If you ask Astros ace Justin Verlander, Major League Baseball has become a home-run happy farce. Verlander, who started the All-Star Game for the American League on Tuesday, issued acerbic comments on the direction of the game Monday, saying (via Jeff Passan of ESPN): “Major League Baseball’s turning this game into a joke. They own Rawlings, and you’ve got Manfred up here saying it might be the way they center the pill. They own the [expletive] company. If any other $40 billion company bought out a $400 million company and the product changed dramatically, it’s not a guess as to what happened.”
Sour grapes from someone who’s already close to allowing a career-high home run total for a season? It doesn’t seem that way. There is growing skepticism – not just from Verlander – about the integrity of the baseball MLB is using, and understandably so. Big leaguers are on pace to hit 6,600-plus home runs, which would crush the record of 6,105 set in 2017, Tyler Kepner of the New York Times notes. Like Verlander, MLBPA executive director Tony Clark is under the impression something is up. So are starters Max Scherzer, Charlie Morton, Jake Odorizzi, Marcus Stroman and CC Sabathia, as Kepner and Passan detail in their pieces.
“If there’s something that’s potentially altering that, just come out and say it,” Odorizzi said. “I think, as players, we’ve gotten to the point now where we’ve accepted it.”
However, according to commissioner Rob Manfred, there isn’t anything nefarious happening. Rather, the league “has done nothing, given no direction, for an alteration in the baseball.” Manfred added MLB doesn’t want more home runs – owners have “no desire” for an increase, he insisted Tuesday – so juicing the baseball wouldn’t make sense from MLB’s perspective.
At the same time, Manfred did admit Monday the ball has changed. He told ESPN’s Golic and Wingo (via Passan): “”Our scientists that have been now studying the baseball more regularly have told us that this year the baseball has a little less drag. It doesn’t need to change very much in order to produce meaningful change in terms of the way the game is played on the field. We are trying to understand exactly why that happened and build out a manufacturing process that gives us a little more control over what’s going on. But you have to remember that our baseball is a handmade product and there’s gonna be variation year to year.”
Whether Manfred’s telling the truth in regards to the baseball is up for debate. What’s clear is that the game won’t be injecting more offense by implementing a universal designated hitter in the imminent future. Manfred remarked Tuesday (via Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) that a DH in the National League is not “inevitable,” indicating it won’t come up as a possibility until after the collective bargaining agreement runs out in 2021.
Free agency, like the DH, will be an important discussion point during talks on the next CBA. Clark conveyed a desire this week to restore “meaningful free agency.” Manfred seems happy with the current system, though, saying baseball has the “freest free agency in any sport” – one devoid of a salary cap, franchise tags and max contracts. He expressed satisfaction that MLB “has produced more $100 million guaranteed contracts than the rest of professional sports combined.” While Manfred did indicate a willingness to negotiate with the union as regards free agency, the league’s “economic system has to preserve the competitiveness of those small-market clubs. That is always our overriding goal.”
Concerning the markets MLB plans to occupy going forward, Manfred put the kibosh on any short-term expansion possibilities, stating, “There’s no way we’re biting into expansion until we get Tampa and Oakland (which also needs a new stadium) resolved one way or the other.”
Tampa Bay, however, is exploring becoming a two-city franchise – an idea the league has thrown its support behind. In Manfred’s estimation, the Rays’ proposed Tampa Bay-Montreal team-sharing setup would present “an opportunity to preserve baseball in Tampa Bay. And I’m not prepared to say one way or the other what’s going to happen if that effort turns out to be unsuccessful.”