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MLB cushions baseballs to liven up the game. Pitchers approve

Joe Maddon loves good bat-and-run plays, a timely stolen base, a well-executed sacrifice bunt, a two-strike hit and choke the bat to shallow right field.

The Angels manager may have gained notoriety for his new-age motivational techniques and early adoption of analytics, but when it comes to product on the baseball field, he’s old-school through and through.

That’s why the 67-year-old Maddon welcomed recent news reports that Major League Baseball had slightly cushioned the ball this season amid a six-year home run surge.

The changes are so subtle that they can result in blown balls traveling only a foot or two shorter when hit above 375 feet, but if that pushes baseball a small step back to its more traditional roots, it would be a huge leap for the game. in Maddon’s eyes.

« I hope it affects the game a lot, » Maddon said. “We will see how it works this year, but if, in fact, the ball does not travel that far, it will change the analytics of the game, and a lot of things will change that.

“Strategically speaking, he will put more emphasis on speed, on hitting the ball the wrong way, especially with two strikes, on contact. Strikeouts will be more despised, as they were in the past. Pitchers can challenge hitters more because they want the ball in play, and they won’t walk that many guys.

Angels manager Joe Maddon in a spring training game last February in Phoenix.

(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

An impossible dream (fastball)? Perhaps, but Maddon, who has spent more than four decades in a sport that has lagged behind the NFL in popularity and TV ratings and suffers from inaction, thinks he’s worth following.

« You never know until you actually try something, » he said. “I think part of the disinterest in the game today is that it has come down to little patterns of striking out people, taking walks and trying to hit home runs. When you change the ball, we can go back in time to where we had a better baseball brand.

Many think that the preponderance of the three true results of baseball: the home run, the walk and the strikeout, is hurting the sport.

A major league record of 6,776 home runs was hit during the 2019 regular season, and the home run rate fell only slightly in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, from 1.39 per team per game in 2019 to 1.28 per team per game. last season.

The current increase in home runs began in 2015, when home runs rose to 4,909 from 4,186 hits the previous season. There were 5,610 home runs in 2016, 6,105 home runs in 2017, and 5,585 home runs in 2018.

Batters also set strikeout records for the past three full seasons, with 40,104 whiffs in 2017, 41,207 whiffs in 2018, and 42,823 whiffs in 2019. Until 1997, baseball had never seen more than 30,000 strikeouts in a season. Walks went from 15,088 in 2016 to an average of 15,803 from 2017 to 2019.

« The general feeling I get from friends, family, and fans that I’ve talked to is that, yeah, watching home runs is almost like watching the NBA and guys hitting 3s all the time, » Rich Hill said. a 40-year-old pitcher who recently signed with the Tampa Bay Rays.

“He’s understandably right, but strategically, if we want to continue to improve the health of the game, we may want to reconsider where we are now. And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way.

Hitters are bigger and stronger and have a sharper hitting eye, and the dramatic increase in defensive changes in the past six years has pushed many to alter the launch angles of their swings to generate more loft. His logic is solid: a home run beats change every time.

With balls bouncing off bats and so many batter-friendly parks across the league, home runs were bound to increase. The slight variations in the ball also affected slugging. Many pitchers complained in 2019 that flatter seams forced them to change grip and reduced the ball’s drag in flight.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts recalled the frustration his pitchers would have when they hit a two-strike fastball down and out, only for the batter to throw his bat at the ball and hit a home run across the field.

“I haven’t done much research, but there have been a lot of pitchers in our camp who have expressed their feelings that last year’s baseball was a lot harder and the ropes got a lot tighter than they potentially will be this year, – Roberts said. « So it’s a welcome thing for pitchers. »

The Dodgers’ Corey Seager hits a home run against the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 4 of the 2020 World Series.

(Eric Gay / Associated Press)

Baseball’s attempts to bring uniformity to the construction of official Rawlings baseballs, which are hand-sewn in a factory in Costa Rica, could reduce year-to-year changes in home run rates and level the playing field between pitchers. and batters.

A February 5 memo sent by MLB to general managers, assistant general managers, and team managers outlined changes that could reduce slugging slightly in 2021. The content of the memo was first reported by Athletic and confirmed to The Times by a person familiar with the matter.

Rawlings has loosened the tension on the first of three yarn windings around the center of the ball, reducing the ball’s weight, by less than a tenth of an ounce, or 2.8 grams, as well as the ball’s bounce.

« MLB has hired a committee of scientific experts for the past several years to study baseball, » said a league official, « and one of the committee’s recommendations was to lower the manufacturing specifications of the ball to improve consistency of performance. «.

Five teams also plan to add humidors this season, bringing to 10 the number of stadiums that will store baseballs in humidity-controlled cabinets. The Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks, Seattle Mariners, New York Mets and Boston Red Sox already have humidors.

The memo did not identify the five teams that added humidors, but Angels and Dodgers officials confirmed they were not adding them.

« I’m pretty excited about that, I think it’s amazing news, » Rays ace Tyler Glasnow said of the changes to the ball. « It is funny. All pitchers knew that the balls were tighter. I don’t know if ‘juice’ is the word … but it was strange that everyone denied that the ball was squeezed, and now they say, ‘Well, they’re dead again’. Well, what happened before?

“It’s a strange setting, but personally, it’s great. I would love if they didn’t hit me any more home runs. So be it. I do not mind. Make them dead.

Right-handed veteran Yu Darvish, traded from the Chicago Cubs to the San Diego Padres this winter, noticed in his first bullpen workout of spring training that baseball felt “a little bit bigger. I don’t know how much less he’s going to fly, but as a pitcher, you don’t want the ball to fly that much.

Hitters are likely to wait to see how the new ball is transported before changing their approach. It will take weeks, probably months, to determine if a slightly more dead baseball will have an appreciable effect on how the game is played.

« Until we spend some time with baseball and really get to know it, we can’t answer that question, » said Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell. “I think it’s interesting that, for me, the fact that we made a change means that something was different. It’s almost an acknowledgment that there was something different.

Counsell doesn’t think livelier baseballs have given batters an advantage, not with so many starters and relievers pitching 95 mph or stronger and completing their repertoire with a variety of nasty sliders, curveballs, fastballs, and swings.

If anything, the all-or-nothing approach of so many hitters, who rarely shorten their swings with two strikes, gets right into the pitchers’ hands.

But like Maddon, Counsell believes the game will benefit from more balls in play.

« I think the game is biased towards pitchers right now, and a lot actually, » Counsell said. “I think the question is, would I like the game to lean towards more action? And that would be yes «.