Juicy Speculation: Home Runs are Up – and That Means Something Must be up With the Baseball

On March 28 – generally considered Opening Day, despite the two games played earlier in Japan – a record 48 home runs were hit.

Over the weekend, Paul Goldschmidt became the first player to hit at least four homers in the first four games of the season since Barry Bonds hit five in 2002.

On Tuesday, the Arizona Diamondbacks, expected to be challenged offensively after trading away Goldschmidt in the offseason, became the first team since the 1927 New York Giants to score five runs or more in in their first six road games. The Diamondbacks’ hitters have been almost as dangerous as their pitchers. Through those six games, Arizona gave up 10 more runs than it scored.

It didn’t take long for lively discussions to start about how the baseball must be livelier and that is the reason behind the surge in home runs and offense.

That kind of talk had reached a crescendo during the 2017 World Series after a season in which a record 6,105 homers were hit.

Last year homers fell to 5,585, and the talk died down. Now, offense is back and so are the conspiracy theories.

A history of rabbit ball theories

Like many events in baseball, this isn’t the first time.

I remember many believed the ball was juiced in 1961, 1970, 1977 and in 1987. And a little research shows that a hopped-up baseball was suspected in 1910, 1912, 1920, 1934, 1950 and 1954.

“Figures may lie; but in the present case, there seems no explanation of the rise in batting of the same individuals except a change, in the baseball,’’ John E. Wray, sports editor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, wrote in 1934. Wray’s sentiments would have sufficed in just about any year mentioned above.

We heard more complaints about the ball from 1994 to 2005, though now we are certain it was the players who were juiced.

I am always skeptical of the charges of a juiced baseball (which Major League Baseball) and the manufacturer always deny, except for 1910), although I am more open to the conspiracy theories this time.

There are two reasons I have had trouble with juiced ball theories in the past.

Talk about the composition of the baseball seems to only come up when the hitters are doing well, particularly hitting more home runs. There are never widespread complaints about the ball being deadened when the pitchers become more dominating.

The second reason is I remember when the baseball actually was openly juiced. We saw how difficult it is to make a baseball that flies farther without doing other freaky things.

Ready to launch

This is a long-forgotten chapter in baseball: the experimental baseballs used in spring training in 1969 and 1970.

After the 1968 season, when scoring fell and the American League batting average slumped to a record-low .230, MLB decided it needed more offense. The strike zone was narrowed back to its 1963 portions, and the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches.

Spalding, then the maker of all major-league baseballs (Rawlings has the duties now), concocted a baseball that added about 10 percent more bounce, the 1-X. It was used one day a week during spring training in 1969.

A fly ball that normally would reach the warning track might now go over the fence. But odd things happen when that much bounce is added to the ball. Harmless singles drop in front of outfielders, bounce over their heads and turn into doubles. The 1-X was, at times, like playing baseball with a Super Ball.

Safety first

So Spalding went back to the drawing board and came up with the X-5 which had about 5 percent more bounce than a regular ball. It was used in some games in spring training in 1970. Balls that batters didn’t “get all of” became home runs. But the real problem was that balls hit at infielders were rockets. Leo Durocher complained that using the X-5 on artificial turf would get someone killed.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn called off the experiment for players safety. Which really says something.

This was an era when ear flaps on batting helmets were optional (Actually despite rules that had been in place since 1950s, batting helmets were optional; check out video of Norm Cash in the 1968 World Series some time) There was no padding on outfield walls. The sport was enthusiastically transitioning from grass fields to cement surfaces topped with thin layers of rubber and plastic, a move that would prove an orthopedic nightmare.

Player safety was not a priority. What was high on the list of the powers that be was getting more zip in the game, making it more appealing to a new generation.

Baseball spent most of the 1960s putting on pitching duels as the NFL became America’s favorite sport.

So I think the men who ran the game would have gladly and openly used a livelier ball if one was viable. Heck, they would have marketed it.

But the X-5 was too much.

Offense on the up and up?

Baseball offense showed an uptick in 1970 anyway, hence suspicions about the baseball. But that offensive surge faded the next season.

Hey, if it worked, wouldn’t MLB have continued doing it?

In 1970, Sports Illustrated had a lab look at the baseballs; it had used the same lab in 1961. The lab found the 1970 and 1961 balls similar. It had found the 1961 ball had more bounce than 1953 balls. And baseballs tested in 1963, when offense declined, were less lively than 1961 balls. Spalding said nothing had changed in any of those years.

The lab also found there was a variance from ball to ball in any year. And that humidity made a huge difference.

Now Colorado and Arizona have humidors, but I doubt you will see anyone cooking the baseball in parks where it’s hard to hit homers.

I see one big difference now: Theories in this cycle of juice talk have dealt with more than bounciness. The recent theories have looked at drag, small differences in size and weight and microscopic differences in the core. This could create the kind of ball that would carry farther while still behaving normally on ground balls.

MLB is denying that made any changes in the ball, and has its own study to back its claims.

MLB did change the composition of the baseball in 1910, introducing a cork center. Home runs jumped from 259 to 361. The howls began.

The wool

In 1920, with Babe Ruth leading the way, MLB hitters blasted 630 homers, up from 447 (there also were 232 more games played in 1920 than in 1919; MLB dialed back the schedule in the first season after World War I).

It later came out that the cork centers of baseballs were wrapped with Australian wool for the first time in 1920.

Aha!

Now baseballs use New Zealand wool. Maybe that’s the key.

The balls are assembled largely by hand in Costa Rica. It is far from precision manufacturing.

So by intent or happenstance the increase in home runs may be all in the ball. The upswing in round-trippers may have nothing to do with the launch-angle revolution. It may have nothing to with teams playing guys who hit for power even if they are lacking in other areas of the game. Or maybe the spike in homers is from a combination of ball and approach.

Accuweather attributes the March 28 home run barrage to relatively warm weather.

All I know is this:

Phoenix-area Taco Bells offer three tacos for a dollar with the purchase of a medium drink the day after the Diamondbacks score five or more runs.

I don’t care what the labs find. I ain’t giving back any tacos.

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