MLB’s deadened ball: A big mistake or no big deal?

The question was kicked around the virtual writer’s room for a bit: Was Major League Baseball’s newly deadened ball a mistake? One writer wanted to do something on the offense in general. I looked askance at the question myself because the notion sort of failed an eye test, as in, “Those balls are still pretty damned lively.”

My own hometown slugger, Bryce Harper, already had a 468-foot homer to his credit. Others like Giancarlo Stanton had the media gushing by propelling balls into the stands at frightening speeds that definitely belied the notion of a deadened ball. But overall, batting averages were down.

MLB’s deadened ball: Oh no! Fewer home runs AND a slower game?

What was the truth? Had the ball genuinely been deadened?

As with many matters in regard to high level sports, the answer is a firm yes and no. As Devan Fink explains, citing the work of colleagues at Fangraphs, “the new baseball is bouncier, yielding higher exit velocities than in years past, and also possesses more drag, as it is not traveling as far.”

Stop and think about this for a moment, OK?

Got it? Now, what is an MLB pitcher’s greatest complaint this spring? That’s right – the seams on the ball are too low and finding a correct grip is more difficult. Thus, we are led to this less than profound scientific conclusion: “That’s a pretty good trick.”

Essentially, the current MLB deadened ball is both “rounder” and yet has more drag. What’s inside there? Are the balls wound the same way? Is the yarn different?

Whatever the answers to these questions, the overall effect is that MLB’s deadened ball is costing the game home runs at lower launch angles. Now, this is not to say that it is impossible to hit such a home run, of course. On May 8, Phillies second baseman Jean Segura demonstrated that by slamming a two-run screamer into the left field corner in Atlanta that cleared the wall by about a foot or two and never seemed to rise above 15 feet off the ground.

And this leads to something else Fink points out: While home runs are down in baseball this year, it’s not as though the home run binge MLB’s been on for years has been halted. In other words, homers in April only fell off to a level like the one we had way back in…2017.

April’s 873 homers were 10 more than April of that year, over 100 more than in April of ’16, and nearly 300 more than in April of ’15.

Moreover, it’s not clear the drop is entirely because of the deadened ball. Remember the pandemic-shortened season last summer? Perhaps it affected hitters more than pitchers (despite all their whining about lower seams).

Maybe next year baseball can come up with a ball that forces more ground balls somehow. Then, maybe, hitters can learn to hit to the opposite field better.