Despite record HR pace, MLB’s Rob Manfred insists balls aren’t juiced
CLEVELAND — On one side, you have American League All-Star starting pitcher Justin Verlander, who believes the baseballs are juiced this season.
He has allowed a major league-high 26 home runs in only 19 starts, with perhaps 15 more outings to go.
“It’s a joke,” he said Monday at All-Star Game media day.
On the other side, there’s baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, who admits the baseball has less drag this season but insists there has been no directive to change the ball. He said MLB has commissioned independent scientists to study the aerodynamic tendencies of the baseballs in use this season.
“Baseball has done nothing, given no direction for alteration of the baseball,” he said Tuesday, speaking to members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. “The basic characteristics of the baseball, as measured by the independent scientists who did the study, have not changed.
“There is no desire on the part of ownership to increase the number of homers in the game. To the contrary, they’re concerned about how many we have.”
And that’s a lot.
A total of 3,691 homers have been struck in the first 2,690 games. That’s on pace to surpass last year’s mark (5,585 in 4,862 games) and the record of 6,105 set in 2017.
“I’m always walking a tight rope,” Verlander said. “You can’t miss barrels anymore. You have to miss bats.
“Four, five years ago, I’d just throw a fastball away. You can’t do that anymore. It could be the eight, nine-hole hitter and he can still hit an opposite-field homer.”
Verlander’s suspicions are tied to the MLB’s partnering last year with Seidler Equity Partners to purchase Rawlings Sporting Goods Company for $395 million.
“MLB is excited to take an ownership position in one of the most iconic brands in sports and further build on the Rawlings legacy, which dates back to 1887,” Chris Marinak, MLB’s executive vice president for strategy, technology and innovation, said at the time. “We are particularly interested in providing even more input and direction on the production of the official ball of Major League Baseball, one of the most important on-field products to the play of our great game.”
Verlander doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence.
“I find it really hard to believe that Major League Baseball owns Rawlings, and just coincidentally the balls become juiced,” he told Sports Illustrated.
Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said his group has spoken over the past few years to MLB officials about the ball.
“(Players) have sent us baseballs and offered commentary,” said Clark, who hit 251 home runs during his 15-year playing career.
“The game has changed. The ball is different. We haven’t gotten the why yet, but there’s been an acknowledgement that the ball is different.
“That difference is yielding different results on the field.”
One of the most obvious examples of an increase in home runs is the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Josh Bell, who hit 12 last year and will take 27 into the resumption of the season Friday in Chicago’s Wrigley Field.
But Bell is a big man (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) who spent the offseason getting stronger and working on his plate discipline. His work ethic explains his power surge more than anything that happens in a Rawlings factory. Besides, he hit 26 as a rookie two years ago.
As a team, the Pirates remain near the bottom of the majors in home runs, sitting 26th this season with 98 after finishing 25th, 29th, 26th and 23rd the previous four seasons.
They averaged 150 in those years, but in 2014, they were one of the best — sixth in the majors — while hitting only 156. The Oakland A’s are sixth this year (145) with 71 games to play.
Manfred scoffed at a question from a reporter who was kidding when he suggested someone at Rawlings could somehow doctor the ball while hitting the jackpot by betting the over every night.
Manfred promised transparency.
“If we make a decision to change the baseball, you’re going to know about it before we change the baseball,” he said.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .