World Series: Pitchers say juiced ball controversy is '100 percent real'

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

HOUSTON – In the hours leading up to Game 5 of the World Series, a Houston Astros relief pitcher went to the team’s bullpen in right field to conduct an experiment. He dabbed a bit of super glue on his index and middle fingers, let it dry slightly and picked up one of the embattled baseballs that became a front-and-center story Sunday during the game’s biggest event.

Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci reported Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers pitchers have complained of slick balls this postseason, adding scrutiny to a vital component of the game that has been accused of fueling the massive home run spike over the last 2½ seasons. The Astros pitcher resorted to super glue to see if it could help him better grip the ball.

What happened instead was small white pieces of the ball’s leather hide flaked off and stuck to his fingers. Perhaps this was the natural result of using an adherent as strong as super glue, but it fueled paranoia even more that something is wrong with the balls being used this October.

This wasn’t the first test in the Astros’ bullpen this postseason. Lance McCullers Jr., the Astros’ Game 3 starter slated to start a potential Game 7, recently turned his back to Astros pitching coach Brent Strom, who stuck a ball into McCullers’ hand with a question: regular-season ball or playoff ball? They repeated the exercise five more times, with three blue-stamped regular-season balls and three gold-stamped playoff ones.

“I went 6 for 6,” McCullers told Yahoo Sports.

While McCullers has experienced success throughout the postseason, he disputes the league’s contention that they are the same as the regular-season version and vows his concerns with a slick ball aren’t some made-up issue.

“It’s 100 percent real,” McCullers said. “The balls are different. I don’t know what the difference is. If you write with a No. 2 pencil 10,000 times and someone gives you a pen, you’re gonna know the difference. This is our craft. This is what we do. We know. We feel the ball. Something has changed.”

Houston Astros starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel throws during the first inning of Game 5 of baseball’s World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, in Houston. (AP)

Plenty of others agree. Astros Game 6 starter Justin Verlander was among the first players to allege the ball was flying excessively, and Dallas Keuchel, the Game 5 starter on Sunday, said after eight home runs were hit in Game 2: “Obviously the balls are juiced. I think they’re juiced 100 percent.” Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has denied as much, though he still has not offered an explanation on how baseball jumped from 4,186 home runs in the 2014 season to a record 6,105 this year.

“We’re setting new records for home runs that the heights of the steroid era didn’t set,” McCullers said. “It’s not difficult. Go back and look at 2013, 2014, even the first half of 2015. You look at launch angles off the bat and the velos they came off the bat and the distances they’re traveling versus now, and the distance is so much farther.”

The issue this October is less about whatever is making the ball fly, whether the core or seams or some other component, and the poor grip pitchers say they’re getting. Every ball goes through a massage of Lena Blackburne Original Baseball Rubbing Mud, which is intended to take the sheen off of the pure white balls, referred to as pearls. Even with the rubdown, pitchers said, the ball’s slipperiness is among its most evident qualities.

“The main complaint is that the balls seem a little bit different in the postseason, and even from the postseason to the World Series balls,” Verlander said Sunday. “They’re a little slick. You just deal with it. But I don’t think it’s the case of one pitcher saying, ‘Hey, something is different here.’ I think as a whole everybody is saying, ‘Whoa, something is a little off here.’ ”

It’s not everyone. Dodgers starter Rich Hill said “they’ve been extremely consistent in the World Series and also in the playoff games.” At one point, Hill questioned whether a different ball caused his struggles with blisters, and teammate Brandon McCarthy has criticized the ball as well.

The particular batch of balls used this postseason was made in July, and MLB continues to test the balls in hopes data will explain any of the anomalies. One possibility, according to two sources familiar with the issue, is that MLB will tighten the range for balls’ coefficient of restitution, or how it bounces off the bat. Because the balls are handmade in a Costa Rican factory, achieving sameness in them is almost impossible.

Bringing pitchers back onboard won’t be easy, either. Throughout the game, they’re convinced the ball is different – that Manfred’s stated desire in the past for more offense portended the home run spike and that even if the change in the ball isn’t intentional, it’s very real.

More transparency will help, and the league could release publicly the data from its study, which is expected around January. For now, though, in the middle of a contested World Series, the biggest stories over the weekend were about a player making a racist gesture and the composition of the ball, not exactly the sort of news cycle baseball desires as it prepares to crown a champion.

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