It wouldn't be an MLB offseason without a baseball-related scandal. Despite commissioner Rob Manfred insisting that one baseball would be used during the 2022 MLB season, there is evidence that three different baseballs were utilized, according to Bradford William Davis of Insider.
That conclusion comes courtesy of Dr. Meredith Wills, an astrophysicist who has conducted various studies on MLB balls the past couple of years. Dr. Wills managed to collect a sample of 204 baseballs from the 2022 MLB season and determined that three types of balls were used in games: The dead ball MLB promised it would use, the "juiced" balls that were used in previous seasons and a third ball that split the difference. Dr. Wills dubbed the third ball the "Goldilocks ball" given that its measurements were between those of the "juiced" ball and the dead ball.
Every ball obtained by Dr. Wills met MLB's manufacturing specifications. Those specifications have come under scrutiny, however, as some have argued that the acceptable range for a legal baseball is too large and can result in "legal" baseballs that vary wildly in performance.
MLB purchased Rawlings, the company that makes baseballs for the league, in 2018.
Did the Yankees benefit from MLB using multiple balls?
The overwhelming majority of balls tested by Dr. Wills from 2022 wound up being the dead ball, which Manfred promised would be the sole ball used last season. The Goldilocks balls, which are more lively than dead balls, were found mostly in special instances, such as the postseason, the World Series, All-Star events and when the league used commemorative stamps on the ball.
Dr. Wills did find other instances of the Goldilocks ball being used in the regular season, and all of them occurred during New York Yankees games. These balls reportedly did not contain commemorative stamps, per Davis.
This conclusion comes after slugger Aaron Judge hit an American League-record 62 home runs in the 2022 MLB regular season. The league consistently promoted Judge's chase of the record, cutting into his at-bats to ensure that fans could watch him try to make history. Judge signed a nine-year, $360 million deal to stay with the Yankees on Wednesday.
MLB denies using multiple baseballs in 2022
The league denied Dr. Wills' conclusions, calling them "wholly inaccurate and just plain wrong," per Insider. A league spokesman claimed that only one ball was used in the 2022 MLB season. Rawlings said there was no "third ball" used in 2022, and the previously used "juiced" ball was taken out of circulation before the 2022 season.
MLB initially fought back against research suggesting that a different, livelier ball was used in 2019. Eventually, Manfred acknowledged that the balls had less drag due to a manufacturing change. Balls with less drag travel farther, which led to a home run explosion in 2019. A whopping 6,776 home runs were hit that year, shattering the all-time record for home runs in a season. Manfred later said the change was not intentional.
Manfred has attempted to correct the issue since, though evidence suggests that two different types of balls were used in 2021, which MLB confirmed. The league said the balls were used as a result of production delays stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
MLB players have expressed frustration with the baseballs
New York Mets pitcher Justin Verlander is among the biggest and most vocal critics of the baseball. Verlander publicly questioned Manfred in 2019, leading to Manfred's response about the "juiced" ball. Verlander also reportedly approached an MLB official in 2022 and asked in colorful language when the league would fix the baseballs, per Insider.
A number of players, including Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer, spoke to Insider and expressed suspicion about multiple balls being used in 2022. MLB reportedly warned San Francisco Giants outfielder Austin Slater about sending balls for "third-party testing," seemingly discouraging him from sending baseballs to Dr. Wills to be analyzed.
Why using different baseballs matters
Since purchasing Rawlings in 2018, MLB has been, at best, inconsistent when addressing possible changes to the ball. The league has at times admitted fault months after an issue was discovered and claimed changes were not intentional or were in the process of being fixed.
Despite that, the league continues to find itself embroiled in a ball scandal, the latest chapter of which casts doubt on one of the biggest stories around the league. It also sheds light on why players are concerned about the presence of multiple balls. If the Goldilocks ball was being used frequently or exclusively in Yankees games while Judge was chasing the AL home run record, does that take away from his accomplishment? Did it give the Yankees an advantage if they were seeing more hitter-friendly balls than other teams? Did this advantage contribute to Judge getting an extra $130 million from the Yankees after rejecting a deal in spring training?
If the Goldilocks balls were used during Yankees games at a higher rate than for other teams and MLB had no idea, that suggests incompetence among those in charge of baseball distribution. If this was an intentional strategy, it calls into question the integrity of the games. Can fans trust the results of contests if they are influenced by the type of ball being used? What's more, in addition to very real on-the-field concerns, MLB's willingness to embrace sports betting adds another unsavory layer to this potential scandal.
Given all those issues, it's more important than ever that MLB understands how, where and when baseballs are being used. In recent seasons, the league has repeatedly failed to inspire faith in that regard.