Juiced baseballs, starting relievers and MLB's next big thing

ByBradford Doolittle ESPN logo
Friday, May 25, 2018

It's a cliche to say something "came out of left field," but when you're writing about baseball, you get to use that particular cliche. MLB's league office sent out a press release Thursday that came out of that proverbial left field, and it raises some very fundamental questions about the game.

Here's the big one: What does baseball want to be?

The surprising news was that MLB had received the results from a comprehensive study on the ball itself, spurred by the surge in home run rates across the sport since 2015. In a nutshell, as independent studies suggested, baseball has been played with a livelier ball in recent seasons.

Until now, baseball's response to the homer surge was that the ball was no different than it had been. We know now that isn't the case, and it's heartening to see the league being transparent about this issue by announcing the details of the study along with some steps to address its conclusions.

Commissioner Rob Manfred announced in the press release that he was adopting each of the recommendations from the committee, most of which involve intensifying the level of science when it comes to keeping control of the on-field product.

There will be standardized procedures for testing the aerodynamics of the ball. There will more refined specifications as it relates to the manufacturing processes of the balls at Rawlings. There will be a new scientific advisory council formed to offer essential perspective to on-field matters. Heck, they are even going to tighten up the procedures for how Delaware River mud is rubbed on the ball.

Most interestingly, the league is going to review the environmental conditions of how balls are stored in all 30 ballparks and determine whether to require each team to use a humidor -- a la Coors Field and Chase Field -- to store all game-used baseballs.

This last thing strikes me as a no-brainer for a simple reason: If we can do everything to ensure that the ball -- the literal core of the sport -- is standard from one city to the next, shouldn't we do that?

The Diamondbacks joined the Rockies this season in employing humidors. It's too early to evaluate that experiment, but what we can say is that Arizona's team isolated power has fallen from .190 last season to .146 this season. That number has been .175 on the road, but plummets to .136 at Chase Field. Is it the humidor? Might be. Too soon to say.

The Arizona stats are cautionary, but in a way it's an argument for standardization. Rather than having one or two teams experimenting with environmental storage factors, it makes sense to have everyone doing it the same way.

As for Thursday's announcement, there was no causal explanation in it because, from all indications, they don't know why the ball's physics changed. Really though, the explanation -- and whether any change to the ball was an intentional tweak to the manufacturing process or not -- doesn't matter. Now that we've seen the latest stark demonstration of how the style of baseball being played at a given time can be hugely affected by minute changes to the equipment needed to play it, what matters is that baseball takes control of its own physics.

If baseball is able to truly standardize how baseballs react to being thrown, spun and struck with a stick of wood, and keep it consistent from season to season, then we arrive at a very fundamental question. That is, what kind of a game does baseball want to be?

Does it want to be the 2018 version, with sky-high home run rates, record-level strikeouts and rock-bottom levels of balls in play? Does it want to be the 1907 version, when there were fewer homers hit in all of baseball than 30-year-old Justin Upton already has in his big league career? Does it want to be the 1930 version, in which the National League hit a collective .303? Does it want to be the 1968 version, when the big league ERA was 2.98?

The appropriate answer is none of the above.

What baseball needs to strive for is balance. Plenty of home runs, but not too many. Enough balls in play that we get our fill of throws, double plays and line drives to the alleys, but not so many that the talented flamethrowers populating the game right now can't do their thing. Enough scoring to keep fans engaged, but not so much that the scoreboard looks like one from a slow-pitch softball league.

Balance is an abstract term, of course, and there would have to be some understanding of what it means in a historical baseball context. Looking at historical medians for the live ball era is a good place to start. (Hint: Baseball in the early 1960s was right at the median in many respects.) But this is a debate worth having, and it ties into a number of larger questions the league is dealing with, such as pace-of-play and time-of-game considerations.

That said, there are a lot of things that affect the style of baseball that dominates any era of the sport, and there are always going to be cycles. However, those cycles shouldn't be caused by the equipment itself. Especially the ball.

Let's hope that Thursday's announcement takes us a step toward baseball recovering the kind balance it enjoys when it's at its best.

What the numbers say

Will the Rays' Romo strategy start a trend?

