In recent years, much has been made of MLB’s use of “juiced” balls, leading to higher home run rates throughout the sport. Rawlings, the official ball supplier of MLB, sought to rectify that, leveling the playing field by producing lighter, “deadened” balls for use during the 2021 season.
However, Meredith Wills, a renowned astrophysicist known for her work with the Society for American Baseball Research, discovered that MLB, unbeknownst to fans, players and coaches, used two separate baseballs last season, alternating between different Rawlings models (one heavier and one lighter) seemingly at random. That may explain some of the inconsistencies noticed by All-Star reliever Sean Doolittle, who suspects teammate Joey Votto benefited from juiced balls during his late July power surge.
“The first homer he hit to start that streak was an opposite-field homer in Cincinnati that carried out to, like, straightaway left field,” recalled Doolittle during his interview with Bradford William Davis of Business Insider. Based on the ball’s launch angle (41 degrees) and exit velocity (98 mph), Votto’s 350-foot blast, which Doolittle characterized as a “weak fly ball,” held just an eight-percent home-run probability. Meanwhile, several games later, Votto slugged a 110-mph missile with a near-perfect 24-degree launch angle that, by all accounts, should have left the yard (92-percent home-run probability), but didn’t. That discrepancy can only be explained by the presence of two different balls, one meeting MLB’s new qualifications (with looser seams and a lighter core) and another of the previous, juiced variety.
By reviewing batch codes, Wills was able to deduce when each ball was produced, ultimately confirming Doolittle’s suspicion that MLB mixed and matched balls throughout 2021. That revelation predictably didn’t sit well with players, who criticized the league for its lack of transparency. In response to Wills’ findings, MLB issued a statement, blaming the different balls on production issues brought on by the COVID pandemic. “Rawlings manufactures Major League balls on a rolling basis at its factory in Costa Rica,” the league explained. “Generally, balls are produced 6-12 months prior to being used in a game. Because Rawlings was forced to reduce capacity at its manufacturing facility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the supply of re-centered baseballs was not sufficient to cover the entirety of the 2021 season. To address this issue, Rawlings incorporated excess inventory into its shipments to clubs to provide a full complement of baseballs for the 2021 season."
On the eve of MLB’s expected lockout, the league’s secret use of balls that should have been discontinued won’t be lost on players, who are seeking to change the power dynamic between owners and the union in collective bargaining talks.