The Rundown Lite: Juiced Balls, Mound Visits, Jake Arrieta’s Market

Mike Canter has really done a phenomenal job with this column, so much so that I’ve avoided picking up the baton while he’s out for the week. But with a few relatively big and/or interesting topics out there, I figured I’d take a few moments to share a little.

Rebuild my balls

My apologies if that esoteric Twitter joke went over your head, which is exactly what more baseballs than ever before have been doing to MLB outfielders. The previous record of 5,693 home runs was put up in 2000 by juiced players, but the 6,105 dingers launched this past season were due in large part to juiced balls.

Come to think of it, I guess juiced balls were responsible in both cases.

Despite Rob Manfred’s repeated vehement denials, increasing amounts of anecdotal and scientific evidence point to a very obvious change in the composition of the balls. As with many of the commissioner’s arguments and ideas, however, this particular protestation of logic assumes that everyone he’s speaking to is incapable of seeing past factual evidence and intentionally vague language.

For more on that, take a look at the regulations for the size and shape of an official MLB ball, per the league’s official rulebook:

The ball shall be a sphere formed by yarn wound around a small core of cork, rubber or similar material, covered with two strips of white horsehide or cowhide, tightly stitched together. It shall weigh not less than five nor more than 5¼ ounces avoirdupois and measure not less than nine nor more than 9¼ inches in circumference

I know what some of you are thinking and, yes, avoirdupois is a real word. It’s actually a system of weights based on a pound of 16 ounces (or 7,000 grains), and it’s apparently widely used in English-speaking countries. So there’s that.

If what we just saw above was the definition for the dimensions of your front door, you’d be in danger of having a big-ass gap that would prove really costly in hot or cold weather. You could get all kinds of creepy-crawlies in there too. And trust me, no one wants Crawly in their home.

MLB even commissioned a task force to research any potential changes to the ball, which is sort of like tobacco companies putting together a team to study the health hazards of their products.

…the task force found that all the characteristics that MLB regularly measures, including the weight, circumference, seam height and bounciness of the ball, were within ranges that meant variations in the baseballs were unlikely to significantly affect home run rates. MLB declined to provide the data supporting these assertions.

That snippet comes from a fantastic piece from Rob Arthur and Tim Dix at FiveThirtyEight in which they reveal the results of legitimate, unbiased comparison of baseballs’ compositions in recent years. At the heart of the study are balls from prior to and after the power surge that began in the second half of the 2015 season. Spoiler alert: there are differences.

Looking inside the balls and testing their chemical composition revealed that the cores of recent balls were somewhat less dense than the cores of balls used before the 2015 All-Star Game. The newer cores weigh about a half a gram less than the older ones, which might be enough to cause baseballs hit on a typical home run trajectory to fly about 6 inches farther. That alone is hardly enough to explain the home run surge of recent seasons, but when combined with previous research finding that baseballs began to change in other small ways starting around the same time, it suggests that a number of minor differences may have combined to contribute to the remarkable upswing in home run power we’ve witnessed since 2015.

There are obviously some external factors as well, not the least of which is an emphasis on launch angle and de-stigmatization of strikeouts. But it’s clear the balls have changed appreciably, enough to cause more home runs than ever to clear the fences.

That’s not really a bad thing in and of itself, it’s just that MLB’s ludicrous denial of a very blatant fact has further undermined what little credibility the league office has left.

Mound visits

I blew most of my self-imposed word limit there, so I’ll just be brief here and say that the mound visit thing is going to be a huge problem if they ding players for giving umps time to gather themselves after getting clipped.

Arrieta’s market

We’ve been keeping tabs on this for a while now and not much has changed for Arrieta since the end of 2017, really. But with the regular season looming, it’s looking more and more like things are starting to come together for the former Cub.

Jon Heyman is reporting that the Phillies “could have the best chance,” but that the Nats are “deliberating” the prospect of adding a player who would push them well over the CBT threshold. The Phillies have a young team and tons of money to spare, which is why they’ve been in the mix from the start and may now be the favorites.

The Nats, on the other hand, are intimately familiar with Scott Boras pitchers and are also in a much better position to win right away. But while money, security, and winning will be huge factors here, I believe Arrieta’s pride and legacy will play a role as well.

What I mean there is that I think he’ll want an opportunity to really put his stamp on an organization. He certainly did that with the Cubs, but a major part of the story there was that they rescued him from Baltimore and fostered his individuality in order to help him flourish. I could be wrong, but I believe Arrieta wants to prove that he was and is the main driver of his success.

He won’t be able to do that in Washington, where he would come in as the No. 3 starter. And it might not even be particularly close at this point, though Arrieta’s best is certainly on par with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. In Philly, however, Arrieta could be sort of like Jon Lester was for the Cubs in 2015. He’d be joining a young team on the come and could lead them into a return to competitiveness.

Mind you, I don’t believe that will drive his ultimate decision. But I think if all other things are equal, the chance to be the ace and to be the unquestioned leader of a team are things Arrieta will consider.

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