It's not often the Tampa Bay Rays get into the center of our general baseball conversation, but they certainly did so last weekend when they started reliever Sergio Romo in back-to-back games. The Rays plan a similar approach in this weekend's series with the Orioles.

The debate around the bullpenning issue is fascinating and, I would argue, good for the game. The strategy challenges longtime norms when it comes to the delineation between starters and relievers -- a line that was once much more blurry than it has become over the last half-century or so. It involves advanced metrics, game theory and player psychology. That's all good stuff.

Pitching staffs have always been subject to evolutionary forces, and it feels like now we're going through an exhilarating shift in how pitchers are and will be deployed. While this is all really exciting, I do not, like Cubs manager Joe Maddon, think the Rays' reliever-as-a-starter model will become the dominant one for pitching staff construction, nor do I think it would be particularly good for the game if it did. However, I also don't think the strategy will go away any time soon.

One criticism is that a cynical person might look at this as a way for teams to save payroll. While that's certainly an area the players' association will monitor, I have a hard time seeing that as a deal-breaker. Mainly, that's because I don't think the big-time starting pitcher is going away.

The Romo maneuver really only makes sense against a team with an unbalanced lineup. That certainly describes a right-handed-heavy Angels roster that has had fewer plate appearances from lefty hitters than any team in baseball. The thing is, even if the Romo strategy proves to be wildly successful against those teams, all that's going to happen is that teams will place a greater emphasis on lineup balance.

Even more so, it's impossible for me to believe that teams will want to shift even more innings away from baseball's top pitchers. We're talking not just about the ace tier of Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, Justin Verlander and Chris Sale, but really any pitcher who qualifies as a No. 1, 2 or 3 in a rotation. That's obvious when you look at the names of those dominating pitching now, but I'm referring more to the aces to come we don't yet know about. Teams will continue to seek and develop those players, and it won't be to become bullpen pitchers.

Consider the current leaderboard of WOBA allowed by pitchers after the first time through an opposing batting order.

Aaron Nola, Phillies: .231

Jake Arrieta, Phillies: .234

Sean Newcomb, Braves: .237

Max Scherzer, Nationals: .238

Justin Verlander, Astros: .242

Many of those same pitchers dominate the leaderboard for the first time through the order -- Verlander leads all pitchers with a .139 WOBA allowed the first trip through a lineup -- but they are also joined by a slew of top relievers, like Josh Hader, his teammate Jeremy Jeffress, Atlanta's Daniel Winkler and Colorado's Adam Ottavino. But you only need to get past the top 30 or so, depending on where you set the minimum for pitches thrown, before the after-the-first-trip numbers start to intrude.

In other words, the top starters remain as effective as the majority of relievers well into most games. Over the nine seasons entering this one, Kershaw had an aggregate ERA of 2.25 over an average of 203 innings per season. You'd have to be an awfully good reliever to take those innings away from him. Plus, when you have a starter throwing well, you know he's throwing well. With relievers, there is always a hint of uncertainty, more so with some than others, but the certainty you have with a starter flashing good stuff is not a security blanket -- it's a tangible benefit.

Let's remember what the top starting pitchers do. They have great stuff and great command and are able to flash both on a consistent basis. They also have varied repertoires and minimal platoon splits. They match up with a greater variety of hitters than most relievers, so there is little reason to take them out.

Fatigue matters, and we're seeing more attempts to manage that than ever. Stuff also matters, which is why when we reach October, even a Kershaw or a Kluber might face an early exit if he's not on top of his game. By and large though, the innings you get from a top-three-in-the-rotation starter (and sometimes four and five, if you have that kind of pitching depth) are likely to always be the foundation of a pitching staff. Because, and I can't emphasize this enough so I will capitalize it: THEY ARE THE BEST PITCHERS IN THE SPORT.

For me, this has always been the key challenge of building a big-league pitching staff: How do we get the most innings out of our best pitchers in a way that is sustainable both in the short and the long term?

That said, there is always a supply-and-demand balance to be struck with both starters and relievers. There aren't enough top-flight starters to go around most years, so every season teams trot out a motley crew of 4s and 5s whose collective performance bloats the league ERA. Those are the innings in play with both versions of the Tampa Bay bullpenning strategy.

