Earlier this week, I explored the impact the juiced ball had on Yankees hitters in 2017. In that post, I included links to both academic studies and anecdotes from pitchers that indicate a change in the ball, namely, tighter wound seams that increased the “bounce” off the bat, making the ball harder to grip.
While the hitters overall benefited from a juiced ball, Yankees pitchers were disproportionately punished by it. I say disproportionately since it’s been widely published that the Yankees throw fewer fastballs than any team in baseball, just 44.9% in 2017. Fastballs were the pitches least affected by dropped seams, and so the Bombers were hurt by changes more than anyone else in the game.
Take Masahiro Tanaka for example. The star had a weird season, his worst in American baseball. The weird thing is, he really wasn’t that bad. His strikeouts were up, his walks weren’t significantly different than his career averages, and there were no significant differences in his line drive, ground ball or fly ball rates. The only mark that saw a significant increase in 2017 was his HR/FB%, or the rate at which his fly balls left the park. This metric exploded to 21.2%, up from 14.3% as a career average.
Simply put, Tanaka allowed about the same number of fly balls last season, more of them just left the park. This fits into the conclusions from earlier this week. The real effect of the juiced ball is adding a couple of feet to balls that are already hit in the air.
With that knowledge, the solution to suppressing home runs is to reduce the balls allowed in the air, and Tanaka was able to do that as the season wore on. His second half fly ball rate dropped 10%, indicating a possible change in quality of contact allowed. If the juiced ball stays the same for 2018, Tanaka needs to be able to maintain this trend or else risk another 4.00+ ERA season. As a pitcher who already gives up a fair number of home runs, quality of contact becomes the chief issue for Tanaka to stay valuable in the second half of his contract.
Turning attention to the juiced ball’s chief victim in the bullpen brings one to relief ace Dellin Betances. Volatility among relievers is nothing new, but it’s more than possible he struggled because of his go-to pitch and it’s reduced effectiveness from lowered seams. PitchFx defines his breaking ball as a slider, Brooks calls it a curve, although anyone who watches Betances pitch knows that it can be anything from a slider to 12-6 hook depending on the day. Regardless of classification, Betances throws the breaking ball more often than his fastball, and it’s his bread and butter.
When the ball itself becomes harder to grip, the breaking ball won’t spin and move the way the pitcher wants it to. This leads to much worse control of the pitch, more balls instead of strikes, and more walks. Surprise surprise, Betances led all of baseball in walk rate, issuing 6.64 BB/9 and making a whole lot of high-leverage spots worse by putting so many men on base.
Unlike Tanaka, Betances seemed unable to compensate for a changed ball, as his whiff rate steadily declined over the season, especially on the breaking ball. After generating swings and misses on 17% of his breaking pitches in the first half, that mark dropped like a rock following the All-Star break, down to 6.38% in September.
Since we can’t ask Betances himself, and he’d be unlikely to give a real answer, we can’t actually tell if the juiced ball was the reason batters stopped swinging at his chief pitch. One moment from the 2017 season that sticks in my mind is, after being walked by Betances in the All-Star Game, Bryce Harper was caught on a hot mic. “I feel like [Betances is] a guy you can go up there and just take,” Harper said. “He’ll walk you”.
Maybe the book is out on Betances and players have picked up on his beloved breaking ball. While I think that this has something to do with his bump in walk rate, the testimony of other players relating the ball has to also be weighing on him. A reliever that walks nearly a batter per appearance isn’t that valuable to anyone, and Betances is going to have to work a way around a juiced ball should it hang around in 2018.
The Yankees find themselves torn in 2018, as they want a juiced ball to maximize the offensive impact of their video game-like lineup. The drag the ball placed on the pitching staff, however, may cancel out any gains from the offense, and it’s something fans will want to keep their eyes on in the upcoming season.