Is MLB's ball juiced? Pitchers strongly believe something's not right

MIAMI - Major League Baseball pitchers have spent this season trying to stay cool about it, keeping their angst to themselves, hoping it was nothing more than an anomaly.

Well, with the game's home-run surge only getting more absurd by the day, with more homers being hit now than at any time in baseball history, this proud pitching fraternity can no longer keep quiet.

Commissioner Rob Manfred, the Rawlings baseball manufacturers, and any number of lab techs keep telling us the baseballs haven’t changed this year. 

For those making a living throwing these same baseballs, something awfully strange is going on.

“One hundred percent,’’ Boston Red Sox pitcher David Price said. “We have all talked about it.’’

No one is publicly accusing Major League Baseball of secretly juicing the baseballs, and testing is still is assuring that most players aren’t juicing their bodies, but the majority of pitchers interviewed by USA TODAY Sports believe the balls used this season have changed from a year ago.

“There's a lot of people unhappy with the baseball, and I’m getting the same feedback,’’ says New York Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen. “You’re seeing guys going opposite field, breaking their bats, and the balls are flying out.

“It’s the balls. They’re throwing harder with it, but they’re getting less movement, so they’re just hanging there.

“There has got to be some investigation.’’

The balls not only are acting differently when hit, the pitchers say, but they simply don’t feel the same as a year ago.

“There’s just something different about the baseballs,’’ Miami Marlins veteran reliever Brad Ziegler said. “I don’t have anything to quantify it, but the balls just don’t feel the same. It just feels different to me, a little harder, tighter than the past.

“I know there’s something legitimate about hitters going after certain launch angles, and changing their approach, but at the same time, you watch guys who have a lot of movement on their pitches, and those balls aren’t moving as much.

“And they’re being hit a long ways.

“Basically, it feels like every park is Colorado.’’

There have been 2,922 homers entering Thursday’s games. At a rate of 2.52 homers per game, MLB is on pace to eclipse 6,000 homers, shattering the all-time high.

That came in the height of baseball's so-called steroid era, when 5,693 homers -- 2.34 per game -- were hit in the 2000 season.

Baseball could surpass that by September -- despite the fact the major league fly ball has increased less than 1 percent from 2016.

There already are 14 players who have 20 or more homers this year, putting them on 40-homer paces for the season. A year ago, just eight players hit 40 homers. Three years ago, Nelson Cruz of the Seattle Mariners was the only hitter with 40.

Dodger Stadium, long considered a pitcher’s paradise, is now the ninth-best place to hit home runs. Cavernous Target Field in Minneapolis, which was the most difficult place to hit homers when it opened in 2010, is now the fifth-easiest this year. The only place harder to hit homers than in Oakland a year ago was across the Bay in San Francisco, but it has surrendered the 11th-most homers.

“It just feels like there’s been a lot of home runs being hit by guys who normally don’t hit them, or by guys who normally don’t him them where they hit them,’’ Mets veteran reliever Jerry Blevins said. “I’ve seen so many home runs that just don’t look normal.

“Even at our place, (pitcher) Jake deGrom hit an opposite-field homer. I mean, he’s a good hitter, but oppo power at Citi Field? You normally don’t see that by anybody.

“Crazy, isn’t it?’’

The Mets couldn’t believe their eyes when they gave up a franchise-record 15 homers in a four-game series to the Dodgers last week. It was the most homers in four games by the Dodgers in franchise history, and the most by any team in the 55-year history of Dodger Stadium. Rookie Cody Bellinger, who leads the National League with 24 homers despite not being called up until April 25, hit three homers in six at-bats against the Mets.

“I’m staying away from my candid thoughts,’’ Tampa Bay Rays ace Chris Archer says, “but I know this for a fact: Triple-A balls travel 30 less feet than the major league ball, with the same exit velocity and launch angle. It’s wound differently in the minor leagues, which has an effect on your breaking ball, the movement of your fastball, with how the ball carries off the bat. …

“Bellinger, he didn’t showcase this kind of power (in the minor leagues) because a fly ball to the warning track is now a homer.’’

Bellinger averaged a home run every 18 at-bats over his final 554 minor league at-bats. Since his April 25 debut, Bellinger is hitting a home run every 9.3 at-bats in the big leagues.

