Texas Rangers

Is MLB juicing its baseballs? Rangers, Astros stars weigh in on Verlander opinion

Juiced baseballs? Joey Gallo says it’s more about the players than the ball

Texas Rangers slugger Joey Gallo says the reason there are more home runs now is a combination of hitter intent and hard-throwing pitchers.
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Texas Rangers slugger Joey Gallo says the reason there are more home runs now is a combination of hitter intent and hard-throwing pitchers.

Juiced baseballs?

Let’s tap the brakes on the conspiracy theories for a second.

Some of the best home run hitters in baseball think there are a couple of simple reasons for the surge in homers and it has nothing to do with the physical nature of today’s baseball.

Instead, it’s about the athletes and the changing culture of the game.

Through the first half and including Thursday’s second-half opener between the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros, there have been 3,691 total homers hit. For perspective, that’s the 28th most for an entire season in the history of the game, according to historical statistics on baseball-reference.com going back to 1871. The league is on pace for an all-time homer high.

“The difference is what people are trying to do at the plate now. Everyone is trying to slug and everyone is trying to hit the ball in the air,” said Rangers slugger Joey Gallo, who has 20 homers this season and 101 in the past three seasons combined.

The home run explosion also isn’t a new thing. Home runs have been rising for two decades. Three of the four top homer-hitting seasons are the previous three, including the all-time record of 6,105 in 2017. The recent outlier was 2000, when the league hit 5,693 homers.

Of the 27 top homer-hitting seasons (ahead of 2019), only two came before 1993, not counting the strike-shortened 1994 season. Those were 1986 and 1987.

Astros outfielder George Springer and Rangers’ third-base coach Tony Beasley said hitters are just better now.

“Just look around the locker room and there’s eight or nine guys on every team who know how to hit,” said Springer, who has 18 homers this season.

Springer’s teammate Justin Verlander made headlines during the All-Star Break when he told ESPN’s Jeff Passan he’s convinced the league has made balls hitter friendly.

“Major League Baseball’s turning this game into a joke. They own Rawlings, and you’ve got [commissioner Rob] Manfred up here saying it might be the way they center the pill. They own the [freaking] company,” Verlander said. “If any other $40 billion company bought out a $400 million company and the product changed dramatically, it’s not a guess as to what happened. We all know what happened. The first time [Manfred] came in, what’d he say? He said we want more offense. All of a sudden he comes in, the balls are juiced? It’s not coincidence. We’re not idiots.”

Manfred denied the allegation the next day.

“The biggest flaw in that logic is that baseball somehow wants more home runs. If you sat in an owner’s meeting and listened to people talk about the way our game is being played, that is not the sentiment among the owners for whom I work,” Manfred told reporters on Tuesday. “There is no desire on the part of ownership to increase the number of home runs in the game. To the contrary, they’re concerned about how many we have.”

And if Verlander is on to something, are they juicing balls for college baseball, too?

Just look at the Big 12 Conference home run statistics the past seven seasons. Each year home runs have gone up, including a record 479 this season. The league hit 198 in 2013.

Rangers’ right fielder Nomar Mazara isn’t buying Verlander’s theory. Mazara, who has hit exactly 20 homers in each of his first three full seasons and has 12 in 2019, said the home run explosion comes down to physics.

“People are throwing 100 [mph] now. We’re strong, too. When we hit it, it’s going to exit even harder,” he said. “He’s given up a lot of homers this year that’s probably why he’s complaining about it.”

Maybe Mazara has a point about Verlander, who despite being one of the best pitchers in the game, has allowed a league-high 26 homers. That’s only four-shy of his career-high in a season.

“He can say whatever he wants. That’s his opinion,” Mazara said. “Pitchers are out there striking out 10 to 20 people. There’s nothing wrong with that. Why when we have a night when we strikeout 20 times people don’t say anything about it?

As for whether the deluge of home runs is good for the game or not? Stop. The idea that home runs would turn fans off is laughable. Fans love the home run. There’s no debating that. But the more power dominates the game, the less offensive strategy is necessary.

Beasley, an admitted fan of baseball strategy, speaks for many when he says he fears losing that part of the game. Instead of trying to manufacture a run by stealing a base, executing a bunt or relying on a sacrifice fly, he said, teams are often just waiting on a three-run homer.

“I still believe good pitching beats good hitting,” Beasley said. “We do, but a lot of teams don’t t run as much. You still have to be able to do the little things to win. And I like that part of the game. It’s kind of getting lost because of the power.”

Beasley hasn’t noticed much of a difference in batting practice power in recent years and the same balls are used. That leads him to believe the ball is the same, it’s just the hitters — and pitchers — who are different. The skill level and strength for today’s average player trumps players 20 years ago.

“There’s way more guys throwing upper 90s to 100,” he said. “They always say pitchers provide the power and they do. Balls are going extremely far. Guys are stronger, bigger, they’re working on their craft, using short swings.”

Plus, Gallo said, more players are going for power now. Power-hitting is no longer just for a hulking clean-up hitter.

“There’s definitely more intent to hit a home run, to hit the ball in the air, especially with how great pitching is. I think that’s why there is an uptick in home runs and strikeouts,” said Gallo, who also echoed Mazara’s point about the abundance of hard-throwing pitchers. “I think that’s why you see an uptick in home runs as well. If there’s something more than that, I don’t know. I’m not a scientist, I’m just a hitter.”

Also, fewer hitters step in the batter’s box with a two-strike approach like they used to, Beasley said.

“There’s not a whole lot of Punch and Judy-type of hitters left. Everybody is big and strong. We have short stops and second basemen hitting home runs now. In the past we didn’t have that,” he said. “And guys are more apt in the launch-angle era to swing from their heels now.”

Springer thinks pitchers make more mistakes over the middle of the plate now because they throw so hard. As we’ve seen over and over, big league hitters eventually locate a fat fastball even if it’s coming in at 100 mph.

“I guess it just depends on who you are, whether you like offense or not. You still got to hit it. With the pitchers being better than ever, throwing harder than ever, they’re making more mistakes now, I think,” he said.

Gallo is an unabashed fan of the home run. And if the balls are juiced, he added, fine. Hitters need all the help they can get.

“Everyone has an opinion. I respect [Verlander’s] opinion,” he said. “Fans love home runs. I love home runs. I don’t think it’s bad for the game. It’d be nice to help the hitters out a little bit. It’s a little rock coming in at a 100 mph and it can move any which way.”

Texas Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo said his home run in the All-Star Game is a highlight of his young career.

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Stefan Stevenson has been covering sports for the Star-Telegram since 1997. He spent five years covering TCU athletics, which included two BCS bowls, two trips to the college World Series and the move to the Big 12. He has covered the Texas Rangers since 2014 and started reporting on the Dallas Cowboys in 2016.