Photo by Andres Augirre

Baseball players at all levels are hitting more home runs than ever before, leading players, coaches and managers to ask why.

Juiced players vs. juiced balls: Experts debate reasons for home run highs

Baseball was once known as America’s national pastime, yet the once innocent sport has become known for performance-enhancing drugs (PED) and most recently, questions about juiced baseballs.

The juiced baseball theory suggests Major League Baseball (MLB) has altered the baseball to increase scoring.

The difference between a regular baseball and a juiced ball is the density of the core. The core of a juiced baseball is more dense than a regular ball, providing players with more opportunities to hit a home run. But others insist that improved player training methods are behind the home run statistics.

This season, MLB players hit a total of 6,776 home runs, not including the postseason. That is 671 more than the previous mark of 6,105 set in 2017.

CBS Sports writer R.J. Anderson supported the juiced ball theory in an article written in May 2019.

“When paired with other changes, the result was a ball that had less ‘drag’ or that was more likely to travel quicker and longer than its predecessor.”

In a July 2019 USA Today article, MLB’s Commissioner Rob Manfred denied the balls were juiced when he said, “If we make a change to the ball, you will know about it before we change the baseball. We’re going to continue to be transparent.”

Santa Rosa Junior College Baseball

Head Coach Damon Neidlinger believes it’s the baseball players, not just the balls, who are behind the increase in home runs.

“Players are stronger,” he said. “The component of physically training yourself at a younger age is now widely accepted as a policy. If you go back 25 years ago you see a smaller and leaner body.”

The Washington Nationals’ Juan Soto, one of the youngest players in the 2019 season, turned pro when he was 20 years old; he hit 34 home runs this season. New York Mets rookie Pete Alonso, 24, broke the rookie home run record with 53.

The game has evolved with technology as a key to helping players see their swings in slow-motion and adjust accordingly. This not only happens in the major leagues, but also in college.

“There’s a lot of video technology. We do a lot of analyzing pro swings and comparing them to our college hitter swings, using pro techniques to help the college players see what they’re doing and what the best of game are doing at very high speeds,” Neidlinger said.

In the 2010 season, the Bear Cubs hit 15 home runs and scored 202 runs. A decade later, in 2019, the Bear Cubs hit 19 home runs and scored 306 runs.

It’s not only the hitters who are getting stronger, but also the pitchers. They are throwing harder, and the velocity of their fastball has gone up.

An August 2018 article noted the average velocity of a four-seam fastball was currently 93.2 mph — or 1.1 mph faster than ten years ago.

In 2016, Aroldis Chapman from the New York Yankees threw a 105.7-mph fastball. No one has topped it.

“Ten to 12 years ago, the average speed of a fastball was 90.4 mph. Now it’s closer to 94-95 mph. It’s forcing [hitters] to be more mechanically efficient if they want to continue to play,” Neidlinger said.

Bear Cubs third baseman Logan Douglas said balls are coming in faster.

Douglas has been around the game since he was 5 and playing T-ball. He played baseball, basketball and football at Petaluma High School, but baseball was his true love.

In 2012, Douglas was a part of the Petaluma National Little League team that traveled to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to play in the Little League World Series. The team ultimately lost in the U.S. championship game against Tennessee after making a dramatic comeback late in the game.

Playing for the championship is his favorite childhood memory.

“That’s going to be a big part of my life as long as I can remember. I still have a bunch of posters in my room from the LLWS,” Douglas said.

After high school, what ultimately brought Douglas to SRJC was the baseball program’s reputation.

“I heard from guys who are older than me that they have received good scholarships and the coaching is great,” Douglas said.

Several former SRJC baseball players went on to play, coach or work in the front office for an MLB team.

Jonny Gomes is a two-time World Series Champion with the Boston Red Sox and Kansas City Royals; Brandon Hyde is the manager of the Baltimore Orioles; Jason Lane is the assistant hitting coach for the Milwaukee Brewers, and Joe Dillon is the assistant hitting coach for the Washington Nationals.

Douglas’s top transfer school choice is University of California, Berkeley.

Douglas doesn’t believe MLB balls are juiced; he thinks players are getting stronger.

“They are looking at video and figuring the best approach they can take to the ball, the best way to match the line and the best way to put power on the ball,” he said.

And Douglas believes the average fan wants to see more home runs.

“You can see how the team reacts and how everyone reacts when a home run is hit. Even if you don’t know what the hell is going on, you’re still going to be like ‘oh someone is doing something right,’” Douglas said.

But some MLB pitchers think the ball is different this season.

“Yes, 100%,” said Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander in the ESPN article “Verlander: MLB Juicing Balls for More Offense.”

“They’ve been using juiced balls in the Home Run Derby forever. They know how to do it. It’s not a coincidence.”

Verlander connected the dots between MLB and the company that manufactures the balls.

“I find it really hard to believe that Major League Baseball owns Rawlings and just coincidentally the balls become juiced,” Verlander said.

In the same ESPN article, Commissioner Manfred said, “Our scientists that have been studying the baseball more regularly have told us that this year the baseball has a little less drag. It doesn’t need to change very much in order to produce meaningful change in terms of the way the game is played on the field.”

But with so many home runs, it might be more than a simple change of the ball. PEDs were and still are relevant issue in baseball. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriquez and Melky Cabrera are a few notable players who have been caught using performance-enhancing drugs.

MLB drug tests players three times per year. In 2013, MLB conducted 5,391 drug tests, followed by 7,929 in 2014 and 8,158 in 2015. In 2018, MLB conducted a record high of 11,526 drug tests from pre- to postseason.

The NCAA administers drug tests to Division I and Division II college athletes.

According to the NCAA website, “The NCAA spends more than $6 million annually on drug testing and education in an effort to deter the use of banned and harmful substances.”

The NCAA issues penalties when a student-athlete tests positive for a banned substance.

The penalty “PED [abuse] is strict and automatic: student-athletes lose one full year of eligibility for the first offense (25 percent of their total eligibility) and are withheld from competition for 365 days from the date of the test. A second positive test for a PED results in the loss of all remaining eligibility.”

At the community college level, there is no drug testing due to financial reasons.

“I think we should,” Douglas said. “It makes sense. I think some people think junior college isn’t at a very competitive level, but when they are here, they figure out it really is. This junior college is right up there with DI.”

His coach agrees. “I believe there should be drug tests. We are heading into bat testing now because people have been cheating with bats. If guys are cheating with PED, then absolutely,” Neidlinger said.

“I believe in a fair playing field.”

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