New study says 2019 playoff balls were de-juiced, but MLB still has no answers

Tribune Content Agency

Baseball has enough problems to deal with. For one thing, it’s nearly April and there’s no baseball. Still, a problem found does not resolve a problem left for later, and there is at least one major unresolved issue from last season: the so-called “juiced ball,” and whether or not MLB made a quick-change for the 2019 playoffs.

Thanks to new research using game-used balls, clarity may finally be near.

The 2019 MLB season saw a record 6,776 home runs, up nearly 1,200 from the previous year and far exceeding anything from the infamous “steroid era.”

Then, suddenly, whatever caused the baseball to rupture the atmosphere from April through September vanished in October. Fly ball distances plummeted through the postseason, leading outside researchers and at least one team’s in-house analytical department to attempt to pin down a common cause. Confused outfielders ran button hooks on shallow flies they were sure had left the yard.

Meanwhile, MLB and its ball manufacturer, Rawlings, won’t provide a coherent explanation for why its equipment became so unpredictable, especially in the playoffs. “The 2019 postseason balls were pulled from the same production run as the 2019 regular season balls, just as in prior seasons,” said MLB EVP of Baseball Economics & Operations Morgan Sword, in a statement to the Daily News.

So the official word is “nothing to see here.” But if one researcher’s latest study on playoff baseballs is correct, the league’s statement is incomplete and misleading. According to Dr. Meredith Wills, a sports data scientist with a PhD in astrophysics, the postseason ball acted differently, because some of them were different. Some, but not all.

“First of all we’re looking — and this is actually the big thing here — at a mix of 2019, and certainly 2018 (but possibly further back) balls,” Wills told her audience at the Society for American Baseball Research’s 2020 SABR Analytics Conference. She also showed both intact and disassembled Rawlings game baseballs (some even game-used) from the 2019 postseason, which visitors could observe and touch. This access to the actual balls makes Wills’ research different from other examinations of ball behavior, because, as she explained, MLB baseballs can’t lie about their age.

(The News confirmed Wills acquired her sample from individuals with access to game balls.)

The inside of every MLB ball contains what’s called a Batch Designation Code — a code used by Rawlings that can be traced to the ball’s production cycle. Wills, who said she’s dissected over 100 baseballs, was able to build upon her previous SABR Award-winning research to decipher the code and track the game balls to their respective season.

According to Wills, some of these playoff balls had batch codes consistent with the 2019 regular season, while others had batch codes identical to baseballs dated no later than the 2018 regular season.

(Wills could not reveal the specific code on her postseason game-balls baseballs to ensure the confidentiality of her independent sources, but she did explain the deciphered rubric during her presentation, which you can watch on YouTube.)

You don’t need to dig into the guts of the ball to see the change, however. It’s obvious to the touch. One of the biggest changes to the 2019 regular-season ball — which was noted at the time by players — was thinner laces. Wills’ 2019 postseason balls with older batch codes also had thicker laces, which would line up with the older balls.

If Wills’ claims and sources are correct, her study provides a compelling explanation for the postseason wackiness. It explains why Baseball Prospectus columnist Rob Arthur’s outside research on the postseason baseball found performance swings from game to game.

In December, MLB’s home run committee — a collection of scientists commissioned by MLB to independently study the baseball — stated there was “no reason to suspect a change in the performance properties of the baseball” because Rawlings used the same manufacturing process for regular and postseason baseballs, even as their tests identified a sharp change in postseason ball performance. In other words, the study itself said there was a drastic change, but the manufacture of the ball was ruled out as a matter of course.

The results of Wills’ study suggest the committee’s claim may be faulty.

Her contention was not that Rawlings changed their manufacturing process from the 2019 regular season to the playoffs, but that the postseason baseball was sourced from different regular seasons — some produced for 2019 and others 2018. If Wills is right, Rawlings gave both sets the same official 2019 postseason stamp.

If the home run committee was provided a truly representative sample of 2019 postseason balls, then Wills’ findings suggest that MLB supplied them with a sample that included both — which would produce precisely the results they reported.

If MLB wanted to at least attempt to substantiate their claim or invalidate Wills’, either the league or Rawlings — which the league acquired in 2018 with the stated intent of “providing even more input and direction on the production of the official ball” — could release their batch code rubric publicly.

Instead, the league and Rawlings have provided an increasingly convoluted set of denials and explanations, without offering physical evidence confirming when the baseballs were made. And that’s if you’re lucky enough to get a response at all.

MLB’s Sword declined the News’ requests for an interview, as did Rawlings CEO Michael Zlaket. Both pointed to Rawlings Chief Marketing Officer Mike Thompson as the man to answer questions about the ball.

While Thompson did not dispute the research itself, he expressed skepticism about the veracity of Wills’ game balls.

“If they were game-used balls, then they would have had to come from that 2019 production cycle,” Thompson reasoned. “(If) she’s getting balls from other sources, other than the clubhouse, meaning a concessionaire or a retailer or whatnot, there could definitely be a difference.”

When asked to account for the baseball’s change in 2019 performance, Thompson told the News, “I can’t answer that,” before trying anyway.

“Obviously, the pitching is much, much better,” said Thompson, depending on the well-worn maxim that great pitching beats great hitting. “That’s got to be a big part of it.”

Upon hearing Thompson’s explanation, one MLB pitcher acknowledged the higher caliber of pitching but expressed his firm disagreement with the Rawlings CMO’s theory to the Daily News.

“Everything we saw as players would have said that the baseball was different,” said the pitcher, who requested to remain anonymous. “His statement would be pretty easy for somebody to essentially poke a bunch of holes in.”

(In fact, MLB’s study confirmed exactly that: The postseason baseball itself performed differently.)

Drawing from his experience in not just the 2019 playoffs, but his numerous playoff experiences throughout the decade, the pitcher told the News that both he and his teammates noticed a substantial difference in the feel of baseballs, especially at their home ballpark.

“They were incredibly white and incredibly slippery to me. They were very, very difficult to hold,” said the pitcher. “I mean at one point … After I came out of the game, I saved the ball that was in the game because it was so noticeably white that it stood out, took it in and showed one of our clubhouse guys and said ‘There’s no way that’s one of our baseballs.’ ”

In fairness, Thompson is not a pitcher, and he’s definitely not a scientist, which he readily and repeatedly admitted by couching his theory as “one man’s opinion.” Still, that one man is the only person MLB and Rawlings will allow to speak on the matter. Until that changes, the baseballs will continue to speak for themselves.


©2020 New York Daily News

Visit New York Daily News at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.