New Dead Ball Era Hurts The Game

ALSO: THE LAST GREAT BASEBALL CARTOONIST

IBWAA members love to write about baseball. So much so, we've decided to create our own newsletter about it! Subscribe to Here's the Pitch to expand your love of baseball, discover new voices, and support independent writing. Original content six days a week, straight to your inbox and straight from the hearts of baseball fans.

Pregame Pepper

Did you know ...

Six official no-hitters plus a seven-inning Madison Bumgarner gem that should count means MLB has already tied its one-season record for hitless games . . .

Stupid injury of the year: 22-year-old Huascar Ynoa, just coming into his own as a stalwart starter for the Atlanta Braves, had a bad game in Milwaukee and took our his frustrations on the dugout wall. Now he’ll be out til well after the All-Star Game, joining Mike Soroka and Travis d’Arnaud as valuable but injured teammates out for many months . . .

Hoping more fans can share in the unveiling, the New York Mets will raise their long-awaited Tom Seaver statue on Opening Day of the 2022 season . . .

Poor Gleyber Torres: the struggling Yankees shortstop contracted Covid-19 last December, then tested positive for the virus earlier this month even though he had been fully vaccinated . . .

All eight of the Yankees personnel who tested positive received the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Leading Off

Major League Baseball Isn’t Ready for a Deadened Ball

New Baseball, Pitcher Dominance is Leading to 20th Century Results

By Payton Ellison

It is no secret that baseball is rapidly becoming a “three-true outcome” game and everyone, from Major League Baseball to its fans, traditionalist or new-age, is concerned. After games of May 18, 36 per cent of plate appearances were ending in a strikeout, walk, or home run. That number is well up from 2019, where the number was 35.1 per cent.

Granted, a part of this is because that is what the game is nowadays. The combination of sabermetrics, pitchers throwing harder, a greater understanding of exit velocity and launch angle, and more hitters like Aaron Judge and Franmil Reyes coming up to the plate has led to what feels like an all-or-nothing approach around baseball.

MLB hitters have seemingly received a boost from MLB itself in past seasons, especially when it comes to the baseball. At this point, it’s now an open secret that Major League Baseball’s home run explosion is caused by a baseball with well-balanced breakfasts (juiced) in the last few years.

In the last five 162-game major league seasons, the previous home run record of 5,693 set in 2000 has been obliterated twice (2017 and 2019). By the way, none of this mentions the spike in home runs in Triple-A, the first year that the MLB baseball was used at that level.

Are home runs objectively fun? Yes. Some of the most legendary moments in baseball history have come from the long ball.

It is almost an objective fact that the home run saved baseball after the 1994 strike. But in a three-true outcome, analytical world, that also means a product where at least 36 per cent of a product has zero action on the field.

To someone like you and me, that’s fine; Jacob deGrom, Corbin Burnes and Gerrit Cole striking out 15 a game like it’s cooking scrambled eggs is fun. For the casual fan, this is about an hour and 10 minutes of nothing in a three-hour game, and that is not ideal for a league that is desperately trying to land the young viewer again.

So something needed to be done about baseball’s TTO game at some point…but maybe “unjuicing the ball” was not the best option.

In February, MLB released a memo to all 30 clubs that the ball would be changing slightly to try and combat the number of home runs in the game, thus increasing “drag” on the ball. The way that the ball would be changed is best explained in the Ken Rosenthal and Eno Sarris linked article, but the best thing we learned then was that, despite denying such accusations in 2019, Major League Baseball had a say in the way the ball was made, and was taking a stand to remove TTO baseball.

Great sentiment and all. But it seems like three major things weren’t accounted for: 1) MLB front offices weren’t suddenly going to change their offensive strategies from TTO to 1985 baseball from February to April; 2) the apparent usage of foreign substances by pitchers despite plans to crack down on it this year; and 3) whether aided by the use of pine tar or not, the emergence of dominant pitching in baseball. 

The latter two factors already make it difficult enough to hit Major League pitching, and if those situations were not tackled before any thought of the juiced ball, it would lead to very messy and pitcher friendly results. In fact, because of the new baseball with added drag, pitch velocity is up, pitch movement is up, as reported by Sarris in mid-April, and because of pine tar use, spin rate is up by 12 rotations per minute (as of May 19) from 2020. In other words, it is much harder to hit in baseball based on that alone, and it is why there have been six no-hitters this season, four of them by teams in the bottom six in wOBA. But let’s dig further.

The overall results of the new baseball so far? Major League hitters are hitting a would-be record low .236 in baseball, one point lower than in the year of the pitcher (1968). For the first time since 2009, no batter hit double-digits home runs in March/April.

The league average wOBA is tied for the third-worst in league history at .310, albeit with an xwOBA right around where baseball has been the past two seasons (.320). Going further, if you look back at the past six seasons of Statcast technology, all but 2020 (a measly -.001 wOBA-xwOBA) show some trend of OVERPERFORMANCE in the league average. So either the difference between the baseballs are now throwing the usually trustworthy expected stats off or there’s an actual trend here (the former is likely either way).

And if you look at the batted ball numbers, it’s not hard to see why: balls are hit harder than ever before. Teams are averaging a 88.9 exit velocity (93.3 EV on line drives and flyballs) on batted balls, increases from the past four seasons. Additionally, 39.3 per cent of batted balls have been hard hit, a substantial increase from each of the last four seasons. The best bet at this point is to point out the substantial drop in average launch angle, but even THAT is somewhat disproven by the results of the ball that was used in 2017.

So why has offense dropped? Fangraphs’ Devan Fink found earlier this month that a lot of the premier batted ball types that were hit for home runs in 2019 were turning into outs and doubles. To paraphrase, “hitters reached base 82 per cent of the time on these flyballs in 2019 but are now reaching just 65 per cent of the time”, a 17 per cent decrease. That is among a very noticeable decrease in batters reaching base in general.

