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Slick Baseballs at the World Series

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Houston Astros pitcher Lance McCullers. Photo: Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

There’s an interesting situation going on at the World Series this year in that pitchers for both the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers have noted the baseball is slicker than during the regular season. You might ask: Hey, they are all playing with the same ball, what difference does it make? I think it does make a difference. The slick ball affects particular pitchers more adversely than others and this will change the outcome of games.

The idea is relatively simple. Some pitches require a better grip on the ball than others. The pitch that is generally thought to require the most grip is called a slider. Thus, pitchers who rely on the slider to get outs are much more adversely affected than pitchers who rely on, say, their fastball. If one of the two teams have pitchers who use sliders more than their opponent, this will have a big impact on who wins the World Series. And this is a problem, not only in reality but in perception of fairness. Did MLB intentionally do this to favor the Astros? The Dodgers? Is it a plot?

The first thing we must examine is if the accusation has merit. While it is one thing for the players to complain about the situation, it is another to look at it from a metrics based point of view. According to one source, Astros pitcher Lance McCullers felt a number of balls and could instantly tell which were the World Series balls and which were regular season balls.

In addition, a study of metrics seems to indicate pitchers are having a difficult time throwing sliders and getting outs. As an example, Justin Verlander threw seventeen sliders in the second game of the series. Of those seventeen, there was only one swing and miss. This is the fewest outcomes of that nature for Verlander all season. Dodger pitcher Yu Darvish, who struggled mightily in Game 3 did not get a single swing and miss on a slider for the first time all season. The slider is one of Darvish’s main pitches. Other metrics from other pitchers are in line with the idea the ball is slicker.

Back in 2010 Dusty Baker was manager of the Cincinnati Reds and something of a similar nature happened. In a pair of early season games against my beloved St. Louis Cardinals, the baseballs used were not rubbed down enough and were slick. Again, at first glance this might appear to not give an advantage but the reality is they affect one pitcher more than the other. I have little doubt Baker was attempting to gain a competitive advantage. When he tried the stunt on Chris Carpenter, Carpenter refused to play along and threw ball after ball back to the umpire. I strongly suspect someone from MLB spoke to Baker about the incident and it never recurred.

I think it’s reasonably safe to say the balls are slicker. MLB is suggesting the change might be in the way the balls are rubbed before the game. That the balls are exactly the same as those used during the regular season except stamped differently. The blind test done by McCullers would seem to invalidate this claim.

It’s possible the league wants more home runs, it’s possible the league is angling for a Dodgers victory, or an Astros win. It’s impossible to say for certain. What can be said with certitude is there will be a cloud over the outcome of this World Series. Whatever the motivation, the result is fodder for conspiracy theories. That is a bad outcome.

We should not have to worry about this sort of thing. And, more to the point, there is no solution. What’s done is done. Even if the league fixed it at this late date, it wouldn’t mute the perception of shenanigans.

Shame on you MLB.

By Tom Liberman

Tom Liberman is a regular fellow from St. Louis, Mo., who enjoys spending time with his wonderful family and great friends. He writes Sword and Sorcery fantasy novels in his spare time. 

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