Rob Manfred and MLB seek consistency on baseballs
By Benjamin Hoffman
Commissioner Rob Manfred is well aware that his league’s baseballs are under scrutiny from players, fans and others, and while Major League Baseball is working to address various issues, his message on the subject has a central theme: consistency.
Speaking with a group of sports editors at MLB’s headquarters in Manhattan earlier this week, Manfred discussed the state of the game, the league’s new streaming deals, potential rules changes and the advancements of women at all levels of baseball. But the conversation repeatedly returned to the condition of the baseballs in use in the majors this season and the various questions surrounding them.
At issue are two disparate concerns. Some in baseball believe the ball has somehow been deadened, muting scoring and offensive statistics across the league. Others have wondered whether there is a safety issue in the wake of MLB’s increasing enforcement of a ban on foreign substances that aid grip, a move that has adversely affected pitchers.
On both fronts, Manfred said perception was out of line with reality.
It is certainly true that offense is down. The overall batting average in the majors this season is .232. While that number should improve as the weather warms, it is far below the record low of .237, which was set in 1968, better known as the Year of the Pitcher. Scoring is at its lowest level since 1981, and home runs, which should also increase with the temperature, are at their lowest level since 2014.
While it was reported by Business Insider that two distinct baseballs were used during games in 2021, Manfred said that changes were implemented in the ball used in major league parks last season and that the league had been upfront about the modifications: He repeatedly cited a report the league had commissioned to study the ball, which found the top concern was improving consistency.
“The change we made in ’21 was intended to, and did, have the effect of centering the baseball in the range of specifications much more tightly,” Manfred said.
As had been reported, the league, which owns a minority stake in Rawlings, the exclusive manufacturer of the baseballs, experimented with humidors last season, testing them in “outlying” markets in terms of atmospheric conditions. Based on those results, humidors were installed at all parks for 2022. No other changes were implemented to the baseballs, all of which were made with the same specifications as 2021, according to the league.
Addressing the safety issue expressed by New York Mets pitcher Chris Bassitt and others, Manfred pointed out that while the number of hit basemen was not up overall — though it was for the Mets — league officials continued to seek a middle ground with the players on gripping the ball. The goal, he said, is finding a way to make pitchers more comfortable on the mound without returning to products, like Spider Tack, that are viewed by many as performance enhancers because they allow pitchers to grip the ball better and spin it faster.
“We have two products out there that we’re testing, with both major league and minor league players, designed to deal with the grip issue,” Manfred said. “It’s two different approaches in terms of what’s better and more functional for players.
“We do want to give pitchers a ball with better grip, again more consistent, without providing, let me use the phrase ‘performance enhancement,’ associated with the crazy sticky stuff.”
He said baseball might have an approved gripping agent by next season.
As for the league’s other issues, Manfred said, “Our single biggest priority right now is to reach our fans from a broadcast perspective.” He said the league was addressing that with streaming deals, like the ones recently agreed to with Peacock and Apple TV+, and by finding ways to supplement coverage without further eroding the regional sports network model that has been highly profitable for the league.
He said MLB had made progress in various minor league initiatives to improve game play, with a pitch clock being the one closest to implementation at the major league level. He also said he believed the advancement of women, on and off the field, was a huge priority.
When discussing the 99-day lockout that consumed baseball’s offseason, Manfred said his main takeaway was that he needed to step up communication, something he is doing by traveling to meet with teams in small groups. And while plenty of feelings were hurt during the lockout, he said it ended in a good place.
“At the end of the day, we got a deal that allowed us to play 162 games,” he said, “and that’s the most important thing.”