That part is, I'd say, a good thing. Even if it becomes a widespread practice to divert innings from underqualified 4s and 5s (and a few 6s), it's hard to see that becoming a loss to the sport. Especially if that means we get to shine a brighter light on the new superheroes of the sport -- the Josh Haders and Andrew Millers.

That's why I don't see the economic part of this as worrisome for the players. Top starters -- the true top starters -- continue to be precious commodities. There are only so many of them, and it's hard to see that changing. That's where the bulk of pitching staff expenditure goes anyway. In that respect, little should change.

However, if more pitchers are developed into those key multi-inning roles, and if the successful ones are rewarded in arbitration and free agency, a spread of the Tampa strategy isn't a bad thing for the players.

Besides, it's entirely possible that it doesn't spread far. Sure, there are more hard-throwing relievers coming into the game than ever, at a rate that seems to accelerate exponentially. This trend is so new that it's hard to know how it will work out. Will these max-effort guys be able to sustain themselves as a group? Will hitters become so accustomed to velocity that it will hardly matter? How many triple-digit throwers will there possibly be? If all or most of the teams wanted to go to a bullpenning model, would there be enough quality relievers to go around?

All of this leads me to conclude that the practice of bullpenning is a new option certain to gain in popularity, but it's exceedingly unlikely to revolutionize the way teams are constructed. And competent starting pitchers aren't going anywhere.

Here are some numbers, and they are raw and inconclusive. The sample is cherry-picked, and the necessary controls to do a study have been ignored. The numbers are offered simply as food for thought. These are the top four starters, by WAR, for the last four seasons, along with Shohei Ohtani. Listed is the average attendance this season for the games they've started (home and away) against the average attendance of all games (again, home and away) for their respective teams in which they did not appear.

There have been comprehensive studies done on this. While the box-office appeal of the ace pitcher isn't what it used to be, it still exists. It's one of the special things about baseball, and one of its most marketable traits. As open to experimenting as I try to be, it would be a shame if aces went away.

Fortunately, it's hard to see that happening.

Since you asked

Is baseball participation among youth actually growing?

Last week, I engaged in a Q&A with NBA owner and tech-world iconoclast Mark Cuban about how he perceives baseball as an industry. That mostly speaks for itself, but I have to say I was surprised by his description of his experience with youth leagues. And I was concerned whether his experience was more universal than I would like it to be, being a baseball advocate.

After that, I was emailed some data on trends regarding youth participation in sports. To verify what I had been sent, I contacted the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, which is a trade association that works on behalf of the sports and fitness industry to promote participation and gather data. Lots and lots of data. The important thing to note is that the SFIA represents the sporting goods industry at large -- not any particular sport.

The data looks at youth participation not just at the formal level -- little league, travel teams, etc. -- but also at the level of casual engagement. That's something we would have just called playing ball in the yard -- or on the playground -- in my day. You get the idea.

Some highlights:

  • In 2016, there were 14.8 million baseball participants in the United States, with about 5.7 million of those being "casual" players.
  • From 2014 to 2016, the percentage of participation (age 6 or older) in the United States grew from 4.5 percent to 5 percent.
  • Baseball, in 2016, had more participants than soccer and football (flag and tackle combined).
  • If you combine participation in baseball and softball, together they outrank even basketball. Over the past three years, baseball has seen a 49 percent increase in casual participation.
  • Basketball has the highest overall levels of participation, but among the sports mentioned here, only baseball has grown during the period covering 2011 to 2016. That growth has been accelerating.
  • Soccer edged past baseball in total participation by 2011, but its advantage was brief. By 2016, baseball had roughly 2.8 million more participants than soccer.

From the perspective of a baseball fan, and someone who grew up immersed in the game, I can't help but be encouraged by those numbers. But that doesn't mean that the sentiments Cuban conveyed don't exist and should be discounted. There has never been more competition for our collective attention.

Serendipitously, MLB and USA Baseball announced Monday a new initiative called the Hit and Run program. It's aimed at increasing levels of youth participation in general, but especially the levels of casual participation mentioned previously.

