By Bob Nightengale |
They walked slowly out of the New York Yankees clubhouse down the corridor, took a left into a private family room, and were escorted into a bathroom.
This is where Major League Baseball’s drug testers took several players Wednesday morning before their game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, customary practice for a sport trying to avoid another steroids scandal.
The trouble is that the drug testing police, trying to keep the sport as pure as possible, are hauling in the wrong guys.
The ones who needed to be drug-tested are those five-ounce baseballs.
In interviews this past month with everyone from pitchers to scouts to umpires to team officials, they informed USA TODAY Sports that today’s baseball may be juiced more than anyone’s body during the height of baseball’s ugly steroids era.
“Come on, just tell us,’’ Boston Red Sox veteran starter David Price says. “We all see it. Just come clean and say it.’’
Major League Baseball insists there has been no change in the manufacturing of the baseball, but commissioned independent reports last year which determined there is less of a drag on the baseball, which has become even more evident this year.
“They could not conclude why that is,’’ Commissioner Rob Manfred said Thursday at the Associated Press Sports Editors commissioners meetings in Manhattan, “but they did have some theories, which in part were that the baseball is a hand-made product that is almost exclusively made from natural products. The result of that is there’s going to be some variations in baseballs. You cannot escape that fact.
“We’re in that range of variation that we don’t know how to eliminate. When the drag goes down, the ball goes further, and you’re going to have more home runs.’’
There were a record 1,144 homers hit in March and April, averaging 2.62 homers a game, an increase of 12.2 percent from a year ago. There were a record 6,105 home runs hit in 2017, but now we’re on pace for nearly 6,500 home runs.
“I hate to dive too deep into conspiracy theories,’’ says New York Yankees veteran pitcher JA Happ, “but it’s pretty wild what’s happening. I don’t want to take anything away from anybody, but some of these homers that go out, you just shake your head. A guy thinks he has a chance almost all of the time now when he gets the ball in the air.
“Nothing surprises you anymore. It used to be that you kind of knew for sure when a guy got you, and now you don’t know. You see hitters get frustrated, put their head down, and think they missed it, but the ball still goes out.
“You hate to talk about it too much because it’s like you’re trying to make excuses, but the numbers are what they are.’’
There are more home runs being hit these days than ever before in baseball history, yes, more than even when players were juicing out of their mind during the steroid era.
There are 16 players on pace to hit at least 40 homers, four players on pace to hit at least 60, and two players — Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers — to reach nearly 70.
And to think, just a year ago, Nolan Arenado of the Colorado Rockies led the National League in homers with 38.
Three teams — the Minnesota Twins, Seattle Mariners and Brewers — are on pace to hit more than 300 homers, shattering the Yankees’ season-single record of 267 last year. The Baltimore Orioles gave up a Major League record 73 homers in March and April, and are on pace to surrender a staggering 381 homers, 123 more than any team in baseball history.
And they’re going further than we’ve ever seen. There have already been a staggering 50 home runs hit 441 feet or longer, according to MLB Statcast, and 26 homers of at least 450 feet.
“And I don’t even believe Statcast,’’ Price said. “I think they’re being hit even further. I bring out my (golf) range finder, and that doesn’t lie.’’
If you want proof that something strange is happening with the baseballs, check out the numbers in Triple-A. This is the first season that Major League Baseballs are being used in the Pacific Coast League and International League, and their home-run rate has spiked by a staggering 47.1% – 2.56 homers a game from 1.74 a year ago.
“That kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it,’’ Cubs veteran starter Jon Lester says. “The numbers are through the roof.’’
The pitchers are asking for a simple explanation, and if the balls have changed, no harm, no foul. Just please just tell them.
“If they would come out and were straight forward, just, acknowledge what they’ve done,’’ Yankees veteran reliever Zack Britton says, “it would be easier to accept. People would understand rather than just try to disguise it as something it’s not.
“Hey, I get it. You want to bring in a new generation of fans, that’s the goal. We’re in the entertainment business. It’s something to give to the fans to draw them back, and as pitchers, we’ve got to adapt.
“But it would make everybody’s job a lot easier if they would just come out and say, “Hey we decided to do this to create more offense.’ They can do it. It’s in their rights. It’s not against the CBA [collective bargaining agreement]. It’s almost like they’re trying to save face to an extent.’’
Certainly, baseball would love for someone to come along and break Barry Bonds’ single-season record of 73 homers, whether its Bellinger and Yelich, or even Tommy La Stella. La Stella already has hit seven home runs for the Los Angeles Angels, just three shy of his career total of 10 in 828 at-bats.
The more home runs are hit, the longer they go, the more attention it attracts.
“I think there’s something up with the ball,’’ Lester says. “It seems almost like the ones they use in the Home-Run derby with the way it flies. But that’s the thing baseball people want to see, all of these homers, and how far they went. It gives the millennials something to look at and talk about with all of the stats, spin rates, launch angles and all of that stuff.
“But coming from a pitcher, it looks like an excuse.’’
Says Washington Nationals closer Sean Doolittle: “It’s a bummer we’re even talking about this because of how poorly it was handled in previous years where the ball was different and we never got a straight answer on it. It just stinks that we’re able to ask this question, ‘Did they change the balls again?’
“If the balls are juiced, or if they’re different and flying farther, just tell everybody so everybody knows.”
Still, with no scientific evidence the ball has changed, the tell-tale sign that something is dramatically different, pitchers say, is the way so many hitters are reacting when they hit the ball. Sure, there are still the bat flips and star gazing when guys hit the ball deep into the night, but there’s plenty of hitters sprinting out of the batter’s box when they make contact, believing they may have hit a double off the wall, and not having the ball land 20 rows into the stands.
“That’s all you need to see,’’ Price said. “These balls are going 430, 440 feet, and they’re running full-sprint, and don’t think it’s a homer. They’re not even getting all of it, and they’re hitting homers to center field. That should not happen. Period.’’
Says Diamondbacks reliever Archie Bradley: “Most guys know when they hit a homer, but there are a lot of balls where the hitter doesn’t even know he really got it. That’s the thing that makes you wonder.’’
Certainly, there are other factors in play in the modern-day home run derby. Hitters step up to the plate these days looking to homer, with no interest in a measly single, with nearly 16% of the hits being a homer. Pitchers are trying to elevate the ball to counter the launch-angle phenomenon, and when they miss, the ball can go a long way.
“I think a lot of it too is that guys throw a lot more off-speed (pitches),’’ Britton says, “ and you have a tendency to make a mistake more often with an off-speed pitch than with a fastball. If you make a mistake with a fastball, you can get away with it a lot of times. A spinning curveball, or instance, can get whacked.’’
Indeed, Statcast reveals that only four of the 450-plus homers this season were on fastballs 95-mph or harder, with 18 of those homers on pitches thrown 90-mph or less.
“I really do believe there’s a lot of factors involved,’’ Britton says. “We get all of that. All of these homers are good for the game. Fans love it.
“All we’re asking is just don’t lie to us.’’