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In defense of the deadened baseball

The Yankees mash even with a dead ball.

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Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees - Game Two Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

On Tuesday evening, Baseball Twitter was ablaze with speculation that MLB had brought back the juiced balls. Baseballs were flying out of the park faster than the MLB Home Run account could update their feed. The climax of this frenzy came when Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi surrendered five dingers in the second inning alone.

All of this comes at a time when offense is down pretty much everywhere. The .235 league batting average is the lowest mark since 1968, the .684 OPS the fifth-lowest mark in that span. Runs are being scored (4.16 runs/game) and flyballs are leaving the yard (10.6 percent HR/FB) with the lowest frequency since 2014. Earlier this week, Josh wrote on this topic as part of the larger discussion around reevaluating our expectations for offensive standards and value.

What makes this season unique is we know why offenses are struggling. Prior to last season, MLB informed teams that they were deadening the baseball by loosening the interior wool winding to reduce its coefficient of restitution (making the baseball less bouncy). Then, it was announced before the start of this season that all 30 parks would store baseballs in humidors, a move which not only causes the balls’ seams to expand, increasing drag, but also has created inconsistencies from ball to ball. Finally, recent research suggests that the current crop of baseballs indeed exhibit a higher coefficient of drag relative to recent seasons, resulting in a reduction in batted ball travel distance — line drives and fly balls on average are traveling about 8-12 feet less than other seasons in the Statcast era, despite being hit with roughly equal exit velocities.

While most of the early-season discussion surrounding modifications to the baseball focuses on suppression of offense, now it seems the narrative has flipped. Of course, we have no reason to doubt that MLB would monkey with the baseballs in-season, and without informing clubs or the wider public. Studies found that baseballs from the 2019 “Year of the juiced ball” had lower seam height, a fact which MLB only acknowledged after the season and in response to such independent research. Furthermore, Dr. Meredith Wills discovered that MLB was using two different baseballs during the 2021 season with zero notification to club officials. So is it now possible that MLB has re-juiced the baseballs?

Such speculation has brought me to a crossroads with my baseball fandom. From an aesthetic standpoint and as a general baseball fan, I want them to bring the juiced ball back because scoring is fun. Home runs are fun and the sport is better when the ball is flying out of the park. From a Yankees fan standpoint, however, I don’t want them to bring back the juiced ball. That’s because the Yankees benefit relative to the rest of the league from a baseball that doesn’t travel as far.

And so, here is my Yankees-centric pitch that MLB stick with the deadened baseballs. The Yankees roster is constructed in such a way that they are more able to withstand a deadened baseball than any other ballclub.

First, they have three of the hardest hitters of a baseball the world has ever seen. Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Joey Gallo all hit the ball harder than just about anyone, so whether it’s hitting a ball in the air to the seats or a groundball through the infield, no amount of deadening the ball will have a material effect on the trio’s hardest hit batted balls. They’re not losing former wall-scrapers to balls caught on the warning track, it just means their home runs land in the fifth row instead of the fifteenth. (Granted, Gallo isn’t exactly hitting the ball at the moment, but the point still stands.)

Second, in Josh Donaldson and Anthony Rizzo, they have a pair of hitters whose unique approaches at the plate confer additional resilience to a dead ball. Donaldson’s level swing means he is either ripping line drives or arcing backspun home runs, both of which resist a deadened baseball. Meanwhile, Rizzo appears to have sold out for pull power in non-two-strike counts, especially when playing at home. He is uniquely situated to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right, giving the Yankees another palisade against the deadened baseball.

With all this being said, I recognize that the Yankees employ two players who many have argued were the most adversely affected by the de-juicing of the baseball. DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres experienced power surges during the 2019 juiced ball season. They both saw their power output plummet last year. However, I would argue that neither is being affected as much by the dead ball this year as many anticipated. LeMahieu is fully healthy and back to spraying line drives and grounders to all fields while Torres is sporting the best batted ball metrics of his career. They have found ways to be productive even without the juiced-ball-aided slugging of 2019.

This desire to stick with the un-juiced balls is not one I come by lightly. Even as a Yankees fan whose team benefits from the current conditions, I still grapple with the dead ball and offense being down leaguewide. For the good of the game, and especially for maintaining interest among younger generations, I think a return to the juiced ball is a must. However, for the sake of this year’s Yankees squad, I implore MLB not to reanimate the baseball.