Think, Don’t Lament

Ring Lardner became disillusioned with baseball because of the live ball era. He wrote about it plainly in a New Yorker essay in 1930, "Br'er Rabbit Ball." Today's analysts and perhaps a lot of those who play and manage baseball wonder about today's home run inflation, as in there are just too damn many of them this year.

One minute you can't help wondering whether some people can never be satisfied. In the same minute, you can't help wondering whether they'd like to return to the so-called dead ball era, when baseballs weren't so lively and weren't replaced by official rule every couple of plays.

Think about that one a moment. In the dead ball era, pitchers rarely posted ERAs over 3.00 if at all, and you could lead the league in home runs with — wait for it — nine. (Ty Cobb did that, in 1909.) In 1968, we saw some magnificent pitching performances, but lamented that it suppressed hitting. The Year of the Pitcher, we called it.

Like Ring Lardner, I love watching pitchers working on solid performances get rewarded for those. Unlike a lot of people wringing their hands now, I'm not about to wonder whether the home run epidemic, if an epidemic it truly is, is going to wreck baseball. The game has amazing ways of righting itself, sometimes with a little help from the outside (however spurious), sometimes just by its own organic recourse.

Maybe it was ridiculous when the Nationals tied a Show record this season when four straight men (Howie Kendrick, Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon) teed off against a former teammate laboring for the Padres. (Craig Stammen.)

But maybe there were odds in favor of it not so much because of the juiced ball as because, just maybe, a) the four Nats were familiar enough with the pitcher to be able to turn whatever he threw to them into rocketry; and, b) Padres manager Andy Green didn't have the acumen in the moment to reach for another reliever, maybe even his closer Kirby Yates who hadn't appeared in a couple of days, at least after the second Nat bomber (Turner) launched.

And maybe that was nothing compared to the party the Phillies and the Diamondbacks had the following day. In a ballpark (Citizens Bank Park) that's renowned enough for being a haven for hitting while compelling pitchers to step up their game just so. Oops. Only two of the eight pitchers sent to work that day (four for each team) worked without seeing any service sail over the fences. And only two of the day's pitchers had ERAs below 4.60.

The Phillies and the Diamondbacks hit thirteen bombs between them and the Diamondbacks won, 13-8, with the Phillies collecting 13 hits to the Diamondbacks' 14. Three Snakes (Jarrod Dyson, Ketel Marte, David Peralta) opened the game with home runs. Four batters (Dyson, the Phillies' Scott Kingery twice, and the Phillies' Rhys Hoskins) led off innings with home runs. Four of the game's 21 runs scored on anything except home runs.

Entering play on June 14, the Twins hit more home runs through that morning (132) than Cobb hit in his entire career. (115.) Five of their regular players have 30+ home runs this season thus far (yes, folks, that's a record); one of them (designated hitter Nelson Cruz) was the only man to hit 40 or more bombs in 2014. And the Twins have smashed the single-season record for home runs by a single team. They've now hit 289 bombs in 2019. And counting.

Some lament the return of the so-called cheap home run. You know: the loft or the liner that barely makes it to the edge of the bleachers. (Buster Olney, ESPN, on a podcast: "How many times have we heard announcers say, 'I can't believe that one went out'?") We've heard that argument before and in different contexts. There were those, unfortunately, who thought Roger Maris got a lot of "cheap" home runs when he busted ruthsrecord (yep, that's how they said it then) in 1961 because Maris's specialty was the high line drive, not the ICBM launch.

But you wonder. A barrage of home runs has enough people lamenting the lack of "real action" in games. A dearth of homers and round after round of machine-gun grounders and liners and road running could well enough have enough people lamenting the game actually needs to slow down a trifle or three.

ESPN's David Schoenfield has performed a service re-tracing the evolution of the baseball itself. As he reminds us and we probably should have known going in, this year's model isn't exactly the first time the ball has been re-made/re-modeled:

1911 — Almost a full decade before the so-called live ball was born, baseballs were changed from rubber centers to cork centers. The new ball was actually introduced during the 1910 World Series and the game's overseers of the time decided to keep it. (The Philadelphia Athletics hit .322 as a team to smother the .234-hitting Cubs in the 1910.)

Fifteen players hit .300+ in 1910 and only three slugged .470+. Thirty players hit .300+ in 1911 and 13 slugged .470+. The hitting bump didn't last thanks to the advent of a few crafty ball doctors on the mound by 1916. The live ball era would just have to wait.

1920-21 — In the film version of Eight Men Out, Ring Lardner (played by the film's director John Sayles, who could have been Lardner's doppleganger) is seen chatting with Black Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte before the ill-fated 1919 World Series and showing Cicotte a ball that's "wound tighter" and a potential handicap for pitchers such as himself.

The ball actually didn't change all that much. What did change was a) Babe Ruth moving to the Yankees and to a homer-friendly home park (the Polo Grounds, with its notorious short foul lines) and busting out big; b) the new rule requiring fresh balls in play at all times, after the tragedy of Ray Chapman; and, c) the formal ban of the spitball and other ball doctoring.

1930 — Batters went nuts. The major league average that year was 5.55 runs a game; the Giants hit .319 as a complete team and the National League overall hit .303, abetted by the hapless Phillies posting a team 6.71 ERA. It's also the year Freddie Lindstrom's hitting average was .379, which as Schoenfield notes is probably the major reason he eventually became one of the worst picks for the Hall of Fame.