In reading about the program, which falls underneath baseball's larger initiative to grow the game at the amateur and youth levels, I was struck by a sense of familiarity. Many of the derivative baseball games they are promoting remind me, and perhaps will remind you as well, of games I played growing up on the playground. I listed some, an exercise that made we want to grab my glove and find a sandlot: Kickball, 500, Pepper, Whiffle ball, Rounds and Hot Box.

Turns out, there was something behind that nostalgia. To find out more about what baseball is doing to keep its place firmly at the heart of youth culture, I spoke to Chris Marinak, who works under Manfred with the title of executive vice president, league economics and strategy. Marinak, who pitched for Virginia in college, is largely behind the scenes at this stage of his career but has a voice in baseball's attempts to innovate, and that voice is heard.

What was the research behind how the Hit and Run program came about? What is the goal here?

Chris Marinak: What we are seeing in regards to participation in baseball is that there is a big difference between formal, organized play and casual play. This is a gap between baseball and some of the other sports. I think over time, up until the last three or four years, baseball became portrayed as a sport where you have to sign up for a team, get umpires, get a jersey and equipment, be on a travel team. We got away from what made baseball great, when people were growing up in my generation and the generation behind mine, which was the casual play of baseball, sandlot baseball.

You go to a conference or meeting, and people who grew up in the '50s and '60s say, "I played sandlot baseball, and that's dead and it's ruining baseball." I think the point here is that the world is different today. Sandlot baseball doesn't exist because there are a lot of tools for parents to coordinate the time for kids. No kid gets to just go out into the playground or the sandlot or to the neighbor's backyard and just disappear until the sun goes down. Parents don't allow their kids to do that. So the idea that we're going to play sandlot baseball like they did in the '50s is just not a reality.

What we're trying to do with this program is to recreate what made baseball so great for prior generations, which was the casual component of it. So it's not just going out and playing in a game, or playing a league structure. You can play baseball in a lot of different ways to have fun with it. It gives you more opportunities to get at-bats, play different positions, learn different game situations. We're trying to instill creativity in a world that is very structured and organized.

I think the big thing that those of us who grew up immersed in baseball and played in little league, high school, etc. is that we tend to forget some of the derivations we'd play on the playground. How did the loss of that tradition play into the design of this program?

CM: The core of this program is around playing different formats and derivative games and encouraging people to do that. What we've seen from different league organizations and travel organizations is that there is a sense from parents that if you sign up for this league, you have to play the major league way. If you're not, you're having a less-than-top-notch experience. What we're trying to do here is tell people that there are lots of ways to play this game, and there are lots of ways you can have fun and develop. If I could sum up this program in one sentence, it would be to remind parents and league operators that there are lots of ways to play our game and lots of ways to have fun that aren't just what you see at the big-league level.

Statistics from the last few years suggest that participation in youth baseball is on the upswing. What do you think have been the biggest drivers of this?

CM: (The Hit and Run) program is part of our Play Ball effort, in which the theme is to encourage participation in baseball and softball in all forms. This is really just another way to emphasize this, whether in a game, practice or tournament setting. This program is designed so that if you have a group of people together, you can play a game. In terms of the numbers, baseball has outpaced all the other sports the last three years. It's not even close. That's not an exaggeration, as you have (seen) in the data. When you dig into the data, what you see is a couple of things, but the one I would emphasize most directly is the (growth of) participation of casual players. We've grown in both areas, but we've grown much more on the casual side.

This goes back to the point I made earlier. Along the way, people lost a sense that baseball can be played casually. As youth sports has specialized, it's become a lot more about travel ball and those kind of things, across all sports. Just going out to the backyard to play catch is a way to play baseball. Playing home run derby with a whiffle ball set is a way to play baseball. That is the heart of the message we've been delivering with the Play Ball campaign. There are lots of different ways to play. And you should be considered a player if you play (those forms). If you play those games, you're a baseball player. I think that message has gone a long way towards getting people engaged with the sport. They don't feel like they're excluded.

