Sports

Klein ’20: Embrace the era of the juiced baseball

By
Sports Columnist
Thursday, November 2, 2017

This year’s World Series featured baseball at its most exhilarating — full of comebacks, drama, tension and, of course, home runs. In seven games, the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers combined for 25 homers — a World Series record — and set many other records along the way. Game 2 of the series, a 7-6 Astros win, was an offensive explosion with eight home runs in total, which was also a World Series record.

But not everyone is so pleased with the offensive display. Whether or not the baseballs have been altered to enhance offense and home runs was a source of conversation and angst throughout the season. The story only picked up steam in the postseason, with one home run hit after another. The World Series baseballs have come under special fire, as they have felt markedly different according to Houston and Los Angeles’ pitchers. The New York Times published an article Sunday about the new slickness of the balls, which included a quote from Astros starter Justin Verlander, who told reporters “I know (Commissioner Rob Manfred) said the balls haven’t changed, but I think there’s enough evidence out there to say that’s not true.”

Several other key figures beyond just Verlander illustrated their concerns. Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said “(Yu Darvish) noticed the difference … he had trouble throwing the slider because of how slick they were.” “Obviously, the balls are juiced,” said Dallas Keuchel after his Game 2 start. Lance McCullers Jr. added that “It’s 100 percent real … the balls are different.”

Some refuted these claims. Dodgers starter Rich Hill said “I think (the balls) have been extremely consistent in the World Series and also in the playoff games as well.” Manfred unsurprisingly defended the baseballs, saying “I’m absolutely confident that the balls we’re using are within our established specifications … making a judgement based on seeing home runs in a single game doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Considering that the complaints are coming from the pitchers themselves, who spend all game with the baseballs in their hands, it certainly seems likely that the balls have been manipulated somehow. But that is not something for the fan to lament about. Juiced balls should be celebrated.

The home run spike first began in the second half of the 2015 season and only picked up in 2016. There were 40.7 at-bats per home run in 2014, compared to 34.9 in 2015, 30.5 in 2016 and 27.7 in 2017.

This season alone has been witness to some of the great campaigns of this generation — Giancarlo Stanton’s 59 home runs and 132 RBI, Aaron Judge’s spectacular breakout performance of 52 home runs and 114 RBI at 25 years of age and Jose Altuve’s tremendous all-around year — a .346 batting average, 24 home runs and 32 stolen bases.

Offense is fun and a whole lot more fun than pitching or defense, as much as baseball purists love to claim otherwise. In the past two years, we have watched some of the greatest games in baseball history, and all were offense-driven battles. Who will forget the Chicago Cubs’ 8-7 triumph over the Cleveland Indians in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series? Or Houston’s 13-12 ten inning heart-pounding victory in Game 5? Or the Astros’ aforementioned extra-inning win in Game 2?

These games were memorable and generated conversations. Game 1 of the 2017 World Series, on the other hand, passed by without a second thought. The Dodgers won by a score of 3-1 and only nine hits were recorded in total. The game was a snooze and the ratings bore that out. Game 5 beat out Sunday Night Football with 18.9 million viewers. Game 1 was watched by nearly 15 million viewers.

To examine World Series ratings more closely, let’s take a look at the numbers from baseball’s previous deadball-esque period. The steroid era, which was similarly characterized by high scores and high viewership, ended roughly in 2005 but was definitively over by 2010. This stretch gave way to a period of low offense and dominant pitching. In 2014, hitters combined to hit 4,186 home runs, the lowest total in since 1993. That year, the World Series was a thrilling matchup between the surprising, contact-hitting Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants, led by the pitching of Madison Bumgarner. The series was an even matchup and should have garnered huge ratings — but average viewership was only 13.9 million, and that includes Game 7’s mark of 23.5 million viewers.

The 2013 World Series viewership average was only slightly better at 14.98 million viewers and featured the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals, two of baseball’s most storied franchises. Going back in time, as the offense increases, so similarly do the ratings — 16.5 million in 2011, 19.3 in 2009, 17.2 in 2007, 25.9 in 2004 — the year the Red Sox broke their curse — and a still healthy 20.1 in 2003. The 2010 and 2008 series stand as the lone outliers and both featured matchups which were severely uneven and unappealing to a national audience.

So instead of spending our time complaining about all the home runs, we should just enjoy the ride. Offense has given us a bunch of history-making and drama-filled games. The home run is the most exciting play in the sport, and I would personally rather have more excitement than less excitement. And imagine how fun it would be if, in a couple of seasons, Judge and Stanton battle to overtake Barry Bonds’ single-season home run mark. Baseball would be back in the national news every day and might, at long last, make some actual headway with the younger generations.

George Klein ’20 can be reached at george_klein@brown.edu