It was ridiculous looking enough that season that even the National League couldn't take it. They ordered a new ball for 1931 with a thicker cover and a slightly higher seam. The American League didn't mind the big hitting numbers, though.

1977 — Out went the Spalding people as makers of the game's balls, and in came Rawlings. A year earlier, baseball scored an average 3.99 runs per game. Some said the new Rawlings ball had a little more hop; others thought the new expansion teams in Seattle and Toronto meant a temporary pitching dilution. The 1977 runs per game: 4.77.

1987 — Whitey Herzog wasn't the only man in baseball presuming corked bats. But he turned out to be wrong. Something happened to the balls for that season. Sparky Anderson called them "nitroglycerin balls." So much for the Mets' Howard Johnson being accused of corking bats, prompting Mets reliever Roger McDowell to leave a bat in front of the Cardinals' dugout with chunks of cork glued around the barrel to zap their accusations.

Johnson emerged as one of the National League's home run kings in 1987, but he'd reach the highest single-season number of his career in ... 1991, when the switch-hitting infielder hit 38 to lead the league. Whatever the guy who shared a name with an iconic travel lodge and restaurant chain was doing, it didn't have anything to do with his lumber.

If you need more evidence, baseball went from 4.72 runs a game in '87 to 4.14 in '88, and that, Schoenfield notes, was also lower than the runs per game in 1984-86. One player who hit 22 home runs over the previous three seasons hit 24 in '87. (Wade Boggs.) Another whose career average per 162 games was 27 home runs hit 49 in '87: Andre Dawson.

"Then, just like that, the ball was dead," Schoenfield writes. "In 1987, only four starting pitchers had a sub-3.00 ERA. In 1988, 20 pitchers achieved that mark. The sport entered a five-year span with a relative lull in offense."

1993 — There were players turning to actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances by that year, but Rawlings also converted from hand-made to machine-made cores, winding them tighter.

And you know something? Every time the baseballs themselves were remodeled, it didn't take as long as you think for things to begin leveling off again to a reasonable extent. This year's ball may be a Super Ball but then this year's hitters are still amidst the trend of the last couple of seasons in which they're oriented to launch angling and big swinging, and this year's pitchers are still trying to throw the proverbial lamb chops past the wolves.

Or are they? Pay closer attention to the published play-by-play game logs the next day when you're not able to watch certain games. Watch the pitchers going to more off-speed stuff. You'll be surprised at how many of them, even the known power pitchers, are doing it; some of them even spend entire plate appearances showing hitters nothing fast. Watch how many batters are putting how many balls in play, whether ground balls or line drives. They're doing it a little more often than you think, and they're even beginning, little by little, to wise up about the overshifts.

And the hitters are using more maple bats now than before. Don't discount it: Balls jump faster off maple bats than they did off the old ash bats. But keep an eye on birch bats. They're considered tougher than ash and more flexible than maple, and they may be coming more into major league teams near you if they haven't already. The wood itself is lighter, but that lets a hitter so inclined to swing a bat with a fatter barrel through the hitting zone. The balls probably aren't the only things that have changed.

This year's balls may or may not be "juiced," but even commissioner Rob Manfred admits they're not exactly a drag, either: "We think one of the things that may be happening is they're getting better at centering the pill, [which] creates less drag," he said in late June. "In addition to that, there's all these man-made issues: hand-stitched, where it's stored after it's made, where it's stored at the ballpark, who puts the mud on the ball, how much mud they put on the ball. It's really difficult to isolate any single cause. But we do think it's a drag issue."

Baseball may be on a home run binge now but I'm not entirely convinced it's going to stay that way. Sooner or later, there'll be pitchers getting it into their heads that they need something more than a supersonic fastball to survive on the mound — they need to use their heads as well as their arms. Hitters with smarts as well as strength don't have to power a swing — just make contact and that supersonic fastball is liable to fly abroad.

Sooner or later, there'll be batters getting it into their heads that they're not going to hit balls into the path of Jupiter's moons every time they connect, and when they're being gifted a big piece of field, they learn to break the patterns hammered into them and respond accordingly. Hitters stubborn enough to keep pulling into those shifts are hitters who aren't going to survive in the major league game.

One thing above all isn't likely to change no matter how many times the balls and the bats are. "Hitting is timing," said Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn. "Pitching is destroying timing." Spahn pitched with his brains equal to his arm. So does Justin Verlander, who has a chance of becoming only the sixth pitcher and first in American League history to win a Cy Young Award in the same season during which he's thrown a no-hitter. Despite having surrendered a career-high 34 home runs this season thus far. The sooner pitchers in today's game equalise their brains to their arms, the sooner their coaches steer them back toward mind over matter, the sooner the game "rights" itself.

"As long as home runs are obtained with properly-obtained bodies and under protocol," writes 12up's Parker White, "no baseball fan (or casual observer) should have a problem with more longballs. Often, that's how fandom itself is made." But smart pitching often makes fandom, too. So does smart and slightly daring defense, from the Flying Wallendas in the 1969 Mets' outfield to Andrew Benintendi in last year's American League Championship Series.

Wait 'till the next aberrational imbalance, perhaps another Year of the Pitcher. Then we're going to hear choruses of "pitching is destroying the game" again, equal to the ones now singing about "hitting/home runs are destroying the game." Baseball is supposed to be the thinking person's sport. A little thinking would go a long way for those who play, administer, observe, and even write about the game. But who cares what I think?

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