Major League Baseball has a problem—inconsistent baseballs. This is not a “new” issue, with “juiced ball” and “dead ball” controversies extending back years. Most recently, Rob Manfred admitted to these differences before the All-Star game in 2022, citing “COVID-era manufacturing issues” at the Rawlings plant in Costa Rica for the 2020-21 seasons leading to different ball characteristics. The reasoning he gave is that MLB did design a new baseball, but due to the pandemic-related supply chain issues had to dip into an older stock of baseballs that shared different characteristics.
In the same press conference, Manfred said that all of the baseballs for the 2022 season were manufactured according to the “new” specifications which resulted in a “more consistent baseball.” However, new evidence suggests the exact opposite. Instead of settling into using one consistent baseball, it appears that MLB in fact used three distinct baseballs with varying characteristics. Let's dive into what this actually looks like, what it means, and its implications for Major League Baseball as a whole.
The “New” Balls:
Meredith Wills, a Society for American Baseball Research award-winning astrophysicist, worked in conjunction with a team from Insider to accrue 204 baseballs used in 22 different parks during the 2022 season. When conducting tests on these baseballs, Willis found three distinct groups of baseballs—the “old” dead balls, the “new” balls that Manfred was referencing in his press conference, and interestingly—a third distinct group of balls her team dubbed the “Goldilocks” balls that fell between the “dead” and “juiced” ball weights.
It is important to note that all three of these balls fall within the “official specifications” that MLB uses for its baseballs and so are “technically” legal. But, these “specifications” are so loose that a league-commissioned physicist, Alan Nathan, has been quoted as saying "The specs on Major League baseballs, they almost don't deserve to be called specs… They're so loose that the range of performance from the top end to the bottom end is so different." These wide specifications allow for a great variation in what is considered a legal baseball, but the baseballs that were tested in this study did not freely vary within the parameters in ways that would suggest a random distribution—which points towards Major League Baseball actively attempting to create these three distinct balls with unique characteristics.
Unsurprisingly, both the MLB and Rawlings (which MLB purchased in 2018) have dismissed the findings of this study saying that they are “baseless” and “wholly inaccurate.” however, I am personally more inclined to trust the results of an independent study, especially one that was done against the wishes of the MLB.
According to the article by Insider, an undisclosed player informed them that Manfred had instructed his top lieutenants to warn a player’s union official to not allow any players to send balls for third-party testing and warned that any non-union employee that was found to be doing so could be fired for assisting in testing. Information of this type seems to point out that the MLB did and does know about these different baseballs and was willing to go to some substantial lengths to keep this information from becoming public. After dismissing the results of this independent study and citing a league-commissioned report that had different findings, Manfred was asked to explain how he knew Wills' research was incorrect—to which he replied: "Honestly, I can't help you on that one" (how convincing).
Below is a chart prepared by Insider to demonstrate these three distinct groups of balls.
Where These Balls Were Found:
According to two sources familiar with MLB's ball shipment process, MLB directs where its balls are sent, and it also knows which boxes its game compliance monitors–league employees tasked with ensuring each team adheres to league rules–approve and use before each game starts. An MLB source whose identity is known to Insider said that before each game, the league's game compliance monitors "[record] the batch number" – in this case, a six-character label placed on each Rawlings box – "and the quantity of baseball[s]... used for that game." Then, the league source said, compliance monitors send an email to their supervisors with that information.
While the existence of these three distinct groups of baseballs is interesting and noteworthy on its own, even more interesting are the locations where these “Goldilocks” balls were found. Most of the Goldilocks balls were found in one of four distinct locations: Postseason games (including the World Series); The All-Star Game and Home Run Derby; Regular-season games that used balls with special commemorative stamps — such as a Texas Rangers 50th anniversary ball; and finally, the most interesting—from regular season Yankees games.
All this is to say that the MLB knows what balls it is sending where, and has the ability to make a conscious choice about the destination of these “Goldilocks” balls—So what's the significance of sending them to regular season Yankees games?
Targeted, Strategic Use?
Now, before diving any deeper it's important to know and recognize that the data assembled by this test was by no means a random sampling. The study acquired baseballs using whatever means that they were able to, which was obviously hampered by the MLB's apparent “direction” to limit third-party testing of baseballs. However, based on their findings, the appearance of these baseballs at Yankees games, especially in August and September, does raise some eyebrows.
As I'm sure many baseball fans are aware, Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge was engaged in a historic season that saw him set the American League record for most home runs in the regular season at 62. In no way do I mean to diminish the enormity of this accomplishment for Judge—but the fact that these Goldilocks balls, which were more responsive and easier to hit further than the dead ball that MLB claimed to be used across the league—seems to indicate that the MLB purposefully sent these balls to Yankees games in greater numbers than they appear to send them to other parks to increase the likelihood of home runs.
Again, the sampling used by this study was not random, and there is no way to know exactly what category the balls that Aaron judge hit during this season—but it does not take an overactive imagination to connect the dots between Judge’s historic home run record chase and the appearance of these balls at Yankees games in greater quantities than they were seen elsewhere in the league. This paired with Manfred's continued denial that there is any difference in the baseballs suggests these balls might have been at Yankees games on purpose.
What Does This Mean for the MLB?
Since the MLB acquired Rawlings in 2018, questions about the purposeful manipulation of baseballs have persisted. Because MLB now controls the company that produces the baseballs that it uses to produce its product, there would be an obvious temptation to purposefully tamper with the attributes of these balls to increase the drama (and therefore popularity, which equates to more money for the MLB). However, the expense of (theoretically) tampering with the balls in this way is the undermining of league credibility and the validity of achievements during this time.
Since this study cannot be called conclusive due to the “compromised” non-random sample, it's still unclear how accurate speculation about the intentional use of the Goldilocks ball is. Theoretically, the ball could have been used in more widespread games, but since the MLB denies the existence of the ball it is unlikely that we will ever get an actual answer as to where these balls were used, or how often.
Regardless, this is not a good look for the MLB. Manfred can plead ignorance and deny the existence of these balls all he wants, but when a well-respected and award-winning physicist points to the existence of these balls denial doesn't get you anywhere, and continues to give ammunition to people that think the MLB is manipulating baseballs and continues to ruin Rob Manfred's already minuscule credibility as a league commissioner.
What comes next is not clear, but I would put some serious money on the fact that this is not the last time we'll hear about controversies surrounding the manipulation of baseballs within the MLB, And I seriously doubt a meaningful resolution will be reached anytime soon.
Zachary Bryson is a graduate from Wake Forest University with B.A. in Economics and a Minor in Entrepreneurship. He is now a JD candidate at Elon University School of Law, Class of 2023.