Juiced Balls isn’t a Euphemism

In the hours leading up to the wildest game I have ever witnessed, Game 5 of the World Series, an 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 that both Astros and Dodgers pitchers have complained about slick baseballs, 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 said.

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 voiced his concerns that slick balls aren’t some made-up issue, as funny as it may sound. “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.”

With home runs soaring to record levels during the World Series, juiced balls are on many pitchers’ minds. Astros Game 6 Starter Justin Verlander had some thoughts of his own: “The main complaint is that the balls seem a little bit different in the post-season, and even from the post-season 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.”

In truth, the public opinion, with the possible exception of Hill’s dissent, seemed overwhelmingly one-sided before Game 5. And after it, after a 13–12, ten inning bloodbath that lasted five hours and 17 minutes, and put the Astros one win from a championship? Well, it was hard to mount a dissent at all. The baseball, it seems clear, is still juiced—but now it comes with a skin that makes it harder for pitchers to command.

Major League Baseball, for its part, continues to deny that anything is abnormal. In fact, before Game 5, Joe Torre, the league’s chief baseball officer, went down to the umpire’s room to be sure the baseballs were being properly pre-rubbed with mud. They were.

The game’s result, though, told a different story. An Astros source says that the club was instructed not to comment on the baseballs, but some of them couldn’t help themselves. Dallas Keuchel, Houston’s starter on Sunday, typically has an excellent slider. During the regular season, he threw it 18% of the time. Some 61 percent of his regular-season sliders ended up as strikes, and batters hit just .167 against it, with three home runs.

On Sunday, though, Keuchel could barely get it over the plate. The 2015 Cy Young winner threw just seven of his 17 sliders for strikes—41%—and they didn’t behave nearly as they usually do. While this season, on average, he’s thrown the pitch with an average of 6.39 inches of horizontal break and 1.19 of vertical break, on Sunday it was just 4.92 inches and 0.51 inches. The two-run single that Logan Forsythe lined to left in the top of the first came on an 81 MPH slider; Keuchel lasted just 3.2 innings, allowing four runs.

“It’s such a sensitive subject,” Keuchel would say. “You never want to make excuses for bad pitching, and I got myself into some trouble in the first place. But yeah, the ball’s flying. I mean, that’s what MLB wants.”

Keuchel’s counterpart, Clayton Kershaw, also throws a superb slider. During the regular season, he threw it even more than Keuchel—34% of the time—and with even better command. It produced a strike 68.3% of the time. While Kershaw’s sliders on Sunday broke more or less as they usually do—perhaps his skill is just so great—he couldn’t find the plate with them with anything near his usual consistency. Just 20 of his 39 attempts were strikes—51%. You probably don’t have to guess the nature of the pitch that Yuli Gurriel drove deep to left, in the bottom of the fourth, to ensure that a 4–0 lead that not long before seemed insurmountable completely evaporated. It was a slider, a pitch with which he’d allowed just three homers all season long. And Kershaw’s 94th and last pitch of the night, which he buried in the dirt to walk Alex Bregman with two outs in the fifth? A slider.

Then came a cascade of a dozen relievers, only five of whom escaped without officially allowing a run. “Terrible pitching performances all around,” said Keuchel. “And both offenses were just lighting it up.” The clubs combined for 28 hits, seven of which were home runs. This series has already broken the all-time record for combined homers in a Fall Classic, with 22—topping the `02 Series between the Angels and the Giants, which came at the height of the steroid era, featured Barry Bonds and lasted two more games.

The Dodgers’ Brandon Morrow, previously untouchable, threw six pitches and was charged with four runs. “I try not to have that in my head,” said Morrow, of the baseball.

The Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen, the league’s best closer, allowed the game-winning single by Alex Bregman in the bottom of the tenth—the third straight game this series in which the owner of a 1.32 regular season ERA has allowed a run. Jansen, who threw his slider eight percent of the time during the regular season—and for whom it is generally a devastating complement to his cut fastball—only tried the pitch with just two of his 33 deliveries on Sunday. “Something funny with it,” Jansen said of the baseball. “This is my eighth season in the big leagues. I have my thoughts. I’ll keep them to myself.”

The person who might be benefitting the most from the juiced and slicker is Joe Buck, and definitely Fox Sports. Yes, many people on Twitter like to ignore the fact that Buck has become a great baseball announcer just so they can bash him, but the bottom line is that FOX’s play-by-play man put on a clinic in last night’s wacky 13-12 slugfest between the Dodgers and Astros.

While FOX’s ratings from game 5 are not out, yet, here are some of the Television ratings from Game 2. With the final numbers in, Game 2 of the 2017 World Series improved to a 4.2 rating and 15.48 million viewers. Game 2 of the 2017 World Series is already up significantly in the overnight ratings compared to Game 1, according to Nielsen data.

The game, which saw the Houston Astros top the LA Dodgers in extra innings, is currently averaging a 3.9 rating in adults 18-59 and 14.6 million viewers. Game 1 initially drew a 2.9 and 10.9 million viewers, but eventually adjusted up to a 3.9 and 14.97 million viewers. Beyond the World Series, it was a fairly steady night on broadcast, but Fox easily topped the night with a 3.9 and 14.6 million viewers. CBS was a distant second with a 1.2 and 6.9 million viewers. ABC was third in the demo with a 1.1 but fourth in total viewers with 4.7 million. NBC was fourth in the demo with a 1.0 but third in total viewers with 5.7 million.

 

Looking back past last year’s World Series, which saw the first Cubs victory in over 100 years, Game 4 beat Game 4 of the 2015 World Series by 14% in metered market ratings. Topping Game 4 of the 2012 and 2013 World Series, the Dodgers big win in Texas last night was also up 49% over Game 4 of the 2014 World Series when the Kansas City Royals played the San Francisco Giants.

Game to game, Game 4’s comeback for L.A. rose 2% over Friday’s Astros winning Game 3 in MM ratings. Game 4 of the 2016 World Series went on to snare a 3.1/11 rating among adults 18-49 and 12.17 million viewers. The 2016 Game 4 was the most watched Saturday World Series game in over a decade.

Like last year, Game 5 in Houston saw the pivotal MLB big game facing the NFL and Sunday Night Football on NBC with the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Detroit Lions as well as the 101st episode of The Walking Dead on AMC. Last year, going almost head to head the whole night, MNF ended up with a night winning 8.2/22 rating in the key demo and 23 million viewers to the MLB’s 5.1/15 and 17.21 million. I’m super excited to see the ratings from last night because I believe baseball is drawing focus once again.

It is easy to see that baseball for some reason has dropped off the main landscape of sports over the past 20 years, and there had to be something done, causation does not necessarily relate to correlation, however, something is definitely up with these baseballs, and it is easy to see that it is helping viewership.

What can I say? We all love the long ball. Are you not entertained?

 

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