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Justin Verlander calls out MLB over the juiced baseball

He’s far from alone in recognizing the problem.

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Through five World Series games, major league hitters have launched 102 home runs in 36 postseason games this October. And so, the year of the home run continues unabated. 6105 bombs were hit during the regular season, shattering the previous single season mark of 5693 set back in the 2000 season. The stark trend that analysts began identifying in the second half of 2015 has carried throughout 2017, and MLB pitchers would like an answer, please.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred continues to insist that the ball is the same as it ever was, but a rising tide of major league pitchers aren’t buying his dismissal of the issue. To many, the difference is obvious from the moment they pick up a baseball. It’s not that the ball is wound tighter, necessarily. The issue appears to be the reduced drag from the cover itself. Justin Verlander spoke out on this again prior to Game 5 of the World Series, and he’s far from alone.

Justin Verlander has probably thrown well over 50,000 major league baseballs in the course of his career. He first spoke out about the ball back in August. When he says that the seams are lower in the past two seasons, and the cover slicker, you can take him seriously. As he said on Sunday, it’s the inconsistency that drives pitchers crazy. Everyone is playing with the same ball, so the playing field is uniform in terms of the ball’s flight. But if pitchers can’t get consistent grip on the baseball, that is when you’ve begun tampering with the integrity of the competition.

Pitchers like Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Johnny Cueto and Brandon McCarthy, among others, all weighed in forcefully on the issue during the 2017 season. The slicker cover has been blamed on nasty, ongoing blister problems experienced by pitchers like Sanchez, Cueto, and the Dodgers’ Rich Hill. The consensus seems to be that the slicker cover requires that a pitcher use more finger pressure to control the ball, with blisters the result in some cases.

Both pitching coaches in the World Series, and many pitchers, have gone even further, speculating that the cover of the World Series’ baseballs is even slicker than ones used in the regular season. In Tom Verducci’s article for Sports Illustrated, both Brent Strom and Rick Honeycutt have wondered at the change, and expressed frustration that the league continues to dismiss the issue. Honeycutt states that Yu Darvish complained of having difficulty gripping the ball to throw a slider in particular. Lance McCullers of the Houston Astros is said to have taken a blindfolded test and immediately identified the slicker covered World Series ball from one from the regular season.

For his part, Verlander has zero doubts that the cover of the World Series ball is noticeably slicker.

“The World Series ball is slicker. No doubt. I’m telling you, we’re in here signing [World Series] balls before the game, and it’s hard to get the ink on the ball sometimes. You know when you sign a receipt at Starbucks, and if you don’t hold the paper down with your hand, the pen just slides across the paper and the ink doesn’t stick to it? That’s what it’s like sometimes trying to sign these balls. That’s how slick the leather is.”

For his part, Astros’ starter Charlie Morton doesn’t like having issues of player safety in his head while he’s trying to pitch.

“When the ball is slick you can’t throw in with the same aggressiveness. If you don’t have control of the baseball, you might end somebody’s career. That’s a very bad thought to have in your head.”

Reports have come out all year indicating that the baseball is flying farther than ever, and has for over two years now. FiveThirtyEight and the Ringer have both published several key articles on the phenomenon. There seems to be plenty of evidence that the ball is the source of the enormous spike in offense and home runs specifically. They’ve been backed by other research, as well as widespread agreement from baseball players themselves.

Studies have questioned lax tolerances for baseballs, with some carrying 20 to 30 feet farther with the same launch angle, velocity and spin. In the past few seasons, those hot balls seem to be making up a far greater percentages of balls manufactured and put in play around major league baseball. The culprit appears to be baseballs that are smoother overall, from the surface of the cover, to lower, tighter seams, reducing air resistance, and allowing them to glide out of the stadium.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred continues to insist that nothing has changed and that the baseballs are all confirmed to be within the same manufacturing tolerances established by the league. This may be true, but it only highlights the fact that the tolerances for baseballs are pretty loose compared to say, golf balls, for example. Every golf ball used on the PGA Tour is precisely 1.68 inches in diameter, for example. There’s no leeway there.

A baseball, on the other hand, can be 9 to 9.25 inches in circumference. They can weigh 5 to 5.25 ounces. The diameter can be 2.86 inches to 2.94 inches. These are small differences to the eye, or even to the touch, but in terms of the flight of a spinning projectile, that’s an awful lot of leeway involved in the official regulations. Even before we come to the issue of lower seams, slicker covers and different methods of rubbing up the ball, the baseball isn’t exactly a completely uniform object.

What is telling, is the fact that Manfred has repeatedly called the rise in home runs a good thing for the game. And given the shocking back and forth slugfests in Game 2 and Game 5 of the World Series, perhaps he’s got a case to make. But one way or the other, the balls have to be consistent. And pitchers who can’t get a grip on a slider, or fear losing one at a batter’s head, are put at a serious disadvantage.

We’ve also seen an awful lot of talented pitchers struggle in the World Series, particularly with the slider. Yu Darvish couldn’t get a grip on his trademark offering in Game 3. One of two mistakes Justin Verlander made in Game 2 was a slider to Joc Pederson than hung in the zone. Kershaw hung one to Yuli Gurriel in Game 5. The league has two of the best pitching staffs in baseball out there getting shelled in every direction. Feels like we’ve yet to see a single pitcher succeed with the slider, which is the toughest pitch to command with a slick baseball.

Certainly, you also have two outstanding offenses, and a lot of pressure, but Verlander is probably the last pitcher left standing on either side who hasn’t been lit up in this series as of yet. That seems fishy. Offense is good. But pitching is good, too.

We may be on our way to a bold new era of juicy baseball, where home run records fall as a result of the ball rather than from juiced muscles. Maybe, it was the baseball all along. Or, like many other odd patterns in the game’s history, things may suddenly quiet down with no explanation or comment from the league, leading people to argue forever over the meaning of it all. Either way, pitchers aren’t happy at the moment. I guess they better sharpen their curveballs. You can expect to see Justin Verlander wear out Uncle Charlie on Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, with games stretching to five hours this postseason, Manfred better think long and hard about his conflicting goals of more offense and shorter game times.