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Kobrtiz: Baseball’s biggest mystery about to be solved
BEYOND THE LINES

The biggest mystery of the baseball season may soon be resolved.

Major League Baseball is on pace for 6,712 home runs this season, which is 1,100 more than a year ago and an increase of 600 or 10 percent over the record 6,105 hit in 2017. Three teams, led by the Minnesota Twins, are poised to break the record of 266 homers in a season, which was set last year by the Yankees.

If you ask pitchers, they will tell you something is different about the baseball this year. Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros, the most outspoken critic, blamed MLB for changing the baseball that led to a homer-happy league. He recently told reporters, "It's a (expletive) joke. Major League Baseball's turning this game into a joke. They own Rawlings… They own the (expletive) company.” Verlander was referring to a deal last year where MLB, in partnership with an equity firm, bought Rawlings, the company that manufactures the baseballs, for $395 million.

Verlander wasn’t done. “It's not a guess as to what happened,” he said. “We all know what happened. (MLB Commissioner Rob) Manfred, the first time he came in, what'd he say? He said we want more offense. All of a sudden he comes in, the balls are juiced? It's not coincidence. We're not idiots." No one was accusing Verlander of being an idiot, but maybe he should stick to pitching, something he’s pretty good at. He may be a lock for the Baseball Hall Fame, and he was the starting pitcher for the American League in this year’s All-Star Game.

He’s also leading the league in home runs allowed, a stat that obviously rankled him and led to his profanity-laced outburst.

It’s doubtful that MLB could have influenced the design of the baseball in the brief time since they acquired ownership of Rawlings, even if they wanted to. There are undoubtedly other reasons for the sharp increase in home runs, including the players’ approach to hitting, improvements in strength and conditioning, changes in diets –e.g., most teams no longer supply soda in the clubhouses – and enhanced bat design and construction.

Despite surveys that show fans love home runs, MLB was so concerned with the increase it formed a 10-man committee of scientists in August 2017 to determine if the barrage is tied to a change in the baseball. The research is taking place at Washington State University's Sports Science Lab in Pullman, WA, led by Dr. Lloyd Smith.

After two years of effort that included testing 80 dozen baseballs, some of which were split and gutted, others fired out of air cannons, Smith thinks the research team may have found the smoking gun, although he declined to reveal his discovery. The committee will make its findings known to MLB, which has promised to release the information after reviewing it.

Will the report mollify Verlander? That remains to be seen. But the entire baseball world is waiting breathlessly for the answer to this year’s biggest mystery.

Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.

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