‘Juiced’ Baseballs Have Changed the Game of Baseball, and the Dodgers are Capitalizing On It

Are the baseballs juiced? After the Dodgers broke the National League record for home runs in a season, many are asking whats going on with the influx in homers this year.

Dodgers Home Runs
Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Dodgers have stepped into the batter's box over 5,500 times this season. On 253 occasions they have belted the baseball over the fence for a home run. Believe it or not, that's a National League record.

On Wednesday night, it was Joc Pederson who homered in his first two plate appearances to tie the record and then ultimately break the record of 249 homers set by the Houston Astros in 2000, a mark set during the peak of the steroid era in baseball.

Jeff Bagwell, a Hall-of-Famer hitter and admitted steroid user, hit 47 home runs that year.

Richard Hidalgo, a likely PED user (although he never tested positive), hit 44 home runs—he had only 24 combined in his three previous seasons and never surpassed 28 in a single season after that.

Moises Alou, a player whose name was on a list of reported PED users in 2003, had 30 home runs that year, and Ken Caminiti, another admitted steroid user, had 15 for Houston.

That same year, all 30 MLB teams combined to hit a record 5,693 home runs. That record stood for nearly 17 years, as the league cracked down on PED use, extended their testing, and fortified their policy.

Only once in the 10 years that followed did the teams combine to hit more than 5,000 in a single season (5,042 in 2009). Then, in the 2016 season, the ball began to fly out of the ballpark like it never had before.

In 2016, the 30 MLB teams combined to hit 5,610 home runs. Just 83 shy of the all-time record, and the most since the steroid era ended. 

A year later, with players savvy to the influx in home runs and beginning to adjust their swings to account for launch angle and exit velocity, the record was shattered. The 30 MLB teams combined to hit 6,105 home runs in 2017, nearly 500 more than the previous mark.

During that season, the New York Yankees broke the all-time MLB record for home runs by a team with 267. The Dodgers will likely surpass that mark this year. The Yankees will too, and the Twins have already shattered it with a record 272 homers and counting.

More than likely, all 30 MLB teams will easily eclipse the record 6,105 home runs hit in 2017. As of the publication of this story, they have combined for over 5,900 homers, and are projected to hit at least another 600 before the season ends on September 29. 

There's no doubt that home runs are being hit by teams, and the league overall, at a historic pace, begging the obvious question: WHY?

If you ask the players, we have now entered into the "juiced ball era" in baseball.

Research suggests that the official Rawlings baseballs were altered in the middle of the 2015 season. After the All-Star Game that year, more home runs occurred in the second half by a vast quantity. By 2016, the new, more aerodynamic ball, had been fully implemented and the home run numbers began to surge.

USC's Keck School of Medicine performed research on the new Rawlings baseballs compared to older authenticated balls purchased on E-Bay. Researchers x-rayed both balls, and then the balls were sent to Kent State University's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry where they were dissected and studied.

The findings from both universities reveal the same conclusion: the new balls changed in density and chemical composition found within the baseballs core.

Baseballs used after the 2015 All-Star Game had a core (pink outer core) that was 40 percent less dense than it was before, and weighed 0.5 grams less on average. The research proves that the new balls are both bouncier—due to 7 percent more polymer in the core—and less air resistant than before.

The players have noticed as well. During his rookie campaign in 2017, Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger broke the National League rookie record with 39 home runs. That record was originally set by Wally Berger in 1930 and matched by Frank Robinson in 1956. Bellinger broke it in just 132 games.

Last week, New York Mets slugger Peter Alonso, surpassed that mark just two years after it was set. A record that stood for 67 years, was broken in less than two. Alonso is also close to eclipsing the all-time home run record by a rookie, set by known steriod user Mark McGwire in 1987 with 49. 

Bellinger, who started the 2017 campaign in Triple-A Oklahoma City, said that it seemed like the ball traveled further at the Big League level than it did in the minors. He also pointed out the advent of smaller stadiums in the Major Leagues as a potential reason why there was an uptick in home runs.

After the Dodgers broke the all-time NL record on Wednesday night, opposing manager Bud Black of the Colorado Rockies had this to say about the increase in home runs. 

"It's been going on all year," said Black. "I'm not going to comment on all the theories, but this is a different year, there's no doubt about it. It's evident what's happening in Triple-A, it's evident what's happening in the Big Leagues. There's been studies...but this is a different one for sure. I think that's something to address when the season is over and the people who are part of this great game talk about what happened this year with the amount of home runs."

To be fair, the escalating amount of home runs in Major League Baseball has been occuring since the 2016 season, but to Black's point, this year it will reach it's apex and everyone in and around the game has started to notice. 

Perhaps, the Dodgers front office noticed a lot sooner and have used the altered baseballs to their advantage. 

It's no secret that the Dodgers have one of the most advanced analytic and research departments in all of baseball. It's also no coincidence that since the implementation of the new "juiced" baseballs that the Dodgers have advanced to three consecutive National League Championship Games and two World Series since 2016.

It's not like the Dodgers have a roster full of bash brothers or larger than average human beings. What they do have however is an understanding that the ball is indeed different, and the information that shows how players can incorporate launch angle and exit velocity in order to capitalize on the direction the game is headed.

This season, the Dodgers front office took it a step further, when they hired launch angle hitting guru Robert Van Scoyoc and Brant Brown as their new hitting coaches before the 2019 season.

In an interview with the L.A. Times before the season began, Van Scoyoc discussed his philosophy and emphasis on launch angle as more of a common sense measure: that the chances of reaching base or recording an extra-base hit increase significantly when the ball is hit in the air, rather than on the ground.

In order to accomplish this, Van Scoyoc, Brown, and his hitting team, scour through hours of videos of each hitter's swing. They then develop an individualized plan specified to each player. Everything about the player is taken into account and the swing is repeated over and over again until it becomes second nature.

Despite the differences in each player's swing, the philosophy is mostly the same: that in order to maximize launch angle and exit velocity, the bat needs to get onto a plane with the ball as soon as possible. The sooner that happens, the more time the player has to adjust to the movement and velocity of the pitch.

The results speak for themselves. In the five years before the introduction of the new "juiced" baseballs, the Dodgers never hit more than 138 home runs in a single season. Between 2010 and 2014, they combined to hit just 625 homers.

Since the introduction of the new baseballs in 2015, the Dodgers have increased their team home run total each and every year. Breaking the franchise record with 235 last year, before breaking the all-time National League record this year. In the five years since the ball was introduced (2015-2019), the Dodgers have combined to hit 1,085 home runs and still have 19 games left in the 2019 season to add to that total.

There's no doubt that baseball wants more offense. With attendance and ratings down, the increase in home runs creates more of an exciting game for the casual fan.

The 2017 World Series between the Dodgers and Astros saw a record 25 home runs hit in the series, and its no coincidence that the 2017 Fall Classic has been called the most exciting and historic World Series in recent memory.

Pitchers will certainly have a gripe with MLB and a valid reason to be upset about this new chapter in baseball history, but the new balls appear to be here to stay. That means fans should sit back and enjoy the ride, leaving the debate on where this puts the current players home run records in the overall context of history for future generations to argue over time.

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