‘Hitters are not getting rewarded.’ How the Dodgers are dealing with deadened baseballs

Off the crack of the bat, almost everyone on the field Tuesday night thought the ball was gone.

Cody Bellinger did, tossing his bat and admiring the high fly ball he sent soaring through a cool Southern California sky.

Dave Roberts was confident, as well, expecting to watch the drive fly over the center-field fence at Dodger Stadium.

Even San Francisco Giants pitcher John Brebbia had conceded, giving the towering shot a quick look over his shoulder before turning his back in defeat.

“I thought it was going to kill someone trying to catch it in the 10th row,” Brebbia later told the Athletic.

The ball, however, never reached the stands. It didn’t even get to the wall. Once again, what seemed like an almost certain home run had died in the glove of an outfielder. Once again, the sport’s latest tweak to the baseball had left doubts about what might have been.

After unintentionally using juiced balls in 2019, then trying to adjust with several variations the past couple years, Major League Baseball decided to make more ball-related changes this season, continuing to tinker with its composition and physical characteristics while also adding a humidor to every ballpark for the first time.

The league’s hope was that a deadened ball would cut down on home runs and increase action in the field of play.

So far, it’s had the desired effect — albeit with controversial consequences.

Baseball Prospectus found that the balls this year have more drag when traveling through the air. Baseball analyst Derek Carty also found that, even when adjusting for typical cold early-season weather, the home run rate has dropped significantly this year. MLB Statcast data has shown that “barreled” balls (ones hit within an optimal range of exit velocity and launch angle) aren’t traveling as far or producing as high of a slugging percentage as in recent seasons, either.

As a result, players have watched seemingly purely struck swings die short of the fence. Drives that once were considered sure things are now uncertain as they go hurtling through the air.

“The ball just is not flying as well,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “It’s just, hitters are not getting rewarded.”

Roberts estimated the Dodgers this season have had at least a dozen fly balls that likely would have been home runs in years past. He believes it has factored into some of his players’ underwhelming offensive starts. And while he didn’t outwardly criticize the league or the balls themselves, the adjustment has been no less striking over the first month of the season.

“It is what it is, we can’t change it,” Roberts said. “Everyone in baseball is going through it.”

Bellinger, who has 137 home runs in his six MLB seasons, struck a similar tone.

“We knew that was happening this year,” the center fielder said. “Throughout my professional career, balls have been so changed. I just think consistency is important. Whether it’s these balls or not, there’s got to be a consistent factor to them.”

Bellinger thought his Tuesday fly ball was an example, acknowledging that while it was a brisk night at Chavez Ravine, “I’ve hit balls like that before that go, so I thought it was gone.”

The Dodgers’ Max Muncy, hitting against the Rockies on April 8, said there’s not much players can do about the deadened baseballs. “This is the ball they came out with this year, so we have to adjust to it.”

(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

He wasn’t alone.

The Giants had a couple long fly outs in the game that even Roberts thought were gone. The Dodgers’ Max Muncy also blasted a fly ball to right field that seemed to be headed for the seats before dying at the warning track.

“Off the bat,” Muncy said, “it felt really good.”

While Muncy noted the exit velocity on his drive was only 97.8 mph — well hit but not scorched — he also wondered how the new ball conditions affected its flight.

“I’ve definitely hit some worse than that one that have gone out in the past,” said Muncy, who has 126 career homers.

Players have wondered how the new balls might be affecting other aspects of the game as well.

Muncy said he has noticed more breaking pitches from opponents that have had unusual break on the way to the plate. Balls have even moved differently when fed through the team’s pitching machines during hitting drills.

“The biggest thing to me with the baseball is how it’s reacting from the pitchers’ hands,” Muncy said. “A lot of breaking balls are backing up this year. It’s just how it’s going to be unfortunately. This is the ball they came out with this year, so we have to adjust to it.”

Players began voicing concerns about changes to the ball before the start of the season, untrustworthy of MLB after its continual tinkering with the ball in past years — last year, the league used two different balls over the course of the season — and wary of the new changes they’d noticed during spring training.

Roberts said he believes balls will start flying better once the weather warms up, and that players will eventually recalibrate their feel for contact at the plate.

While he also hinted it might behoove players to hit more line drives, he said he and the coaches haven’t altered their instructions to the team based on the new balls.

“Our guys aren’t making excuses, which I appreciate,” he said.

Nonetheless, another year of changes is already taking a toll.

Asked if the situation was frustrating for himself and fellow players, Muncy wryly smiled.

“Baseball’s a frustrating sport,” he said.

Once again, the actual baseballs have added to the challenge.

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