Major League Baseball used two different types of baseballs during the 2021 season, Business Insider’s Bradford William Davis reports. The league confirmed Davis’ report in a statement, noting that the reason was due to production delays related to the pandemic.
“Rawlings manufactures Major League balls on a rolling basis at its factory in Costa Rica. Generally, balls are produced 6-12 months prior to being used in a game,” the league said in its statement. “Because Rawlings was forced to reduce capacity at its manufacturing facility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the supply of re-centered baseballs was not sufficient to cover the entirety of the 2021 season. To address this issue, Rawlings incorporated excess inventory into its shipments to Clubs to provide a full complement of baseballs for the 2021 season.”
Prior to the 2021 season, the league let teams know about changes made to slightly reduce the amount of bounce in the standard baseballs, and also a weight reduction that made the balls less than one-tenth of an ounce lighter. While these balls were indeed deployed in 2021, a study from Meredith Willis (an astrophysicist associated with SABR) revealed that other baseballs used during the season had slightly-heavier centers of around 127 grams, as opposed to the newer model of ball with centers in the 124-145 gram range.
All of the Rawlings balls contain batch codes indicating the time of production, and by these codes, Willis determined that Rawlings has been producing balls with both the heavier and lighter centers since late 2019, before the pandemic began. The newer balls were produced from October 2019-January 2020 (still pre-pandemic) but Rawlings then switched production to the older and heavier balls from January to October 2020, switched back to the lighter model from October 2020 to January 2021, and has since continued producing baseballs with the heavier center.
“Every baseball used in a 2021 MLB game, without exception, met existing specifications and performed as expected,” said the league in its statement. As well, all of the baseballs used in 2021 fell within the standard weight of 5 to 5.5 ounces.
However, even the most minute of changes to the baseballs can lead to quite a bit of difference on the field of play, as evidenced by years of debate over the “lively” ball and the “dead” ball. The changes to the baseball were made in the first place due to the big surge in home runs during the 2019 and 2020 seasons, after all, yet the usage of both models of ball during the 2021 campaign leads to inevitable questions about which balls were used in which games.
“Yeah, that’s a big breach, for me, of competitive integrity,” one AL scout told Davis. “It is a situation where the game plays differently, and there’s a reason that’s not random or aleatory. The game is being made to play differently because they’re tampering with the ball.”
While MLB’s statement said that the MLB Players Association was informed that both types of baseball were used last season, this seemed to come as news to the 10 players Davis spoke to in regards to the story. This includes MLBPA rep Andrew Miller, who said “I’m not sure what we were told, but I’d assume it was nothing. If the balls meet standards, then they would have no reason to tell us anything.”
“There’s a fair amount of distrust between players in the league on certain topics, and this is one of them….But I think now we know what we know about how small the change in the baseball can greatly affect the way it travels, the way it’s thrown, or its ability to be gripped or whatever it is — like, those parameters may be pretty wide. And if there’s room for manipulation, that is concerning.”
Similar sentiments were shared among the 24 people within the game (“including players, coaches, scouts, and senior front-office workers”) Davis spoke with about the baseballs, though as one might expect, the front office staffers “were more diplomatic” about the subject. But the overall issue remains about exactly how much oversight, if any, MLB had over when or where the heavier or lighter baseballs were used. Or, as some players presented in “more conspiratorial hypotheses,” some possibility exists that the league could have potentially sent specific baseballs for certain games or series or either increase or decrease scoring.
Going forward, the league stressed that the “2022 season will be played with only balls manufactured after the production change.” Several of the player sources in Davis’ piece suggested that the topic should be incorporated into the ongoing CBA talks between the league and the MLBPA. For more uniformity, one National League hurler felt that an independent third party should be on hand at every stadium to weigh and more thoroughly inspect the baseballs prior to each game.