The Pen: What does MLB do next about its inconsistent baseball? A scientist explains

Several things can be true at once, and self-serving explanations can be valid or at least compelling. For example, when commissioner Rob Manfred says at the winter meetings that the variability of the ball is “part of the charm of the game” which he is uninterested in fully eradicating, this is a rhetorical departure from his earlier public position emphasizing that the balls all meet specifications, that the specifications will be tightened, and that effectively everything is under control. But also, maybe the variability is part of the charm of the game — or at least, it could be.

Asked about the potential of adopting a more stable, synthetic baseball, Manfred made his stance abundantly clear. “I would not, am not now, and would not be in favor of moving away from the baseball that has traditionally been used to play what I regard to be the greatest game in the world,” he said this week in San Diego.

So then the imperfect ball is here to stay.

(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)

And Major League Baseball, perhaps realizing that the media was not going to drop it or else recognizing that it cannot control a man-made production down to one-thousandth of an inch, has pivoted to extolling the virtues of variability — which is not an entirely disingenuous venture for a sport played in open-air weather conditions within inconsistent field dimensions.

And perhaps the league, which has previously attempted to quell focus on how different balls seemed to travel different distances despite the same force applied at the same angle, was particularly moved to embrace this aspect of the game now because the new report released by a committee of independent scientists this week revealed not just variance between the average baseball season-to-season but an even more significant variance among individual balls within seasons.

In some way this variance is easier to accept and seems almost inevitable upon consideration. The difference in average seam height that helped to spur a significant leap in home run rate is the width of a human hair. That any two balls out of thousands could vary by that much simply makes sense in a way that a sudden shift in the average does not. What happened between 2018 and 2019 still needs to be understood and explained to the public.

However, a codification of this ball-to-ball variability has or soon will inspire a new conversation around what Dr. Peko Hosoi of MIT, one of the four researchers tasked with relaying the committee’s findings this week, termed "bias in variability.”

I spoke to Dr. Hosoi soon after her research was released about what’s next in terms of both studying the baseball and applying what we now know. She cautioned against aspiring to total consistency — calling a hypothetical lack of variability a “disaster” for baseball — and instead anticipated a dynamic in which teams will endeavor to exploit the ball-to-ball differences while the league works to keep the playing field even with unbiased variability, or randomness that does not disproportionately benefit any one team or player.

It’s not clear exactly how a team or a player could learn to take advantage of the newly quantifiable variance between baseballs, and Dr. Hosoi isn’t interested in helping them figure it out (I insisted she could have 30 job offers by the end of the week if she wanted to). But that’s one of the areas the committee hope to study next. Manfred alluded to as much — “involving players in a more rigorous study of what they feel when they hold the baseball” — and Dr. Hosoi expanded on that in our conversation, getting giddy at the idea of being able to ascribe a data set to the particular feel a pitcher might have for a baseball.

In all this knowing, all this measuring things down to tiny fractions of an inch, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that, if anything, the months-long study revealed how much mystery remains. Like 65 percent of the 60 percent of the change in home run rate that can be attributed to the ball’s decreased drag, for one thing. What happened in the postseason, for another. But also: what now?

“I think we understand the variability in the baseball better today than we did at any point in the history of the game,” Manfred said. He meant it to be exculpatory — to highlight how we’re only talking about it now because people like Dr. Hosoi are able to measure these kinds of things. That part is true.

“The fact that we understand the variability, I don't really see as a motivator to do something drastic in terms of changing the way the game is played,” he said. And this is where Manfred is wrong. Baseball has become a knowledge industry. Even if they don’t change the baseball — especially if they don’t change the baseball — understanding the variability better today than we did at any point in the history of the game will probably impact the way the game is played. We just don’t know how yet.

Here’s my full interview with Dr. Hosoi.

Notes from the stands

I’m still interested in knowing exactly how big you think the Hall of Fame should be. Let me know at or on Twitter as debate around this year’s class gets going.

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