CLEVELAND — Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred on Tuesday blamed naturally occurring variances in the manufacturing process of the baseball — and not a coordinated effort by the league to “juice” the balls to stimulate offense — for the altered aerodynamic properties that appear to be causing an acute spike in home runs this season, and he vowed full transparency as the league moves to correct the problem.
“We’ve gone back to the scientists and said: ‘We need to figure out why [this is happening]. And not only do we need to figure out why, but we also need to figure a process that lets us manage in advance how the ball’s going to perform,’ ” Manfred said. “We’re working on that. We’re trying as fast as we can. … If we make a decision to change the baseball, you’re going to hear about it.”
Manfred declined to address the specific charges Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander — the American League’s starting pitcher in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game — made Monday, when he told ESPN: “We all know what happened. Manfred [said], ‘We want more offense.’ All of a sudden, the balls are juiced? It’s not coincidence. We’re not idiots.”
But Manfred said he has sought and welcomed input from pitchers on the issue and has made it a priority to “get better control over that variation, tighten those specifications and get more comfortable with how the ball is going to perform year to year.”
MLB “has done nothing, given no direction for an alteration in the baseball,” he said. “ … The biggest flaw in that logic is that baseball somehow wants more home runs. If you sat in an owners’ meeting and listened to people talk about the way our game is being played, that is not the sentiment among the owners for whom I work. There is no desire on the part of ownership to increase the number of home runs in the game. On the contrary, they’re concerned about how many we have.”
In separate, hour-long question-and-answer sessions with members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, Manfred and players union chief Tony Clark discussed a wide range of issues, from the current labor atmosphere to the game’s economic health to the rollout of new and future rule changes.
But with the league on pace to shatter the 2017 record of 6,105 home runs — the current pace in 2019 of 1.37 per team game would produce 6,668 — the subject of the composition and performance of the baseball figured prominently in both sessions. Independent studies have confirmed a reduction in the ball’s drag coefficient this season — which permits more carry — and one study, published by the Athletic, pinpointed “demonstrably lower” seams as one likely culprit.
“We have engaged the other side,” Clark said. “ … The game has changed. The ball is different. The ‘why’ — we haven’t gotten the ‘why’ yet. But there’s been an acknowledgment that it’s different, and that difference, in part, is yielding different results on the field. So the question becomes, ‘What are you going to do about it?’… It’s safe to say, whether you’re a [pitcher] or a hitter, and there’s been a dramatic change suddenly in how the game is played, you’re going to ask questions.”
With labor relations strained by the offseason slowdown in the free agent market, among other issues, both Clark and Manfred on Tuesday took combative stances toward the other on occasion, as when Clark said “the goal posts have been moved” by the owners within the player-compensation system that traditionally has rewarded veteran players entering free agency — the “grand bargain,” as Clark put it.
The teams’ cautious approach to signing free agents over the past few offseasons, Clark said, has been “more structured and more coordinated” — widely interpreted as code for “collusive” — than in past years.
“When you start to hear the same story over and over again, you start to ask questions,” Clark said of the input he has received from players and agents about their experiences in free agency. “It seems different than we’ve seen in the past, and as a result of that, has us reflecting on those systems.”
Baseball’s current labor deal, agreed to in 2016, runs through 2021, but MLB has made what it says is the unprecedented step of inviting the union to propose midterm economic changes, although Manfred said those proposals have yet to be made.
“If in fact Tony has an idea about how he wants to make [free agency] different, we’ve told him — so I’m willing to say it here — ‘You need to tell us what mechanism you think will address your concerns about the market,’ ” Manfred said. “Do clubs manage their player-signing behavior different today than they did 10 years ago? Yeah, they do … because they manage it on data, analytics and algorithms that didn’t exist 10 years ago. And when people manage based on data and actual information as opposed to gut feelings about how the future is going to turn out, I think there is more consistency in how clubs approach and value individual players.”
At one point, Clark seemed to back the notion of abolishing the amateur draft — a radical step the union has not formally endorsed in the past — calling it “anti-union.”
Both executives were asked whether the NBA’s recent frenzied free agent signing period — which resulted in splashy, highly publicized deals for stars such as Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard — made them wish baseball could make its own free agent season as compelling, rather than the long, drawn-out and acrimonious process it has become. Their answers, as one might expect, were divergent.
“Those midnight phone calls, the helicopter views of players driving to and from the airport — that can happen. It can happen right now in our system, and it can happen in such a way that we rule the offseason, and the hot stove is officially hot,” Clark said. “All of that can happen right now. It’s just not. The commentary I got from the players was, ‘Why couldn’t that happen from our end? Wouldn’t it be great if it did?’ ”
Manfred, naturally, pointed out the structural differences between the leagues — most notably the salary cap and floor in the NBA — and joked that such a system in MLB is something he is happy to discuss with the union.
“Would it be a good thing for us … if we had a nonstop run of news conferences in San Diego, where all our major free agents signed?” Manfred said, referring to the site of the December 2019 winter meetings. “That would be good for the game. I 100 percent agree with that.”
But he added, “We have the freest free agency that’s out there,” citing baseball’s lack of a salary cap, franchise tags or maximum contracts. “And when you negotiate in that kind of a market, it’s going to play out the way the market is going to play out. In contrast, where everybody knows [in the NBA] there’s a very limited calendar, [and] everybody’s playing in the same sandbox in terms of what your minimum payroll is, what you maximum payroll is, and what you can spend on any individual player, that system’s going to play out very differently.”
Clark framed the issue as part of what he views as baseball’s larger failures in marketing its stars.
“The talent level of our players is off the charts, top to bottom,” he said. “There is truly an opportunity now to push our stars. Yeah, there’s a lot of attention around NBA free agency. They’ve done a tremendous job of promoting and marketing their players, and have done so for the last three decades, to where everything that happens now with those guys is a headline. I would love for our guys to find themselves in the same place.”
Manfred responded: “In the last 12 months, everything we have done from a marketing standpoint — from ‘Let the Kids Play,’ the postseason [ad campaign], the three new ads that debuted yesterday. You walk around Cleveland, and there is no baseball signage that is not player-focused.”
Clark singled out Boston Red Sox star Mookie Betts as someone who should be a “household name” and a “one-name guy.”
“You say Ronaldo, you say Messi, you say Mookie,” Clark said. “You should know who Mookie is. And outside the baseball world, I don’t know how many do.”
When asked how to fix that, Clark responded, “The gentleman who comes up next” — referring to Manfred — “would probably be in a better position to know how to fix that.”