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MLB

Baseball Should Kill The Baseball

Baseball players handle some baseballs.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty

What follows is a proposal for making baseball more fun. Not necessarily as a narrative to track across a 162-game season, although I think it would accomplish that as well. This proposal is aimed at spicing up the couple hours spent watching a garden-variety midsummer regular-season baseball game. A relatively simple change, handled entirely away from the field itself, which could bring more action and more variety to the sport. Simply kill the ball.

MLB’s dubious success at orchestrating a season mid-pandemic and Justin Turner’s potentially super-spreading post-World Series love-fest have accomplished at least this: Nobody is much talking about what seemed to be guiding the big-picture decision-making of baseball’s stewards as recently as last season, which is that evidently they do not think much of their sport. Some of the innovations shoehorned into this truncated season—the extra-innings baserunner, the three-batter rule, and the expanded playoffs—are addressed at commissioner Rob Manfred’s longtime concern that baseball has become boring and shitty. Restrictions on the between-pitch movements of batters, bringing the Designated Hitter to the National League, and an eventual, inevitable pitch clock are also aimed at making MLB’s action zippier, more accessible, and more interesting.

I don’t find baseball to be especially boring. Annoyingly challenging and expensive to watch on television, yes, but still a reasonably good time. But so long as baseball is open to suggestions, there is something they could do to make the game more interesting for me, an easily distracted goofus: They could kill the ball! Dingers are simply too common. The dinger is too available, and therefore too valuable, and it makes some of the other fun stuff—the stolen base, the bunt single, the squeeze, the uhh National League—too impractical. Dingers are great! But baseball is most fun when the ball is pinging around and players are sprinting and sliding and taking chances. The default offensive action in baseball should not be the uppercut swing. It should be the hit-and-run!

The modern baseball, quite simply, is too good at flying. It does not generate enough friction when it spins in the air, or whatever. A ball that does not do frictions in the air is too easy to throw 100 miles per hour, and is too easy to sock over the outfield wall. The KBO League of South Korea, which just in general has better ideas about what is fun in a baseball game, observed that it, too, had too many dingers. What did they do? They deadened the baseball! While MLB was screwing around with reliever workloads and arbitrary baserunners, the KBO in 2019 was actively decreasing something called the coefficient of restitution (COR) value of their baseballs, so that they would simply fly less. As explained by Sung Min Kim for FanGraphs, the higher the COR, the better the ball will fly off the bat.

Last year, the KBO allowed baseball COR values between .4134 and .4374. To put that in contrast, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) in Japan allows it to be between .4034 and .4234; MLB allows between .3860 and .4005. The KBO decided to lower it to the NPB’s Mizuno baseball level of between .4034 and .4234.

FanGraphs

KBO lowered its COR and produced a few cool short-term outcomes: lower offensive numbers, a downward trend in power production, and even a shorter average game time. You will note that their COR is still higher than MLB’s, but the effect is what’s important. Give the ball more drag, and power production will decrease. To me, a very serious science journalist and understander of physics, MLB’s path forward is quite simple: decrease the average COR until the ball is sufficiently dejuiced to allow a less dinger-centric game.

Astrophysicist and data scientist Dr. Meredith Wills has been all over the aerodynamics of the MLB ball. Last year, for The Athletic, she yanked apart a bunch of official game balls and studied their properties, in order to track and understand changes in the ball’s performance from year to year. What she showed is that a smaller, rounder, smoother ball, with flatter seams, was flying better and farther than the relatively bigger, coarser, fatter-seamed and more irregularly shaped balls of prior years. Presumably the KBO adjusted things like size and texture and seam height when deadening their balls. I don’t know! I am neither a baseball manufacturer nor an astrophysicist. On the other hand, how hard can it be? Here are some sensible ideas for how MLB can get this done:

  • Go over the baseballs with a power sander before every game
  • Replace the string used to stitch the seams with the yarn my grandmother used to make afghan blankets
  • Replace the leather skin of the ball with burlap
  • Replace the three wrapping layers around the baseball’s cork core with Play-Doh
  • Replace the core itself with Play-Doh

You will note that we have not resorted to anything as dramatic as making the ball U-shaped, or as large as a basketball. That is because we still want the ball to fly and bounce and roll like a baseball, and to fit into a standard baseball glove, and for pitchers to be able to spin that sucker so that it curves and slides and breaks, and “stuff” is still a thing. Baseball will still be recognizable with a dead ball. It will simply be returned to a prior era of baseball, one handily referred to as The Dead Ball Era. Under my proposal, we will aim for something just uphill of there. Perhaps a Terminally Ill Ball Era. I don’t know, we can work on the name.

Baseball is most fun when there is the maximum amount of variety in it, because its games are long and its season is long, and players are mostly standing still even at the best of times. Optimization of any number of facets of the game—pitch counts, times through the lineup, the true value of an out, etc.—has made it somewhat less interesting. Still interesting! But not as interesting as it could be. Dejuicing the ball and re-emphasizing things like directional hitting, speed and aggression on the base paths, and the bunt single would make the game more interesting. Perhaps not for everyone, but for me, the author of this blog. Kill the ball.