That leads to some different conclusions. This could just be a blip on the radar (a sample size of 30,530 balls in play is pretty low). The month of April usually shows a decent drop-off in offensive power due to the cold weather, and even then, Sarris found in early-April that the home run rate was steady or rising from past non-2019 Aprils, and Fink’s post-April data confirms it. Maybe there is an approach adjustment period needed for hitters for the new baseball that will lead to more offense, as noted by Lindsay Adler of The Athletic

Those just might be supplemental solutions that will improve the data at the end of the year, but it is likely not the best conclusion. It is apparent that baseball came up with a one-trick solution to try and fix offense, ignoring — or what feels ignored — the natural (and artificial) dominance of pitching as well as the current offensive approach in baseball, and instead of simply decreasing home runs, baseball has set offense back. Once again, die-hard fans will watch no matter what, but offense is key to secure the young/casual fan.

In short, the league is not ready for an “unjuiced” and “deadened” baseball, and “subtle” changes made to the baseball have not very subtle. Until MLB addresses the actual root(s) of the problem (foreign substances, the mound, etc.), it will never fix the issues of TTO baseball that it is trying to fix.

Agree or disagree? E.mail the author via paytonmalloye@yahoo.com.

Cleaning Up

Baseball Cartoonist Ronnie Joyner Is Last Of His Breed

By Dan Schlossberg

As a young baseball fan, I looked forward to reading The Sporting News every week. Now available online only (and without the “The”), it was then an all-baseball tabloid loaded with trade rumors, opinion columns, and even Triple-A box scores.

The Sporting News gave me a great baseball history lesson every week. But it also featured fabulous baseball cartoons on the cover.

Gifted artists like Willard Mullin, Pap, and Amadee showcased their talent on the front page, while fellow cartoonists Bill Gallo and Charlie McGill dressed up the sports pages of New York area newspapers I read at home.

Willard Mullin’s Golden Age of Baseball Drawings 1934-1972 was published by Fantagraphics Books in 2013, two years before it produced Willard Mullin’s Casey at the Bat and Other Diamond Tales.

Mullin is gone now, along with most of the baseball cartoon masters and The Sporting News itself. But one All-Star cartoonist remains active and may just be the last and the best of the bunch.

Ronnie Joyner, whose detailed bio-sketches run regularly in Sports Collectors Digest, is the Babe Ruth of baseball cartoonists. Inspired by Charles Schulz (Peanuts) and Hank Ketcham (Dennis the Menace), he was also a fan of Mad Magazine’s Jack Davis and the great comic book illustrators.

His 2012 McFarland book called Hardball Legends and Journeymen and Short-Timers contains 333 classic Joyner illustrations – all in the style of the illustrated biographies newspaper readers devoured in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.

“There’s an endless supply of material to draw upon,” said the Maryland resident with a clever play on words during an interview with Mike Rhode of the Washington CityPaper. “Any guy that played in the 20th century is fair game for me and I never seem to get bored with what I’m doing.”

Joyner generously created special cartoons for my books The New Baseball Bible, When the Braves Ruled the Diamond, and The 300 Club. A rockabilly music fan who also loves American history, he visited Ford’s Theater after reading four books about John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.

He’s also found time to co-author several baseball autobiographies, including one with the “original” Frank Thomas, and produce card sets of such defunct teams as the St. Louis Browns, Philadelphia Athletics, Washington Senators, and Brooklyn Dodgers. He does graphics work for the United States Senate too.

A resident of Charlotte Hall, MD who holds a degree in design communications from the University of Maryland, Joyner is also a musician and songwriter whose “Baseball Talking Blues” can be found on YouTube.

No relation to former big-league first baseman Wally Joyner, the cartoonist considers himself a baseball historian who also loves comic art. That’s why he’s spent 20 years producing black-and-white sketches known for their realism and detail. His book could have been more than 340 pages but most of the cartoons included take up a full page.

What’s best about the book, beyond the high quality of the work itself, is the subject matter. Joyner not only covers top stars, top teams, and top events of baseball history but also lesser-known players who did something unusual or played for teams that no longer exist.

“Most of my illustrations are pre-1980,” he said, “but I occasionally draw a current player. The current player needs to have a particularly interesting story line for me to draw him. There’s so much info out there on modern players that I don’t feel overly compelled to retell their stories.”

At age 58, Joyner may have a second book in him. His fans certainly hope so.

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is weekend editor of Here’s The Pitch and owner of Ronnie Joyner’s first book. He hopes it won’t be the last. Contact Dan at ballauthor@gmail.com.

Timeless Trivia

Schedule quirk: the Mets just played their first series at Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field since 2015 . . .

Attendance at Tropicana Field was only 5,668 when Yankees power pitchers Gerrit Cole and Aroldis Chapman combined on a 1-0 game May 12 . . .

Former Mets GM Omar Minaya compares 40-year-old Luis Rojas, the team’s second-year manager, to Hall of Fame pilot Joe Torre: “Joe had the ability to be calm in a New York storm,” Minaya said. “Luis has that same ability.” . . .

Rojas is the son of Felipe Alou, whose 2003 Giants won 100+ games, and just missed bringing a title to Montreal, where the Expos were leading in 1994 before a player strike erased the postseason . . .

In his first appearance at CitiField since the Mets traded him in 2018, one-time wunderkind Matt Harvey, now 32, received a warm welcome from the fans but a rude awakening from his old team.


Know Your Editors

HERE’S THE PITCH is published daily except Sundays and holidays. Brian Harl [bchrom831@gmail.com] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [nymfan97@gmail.com] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [ballauthor@gmail.com] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.

Leave a comment