In looking at some of the recommendations for various age levels, it's hard not to see this as a long-term strategy aimed at developing a faster pace of play, which of course has become a hot-button topic in the industry. The recommendations vary by age group, but they hit some common themes: Batters must always keep one foot in the batter's box, many mentions about playing quickly. Is it wrong to tie this program with efforts being made to tighten up the MLB product?

CM: To say that those things aren't tied together would be kind of an oversight, but this effort was not designed for pace of play as you think of it at the major league level. There have been throw-in ideas that are geared towards moving things along. Absolutely, trying to instill the right form of play at a young age group is important for the sport. Twenty or 30 years ago, you didn't have to tell people to keep a foot in the box. That's just how they played the game. They thought it was important to stay in the box and see pitches because it kept you in a rhythm, and that's how the game was played. I think what we've seen, as things have changed, those behaviors aren't necessarily great for the fan experience.

One thing we can do with a program like this, particularly when you reach kids at a young age, is that without changing the rules of the sport, we want to emphasize to young players that the game is more fun when it moves quickly. It's more fun as a player and more fun as a viewer. To throw some of these things in there, it's certainly part of our philosophy. I wouldn't say it's one of the key motivators of this program, but it's certainly something intentionally inserted to encourage that type of behavior.

An emphasis on health, fitness and safety seems to be part and parcel to these youth programs, particularly when it comes to pitch counts for younger players. But in general, how much should baseball be promoting itself as a safer alternative to other sports?

CM: To be candid, I think we could do a better job with that, particularly in regards to concussions and other significant trauma injuries. Baseball is head and shoulders above the other sports, even soccer. People often don't recognize that concussions are a big problem in soccer, especially for young kids. Just the way that baseball is designed, concussions are pretty rare. We do have other injuries that are concerning for parents. We've done some work with USA Baseball in particular this year to change the bat standards to make it even safer for pitchers and people getting hit by balls. We've done some other things in that area.

What we're trying to do in the area of safety is make sure that there aren't barriers where families say, "Hey, I've seen a lot of people in my community have this kind of injury in baseball." We're trying to make sure that every facet of the game, while there is no guarantee in any sport you're not going to get hurt, but to minimize the different injuries you see across different dimensions. By and large, baseball is far and away one of the safest sports.

You're probably right, that we need to emphasize that. Part of the problem is that we intentionally don't try to capitalize or badmouth other sports. That's not what we're about. We think it's important for kids to play multiple sports. And it's hard to deliver the message of safety without contrasting you with other sports who may have their own issues. We intentionally try not to do that, which probably doesn't help get the message out. But it's part of our focus, for sure.

Coming right up

Series of the year on deck?

People like me try to measure everything. Here is an obscure metric: GQ. It has nothing to do with fashion. It's a junk stat to rate game quality, a crude measure of each matchup based on the strength of the teams in question, where they are playing and how close they are in power rating.

The actual measure means nothing. The Marlins-Mets game from Wednesday had a GQ of 78.0. That's bad. The Mariners-A's matchup was at 98.7. That's good -- the best of the day.

I bring this up because, this week, we have the highest GQ rating of the season in a series beginning Monday, when the defending-champion Houston Astros play three games at Yankee Stadium. The home-field factor for New York plays into this by enhancing the competitive balance between the two teams. So this series rates even higher than it would if it were being played at Minute Maid Park.

Beyond that, it's a classic matchup between the irresistible force and the immovable object: The Yankees are baseball's top-scoring team; the Astros are the hardest to score against. However, the degree to which the Astros have dominated the run-prevention side of things has been greater than the rate at which New York has scored.

Consider this measure: Based on each team's opponents to date and where the games have been played, New York has scored 33.7 runs above expectation, which is tops in the majors. The Astros, on the other hand, have prevented a whopping 47 runs above expectation. The Red Sox are second in that measure -- at 19.3.

Of course, what that means is that if the Yankees can put up runs on the Astros, they can put up runs on anybody. It'll be fun to watch. It'll especially be fun to watch on Monday, when Houston is slated to send Verlander to the mound. Verlander, if you haven't noticed, has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of Bob Gibson's 1968 season by having a 1968 Bob Gibson season.

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