Major League Baseball insists its baseballs are no different than a year ago, and while acknowledging fan surveys that show the popularity of home runs, Manfred scoffs at the conspiracy theories.

“As a quality control effort,’’ MLB said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports, “we routinely conduct in-season and off-season testing of baseballs in conjunction with our consultants at UMass-Lowell to ensure that they meet our specifications. All recent test results have been within the specifications.

“In addition, we used a third-party consultant (Alan Nathan) to test whether the baseball had any impact on offense in recent years, and he found no evidence of that.’’

It contradicts studies by The Ringer, which discovered that baseballs -- since roughly the 2015 All-Star break --  have become smaller with lower seams, resulting in the power surge.

“The seams are different and the balls are a lot harder,’’ Mets manager Terry Collins said. “I remember on Father’s Day, a ball got fouled back into the dugout and Dan Warthen came over and said, 'Feel this ball.’

“It was as hard a ball as I’ve ever felt.

“And with these seams different, you’re seeing guys getting more blisters.’’

Price, who has been struggling with blister and cracked nail problems this season, may be Exhibit A.

“Absolutely,’’ he said. “Never have I ever gotten a blister on my ring finger. I had a huge one. And now that’s gone, I have a cracked nail on my middle finger.’’

San Francisco Giants ace Johnny Cueto is hesitant to blame this year’s baseballs, but did acknowledge this is the first time in his career that he’s had blisters on the index finger and middle finger of his pitching hand.

“There’s not much of a seam on the ball anymore,’’ Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander recently told the Detroit Free Press. “When you got up to the big leagues, if you picked up a minor league ball to a big league ball, the seams were always wound tighter, just a little smaller. It was noticeable, but now you look at the ball and try to look at it from the side, there isn’t one. There is no seam.’’

Washington Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux says he hasn’t noticed a change in baseballs by the touch, but, oh, when they’re hit, he sure sees the difference.

“You just sit there and scratch your head,’ he says.

Says Rays pitcher Alex Cobb: “I’ve been at the Trop my whole career, and I’ve never seen so many balls hit catwalks. You used to see once a homestand, maybe. Now it’s twice a game, sometimes.’’

There have already been 26 homers that have traveled at least 460 feet this season, with four players -- Aaron Judge, Kennys Vargas, Chad Pinder and Jorge Soler -- hitting homers of 470 feet or more.

“I think the old eye test is the best thing to go by,’’ Verlander said. “You see balls leaving the yard that otherwise shouldn’t. Whether it’s juiced or not, I don’t know.

“I wish, if it was true, that MLB would just say, ‘Yeah, you know, we wanted more offense, we juiced them just a little bit.' At least then, it’s like, ‘OK, we’re all on the same playing field, we got the same ball in our hands.’ But the explanation of why home runs are going out at such an extreme rate, I think people just want answers to that.

“Specifically, the pitchers.’’

As for the hitters? Predictably, they are less bullish on the juiced-ball theory, citing superior physical conditioning, a greater emphasis on going all-in on power and, to a far lesser extent, the advent of advanced data such as launch angles and exit velocity. 

"As hitters, we all know the strikeout rate is increasing," says Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Josh Harrison. "So if that’s going to increase, something else has to increase for us. You’ve got the shift taking away hits up the middle, and balls that used to be hits are now outs.

"Averages may go down, strikeouts may go up -- but power numbers may go up."

So, too, are pitchers' ERA -- 4.32 overall, the highest since 2007. Even Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ three-time Cy Young award winner, is yielding a 2.47 ERA -- his highest in five years -- while already surrendering a career-high 17 homers.

How can so many of the game’s greatest pitchers be giving up more homers than at any time in their careers without something funny going on?

“Baseball has talked a long time about getting offense in the game,’’ Marlins veteran reliever David Phelps said. “So whether it’s us pitchers struggling or the hitters doing a better job of driving the ball out of the ballpark, it’s happened.

“They’re probably not too upset about it.

“But we, as pitchers, just want answers. We want to know what changed because there’s definitely a difference with the way balls are flying out of the ballpark. If there’s a reason, we just want to know what it is.’’

Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz and Gabe Lacques

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© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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