Lively Baseballs Back in Japan
I read a good article by Jay Jaffe on Sports Illustrated’s website today regarding the fact that Nippon Professional Baseball officials have just now admitted that they have re-introduced lively baseballs back into NPB.
My only criticism of the article is that it is entitled “A Juiced Baseball Scandal in Japan.” C’mon, what scandal?
As the article states, a couple of years ago NPB introduced new baseballs, apparently to make the balls more similar to those used in MLB. As a result, offense in NPB fell off a cliff.
It only took NPB two years to figure out what everyone in professional baseball ought to know by now: fans like offense, particularly the casual fans who drive increases or decreases in attendance. NPB’s attendance was down slightly each of the last two years (although that could have had something to do with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in March 2011 and the short-term hit it put on the Japanese economy).
Anyway, NPB did the sensible thing and put some more spring back into their baseballs. Batting averages and home runs are back up to more fan-pleasing, but hardly crazy levels (Hector Luna at .383 and Matt Murton at .352 are the only hitters currently batting more than .350 in the young season, and the guys hitting a bunch of home runs (Tony Blanco, Wladimir Valentien, Shinnosuke Abe and Michel Abreau) are the guys you’d expect to be hitting a bunch of home runs).
The only possible scandal is that NPB officials are only just now admitting that new baseballs are in use. Frankly, I can understand why they waited. If they said at the beginning of the season that NPB was using new baseballs and offense didn’t go up, they’d look rather foolish. I don’t see how anyone is hurt one way or the other if NPB kept the new baseballs under their caps for ten weeks.
The rest of Jaffe’s article is terrific, with a nice summary of changes to baseballs through MLB’s history since circa 1910 and the impact of specification tolerances on MLB baseballs from year to year. In other words, even baseballs manufactured to meet MLB’s specifications come out in a range of performance, with some balls a little lighter or heavily or more or less tightly wound.
The upshot is that some baseballs can be hit as much as 50 feet further with the same home run stroke. At the level of play and parity in MLB, this can make a noticeable difference in home run rates from year to year.
There have also been gradual changes in the materials used to make baseballs, such as switching from horse-hide to cow-hide in 1974 and using more synthetic fibers and substances, which have impacted how hard and far baseballs can be hit.
Perhaps the most interesting tidbit in Jaffe’s piece is that the increase in home run rates from 1994 through 2009, generally attributed to rampant steroid use in MLB, may have been just as attributable to small alterations to the baseballs used during this period.