On a cool, breezy night in Cleveland, a packed Progressive Field witnessed the 2019 Home Run Derby, an instant classic which produced a record number of home runs – 312 to be exact. It crushed the previous record set just last year at Nationals Park after only the second round and, as the crowd began to disperse and New York Mets rookie Pete Alonso held the trophy, there was a renewed spark in the topic of Major League Baseball using juiced baseballs.
For years, the league was dealing with juiced players, former superstars like Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez and Jose Canseco who admitted to taking steroids for better performance, but this is a different kind of juiced, one that has quickly snowballed into the sport’s latest controversy. It all started after the 2015 All-Star Game, when players noticed subtle differences to the feel of the ball caused by the density and chemical composition of the core. And the real kicker here is that Rawlings, the manufacturer of the league’s baseballs, is actually owned by the league. It might sound like a conspiracy theory some tin-foil-hat-wearing nerd, sitting in their basement, concocted but there’s a lot of science behind the juiced ball theory and some players believe it.
This year’s All-Star Game starter for the American League, Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander, is one of those players noticing a vast difference in the ball’s performance. In an interview with ESPN prior to the Home Run Derby, the eight-time All-Star spoke his mind.
“It’s a f—ing joke,” he told ESPN. “Major League Baseball’s turning this game into a joke. They own Rawlings, and you’ve got [Rob] Manfred up here saying it might be the way they center the pill. They own the f—ing company. If any other $40 billion company bought out a $400 million company and the product changed dramatically, it’s not a guess as to what happened. We all know what happened. Manfred the first time he came in, what’d he say? He said we want more offense. All of a sudden he comes in, the balls are juiced? It’s not coincidence. We’re not idiots.”
With a little over half of the regular season completed, hitters have crushed 3,691 home runs and are on pace for a total of 6,668 dingers. It would far exceed the record of 6,105 home runs from back in 2017 – and that number has gone up significantly the last decade. In 2009, the entire league hit 5,042 home runs, the most since the end of the steroid era. Not everyone buys into the juiced ball theory, especially MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who responded Tuesday morning to Verlander’s claims, refuting the idea.
“I’m not going to respond specifically. I’m going to stand by what I said. What we need to be on the baseball issue is transparent and forward-looking,” Manfred told the Houston Chronicle. “There has been no intentional alteration in the manufacturing process.”
Whether you believe in the juiced ball theory or not, the home run epidemic currently surrounding Major League Baseball is causing the game to evolve in such a way that limits the ability to strategize. Everyone enjoys the long ball but not to the point that it’s sacrificing other parts of the game in order to inject excitement. Extra base hits, such as the triple, have become a rarity in today’s landscape, with hitters either swinging for the fences or striking out. And Players are striking out at an alarming rate, 41,207 in 2018, which was up almost 8,300 stirkeouts from 2008. These are underlying concerns that are mounting up and creating problems for Major League Baseball and it’s part of what is driving away fans.
Manfred wanted more offense but that’s not necessarily the cure for professional baseball. No one knows that that cure is, but if baseballs are juiced, expect the amount of dingers to continue to increase and, while it’s fun in the moment, it could very well prove costly for the league later. The conspiracy wages on and will continue to make headlines until a solution is reached, or it’s officially debunked by league officials.