Thoughts about Justin Verlander and #JuicedBallGate

During the 2017 World Series, much was made about the baseballs being used. Specifically, about rumors and beliefs that said balls were “juiced,” baseball jargon for being manufactured (or even stored) in such a way as to make them fly faster and farther when struck.

The evidence, however anecdotal at the time, was enough to raise more than a few eyebrows; several pitchers and coaches from both the Astros and Dodgers made it clear they believed the balls were juiced, and that’s to say nothing of the record-breaking number of home runs hit by the Astros (15 in the series) and the two teams combined (25 in the series).

Astros’ ace Justin Verlander was perhaps the most outspoken of the players about the issue. At the time, Verlander made no bones about it; “the World Series ball is slicker. No doubt about it,” he claimed. Both team’s pitching coaches, as well as several other players from both sides, concurred.

It didn’t become a major issue then, mostly because everyone agreed that both teams were using the same balls; that is to say, both team’s pitchers were at the same disadvantage, meaning no team was getting an unfair advantage from the situation. A pitcher now and then will squawk about the Crawford Boxes being silly, but no one raises any real complaints about them because both teams play under the same conditions.

Fast forward roughly five months, and the issue hasn’t gone away. In fact, things have heated up. After retweeting a story about a study that found that changes to the way baseballs have been manufactured in recent years were indeed contributing to a heightened offensive environment, Verlander posted some charts of his own, making a pretty convincing case to back up his claims.

It was his final word on the subject that bears more attention than it’s gotten, though:

As previously mentioned, this is largely the reason the juiced ball issue was quickly forgotten, even before the World Series had ended. Though it seemed clear there were some manner of shenanigans afoot, all agreed the playing field was level, and that’s what matters most.

Verlander, for his part, seems unperturbed with the balls themselves, but rather with MLB’s perceived dishonesty about the whole thing. And that’s a point that shouldn’t be glossed over. Unlike the steroid era of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, some players aren’t playing with an unfair advantage over their peers, and that’s great.

But baseball has always been unique in the way it is watched, appreciated, and remembered. Statistics, as backwards and of questionable quantitative merit as they were in the (even recent) past, have been the gauge by which we judge players, events, and entire eras of the game’s history for the last century or more. People will tell you that Michael Jordan or Joe Montana were great; their athletic ability, their grit, their intelligence, dedication, work ethic, and so on. Few people, even die-hard fans, could tell you how many career touchdown passes Montana threw, or what Jordan’s three-point percentage is.

But baseball is different. I say “Joe DiMaggio.” Most semi-serious baseball fans immediately have a number pop into their heads (56 of course; the length of his famous hitting streak). Nolan Ryan had seven no-hitters. Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in a single season. Ted Williams is the last guy to hit .400. I could go on for hours, paragraphs, weeks, volumes. The history of this game and it’s greatest players and moments always have been, and always will be, inexorably tied to numbers, quantifying just how great said players and moments were in a common language all baseball fans of some experience instantly understand.

Of course, that understanding is built on context. After watching baseball long enough, one understands just how rare a no-hitter is. Watch baseball for a couple of decades, and you’ll be lucky to see one or two pitchers who accomplish that feat more than a single time. The vast majority won’t even do it once. That’s the experiential context that helps you understand just how impressive Nolan Ryan’s seven no-hitters really is. People simply don’t do that. He’s the only one who ever has. That’s impressive. That’s Nolan Ryan.

So, back to the juiced balls. Research has come out that pretty definitely demonstrates as fact what was mere anecdotal scuttlebutt back in October. The balls are juiced. Offense is up. And considering how strongly MLB denied the whole thing, they’re either liars or woefully ignorant about how the very balls used in the game of baseball are actually manufactured. You can decide for yourself which would be worse.

Baseball-slaying-expert Giancarlo Stanton hit 59 home runs in 2017. He was just two shy of being the first likely-clean player (remember that adjective tag later) to tie Maris’ aforementioned record. That would have been a big deal. The first guy in half a century! That’s special. Baseball fans love those stats. Except…what if it wasn’t that special? For years, decades in the future, people would have talked about the juiced balls. How many would he have hit if the balls weren’t juiced? Is it really that special? Should we care as much?

Therein lies the heart of the issue. When you make changes that affect the way the game is played at a fundamental level, you move the bar, and not always in an obvious way that’s easy to correct for in analysis, certainly not for the common fans. That’s the real reason baseball fans took and still take PED scandals so seriously. When someone gets popped for steroids in the NFL, fans hardly react beyond a few sneers in the comment’s section of the websites that run articles about it. No one questions or cares about how good he is. No one questions him as a human being, not the way baseball players are. Can anyone you know name a famous football player who has had their whole careers ruined by such a scandal? Meanwhile, Alex Rodriguez will always be “A-Roid” to legions of baseball fans.

In baseball, fans hated the steroid era business so much because it skewed their perception of greatness. They thought they were witnessing amazing history when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire dueled for the single-season home run record, a record held sacred by so many fans, a record tied to fond memories literally passed down through generations. Then they found out it was all a sham. The bedrock by which scores of fans watched, understood, and remembered their pastime was under attack. I referred to Stanton as the first “likely-clean” player to nearly break Maris’ record because, unfair and sad as it is, that’s the baseball world we live in now, even 20 years after the Sosa/McGwire mess. Re-earning broken trust is a long and difficult road.

MLB should remember well the reaction baseball fans had to the steroid era’s scandal blowing up. At it’s core, it wasn’t about drugs or role models or even about millionaires getting away with wrongs. It was about disrespecting and altering the foundation of baseball memories and fandom at a fundamental level. And the undisclosed usage of juiced balls, though perhaps less insidiously than steroids, does just that.