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Major League Baseball has a problem with its baseballs

18 games into the 2022 season, MLB already finds itself staring down the barrel of its latest controversy.

MLB Owners Meetings Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Amidst the fallout of the botched COVID-19 negotiations, the impending labor strife, the crackdown on pitchers using sticky stuff, and a whole host of other issues, Major League Baseball admitted to using two different balls without the knowledge of coaches or players during the 2021 season. Because of everything else that was going on at the time, this controversy didn’t get as much airplay as it probably would have had there not been so many issues taking up everyone’s attention.

Well, it only took 18 games, but the baseball controversy is once again a point of contention among players and fans alike. After Pete Alonso was hit in the head for the second time this season — and the third time it has happened to the New York Mets, after Francisco Lindor was hit in the face in just their second game of the season — Chris Bassitt vocally railed against MLB, stating that the league is knowingly using bad baseballs and simply don’t care. If you haven’t already, you can watch his full reply here:

While most media sources have rightfully taken his comment that MLB doesn’t care that the balls are bad and ran with it, it’s important to note why he has such a problem with them: it all boils down to a lack of consistency. According to Bassitt, the feel of the baseball changes inning-by-inning, let alone game-by-game. If this is true — and I should stop here to acknowledge that Miles Mikolas did disagree with Bassitt’s opinion, though part of that likely stems from the boiling hot tensions between the Cardinals and Mets right now — the Commissioner’s Office is not only staring down the barrel of yet another controversy under Rob Manfred’s tenure, but they are flirting with a legitimate player safety issue.

To get a bit more detail, I went back to 2016 to take a look at the hit by pitch rate per full season over the last five seasons, 2020 not included, to see how it stacks up against 2022 so far. To do so, I divided the total number of hit by pitches by total plate appearances. (In terms of methodology, you can also take a look by game/innings pitched, but I decided that plate appearance was the best denominator for this analysis.) Here’s what I found:

HBP/PA

Year AB HBP Rate
Year AB HBP Rate
2016 184,577 1,651 0.008944
2017 185,295 1,763 0.009514
2018 185,139 1,922 0.010381
2019 186,516 1,984 0.010637
2021 181,817 2,112 0.011616
2022 19,191 218 0.011359
2022 so far

As you can see, the numbers had steadily been ticking up over the last five years. While they are marginally down so far this year, the rate at which they are happening is still much more frequent than they were just five years ago. So, while Bassitt’s comments likely stem from a place of frustration — the Mets have been hit a league-leading 18 times, after all — I do think there’s something to what he’s saying about the lack of consistency in the baseballs they’re expected to throw.

Why do these inconsistencies have the potential to become such a serious issue for Major League Baseball? Beyond just the marginal increases in hit batters that we’ve seen year-over-year, we’ve also seen pitchers across the league struggle with command in the early-going. Given that velocities are simultaneously rising across the league, this could spell danger for hitters.

While the majority of the focus on the sticky stuff ban was on the increase in fastball spin rates across the league, it’s not illogical to believe that some pitchers were (also) using the stuff to gain more control over their pitches. Let’s look at the zone percentage for some key members of the Yankees pitching staff:

Zone % by Season

Year Chapman Cole Loáisiga
Year Chapman Cole Loáisiga
2018 41.8% 47.1% 41.5%
2019 43.7% 45.2% 41.0%
2020 45.7% 43.8% 44.9%
2021 42.5% 41.9% 42.1%
2022 37.7% 37.4% 28.2%
2022 so far

While there are certainly some gradual fluctuations year-to-year from 2018 until 2021, to have all three of these pitchers dip below 40 percent so far this season is pretty telling. While this has obviously led to inflated stats across the board for all three, I’m less concerned with that facet of this discussion right now. Rather, I’m more concerned with the fact that each of these guys throw in the high 90s and are capable of touching 100 mph, but all of them are having trouble finding the strike zone. Yes, weather and a shortened spring are likely factors in this as well, but it’s hard not to draw a correlation between these numbers and the sticky stuff ban.

Now, it does need to be said that this isn’t an issue that is affecting every single pitcher on the Yankees staff — Jordan Montgomery and Chad Green in particular are right in line with their career rates — but it does seem to be one that is disproportionately affecting power pitchers. When flamethrowers are struggling to locate their stuff, well, standing in the batter’s box suddenly becomes a much more dangerous game.

Finally, there has been a ton of discussion about offense being down league-wide. While there are a number of factors at play in this — a league-wide increased reliance on three true outcomes, pitchers throwing harder than ever and featuring some ridiculous stuff, etc. — a lot of discussions inevitably come back to the baseballs being used in-game. Just as Bassitt indicated that there is no consistency for the pitcher, there also appears to be no consistency for the hitters. As Bradford William Davis’ previously cited study found, two baseballs were used in 2021, and there were even unsubstantiated rumors floating around that MLB was using juiced balls again for marquee matchups, like the Field of Dreams game. This decrease in offensive production, combined with some struggles with control from extremely live arms, an increase in velocity, and an overall feeling of frustration from multiple players, is just the early stages of a conflict that has the potential to boil over very quickly.

I don’t think it’s particularly outlandish to believe that batters don’t want to get hit by fastballs, and pitchers don’t want to give up record-setting levels of home runs year-after-year. Somehow, someway, though, the league needs to find a happy median, because what they currently have — a ban on sticky substances with a baseball that may or may not be trash — clearly isn’t working. After a tense labor negotiation that dominated the offseason and a commitment from Rob Manfred to fix the league’s relationship with the players, deciding on one baseball to use would be a good place to start. I can’t believe I just had to write that sentence.