens that, right now, more home runs are being hit because that’s the way it is?

  8. Rob Smith says:

    If you really wanted to study why home runs increased from one year to another, you’d have to include a lot more variables than the ball. Obviously many of them were discussed here, like expansion & quality of pitching. Also ballpark size & conditions. I think you’d also have to factor in the quality of hitters. PEDs obviously along with even legit training methods. Also, some eras just have better home run hitters. It seems like most studies mention pitching quality, but it’s not like quality power hitters are evenly spaced across eras either.

    But people naturally go to either PEDs or a juiced ball. I think it’s because people like conspiracy theories and PEDs and juiced balls give that to them. It’s a lot more exciting then to say the pitchers are bad because of expansion or that the hitters are better trained. You can tell this is true because so many people dismiss the tests that say that the balls are essentially the same. That anti-science bent assumes that people will twist science to match their narrative instead of accepting that really the balls, with a few exceptions over time, really aren’t changing much.

  9. Scott says:

    1977 wasn’t the only expansion year. I’d note that the next two increase (1969 and 1993) were also expansion years.

  10. Matt says:

    “If the yarn was wound tighter, one physicist explained, there would be more of it and that would affect the weight of the ball, which would make it fly shorter.”

    Throw an empty coke can and then a full one (in a safe and controlled environment) and see which one goes further. Tighter wound yarn and a denser baseball would mean that wind resistance plays a smaller part and the ball would travel further.

    • gogiggs says:

      Throw identical non-aerodynamic things, filled with two completely different substances, that aren’t even in the same state of matter, is maybe not the strongest analogy here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *