Nationals closer Sean Doolittle won't go as far as to say the balls being used by Major League Baseball are 'juiced.' He would say once the ball is in the air, "it's just not coming down."
This has become a commonly adopted theory around baseball, that the threading on the ball is lower, dampening the drag on the ball. Doolittle's testimony is consistent with this theory.
"I know for some guys, they've had to change grips with their breaking pitches, because with the lower seams, it can be a little bit more difficult to pull on the ball, to get it to spin the way that they need it to," he said. "For me, throwing a lot of fastballs, it hasn't really come into play for me, although I have noticed it."
Doolittle says the players just want the league to be more forthright about the situation, suggesting, the more officials comment on it, the less credible their explanations become.
"Then they said that the machinery has gotten better, and they've gotten better at centering the pill. Well, you just told us that the balls are handmade, so now you're bringing the machinery into it. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Then they said like the balls are within the manufacturer – the variation of the specs for competitive play. And then they moved to saying that they know the balls are different, but they don't know why."
"When Major League Baseball buys Rawlings, they buy the company that makes the balls, I don't think that should be the case," he said. "That doesn't really feel like an acceptable answer. So really, we just want to know what's going on. It does feel like balls are flying out at a higher rate, and I think it's important to know necessarily that the balls aren't 'juiced.'
"I don't think that's the right word, because I think exit velocities have been roughly the same as they were over the last couple years, but the ball's just not, it's just not coming down. Because we're seeing these home runs that are being hit with really, really low exit velocities – in the high 80s and low 90s – which is really, really rare. And the ball just doesn't come down. It has some extra carry."
"I think we just want to know why this variable, that has been the same for so long, has suddenly changed," Doolittle said. "And if anybody's gonna do anything about it."
Commissioner Rob Manfred, every time he comments on the issue, seemingly paints the league further into a corner. Currently the league's position – with a controlling ownership in Rawlings, mind you – is that it acknowledges the baseballs have changed, yet flatly denies its involvement in changing the balls.
There's also the minute concern about Manfred's desire to inject "additional offense into the game," a remark he made his first day on the job, in Jan. 2015.
While home runs are an exciting draw for fans and their frequency is exploding, they're the driving force behind another unintended consequence. With hitters swinging for the fences more often, that leaves less opportunity for hard-hit ground balls and line drives, and therefore far less action between long balls.
Doolittle stopped short of getting conspiratorial about the league's involvement in the changing balls.
"I don't know if that was the goal they were going for," he said of more home runs. "I really don't know. But it is one of the most exciting plays in sports. When Major League Baseball at the All-Star Break comes out and says that even owners are concerned about the rising home run rate, I don't know if that's possibly true, because that doesn't make sense to me. Because home runs, like I said, fans love 'em. They're runs for your team, so that's awesome."
"I think what you said, though, it's definitely changed the way the game is played with the three true outcomes," he said. "I think there's some other factors in play, the way guys have changed their approaches at the plate over the last few years to hit more balls in the air. I think some guys have really, finally – that new swing pattern has really, finally, after a couple of years has clicked for a lot of guys.
"But, you know, if a couple years ago, they had came to us and said across the league, 'Hey, we're introducing a little livelier baseball to make things a little bit more exciting,' I think we would have been like, alright, as pitchers, that's a huge bummer, but let's dance. At least everybody knows what's going on. We're not going to get penalized for giving up home runs when it comes time to renew a contract or look for a free agent deal. Hitters aren't gonna complain about it, so... I don't know. It's certainly head-scratching."