- Dec 4, 2009
Sean Doolittle has pitched across 10 seasons in Major League Baseball with four teams. He's made two All-Star teams and gunned down the best lineups on the sport's biggest stage on the way to a world championship. He's also been the losing pitcher in an elimination game and been kicked off the roster during a prolonged slump. In other words, he's come about as close as one can to seeing all American baseball has to offer.
But as accustomed as Doolittle is to baseball's ups and downs, there is one part of the sport that he says becomes less familiar every season: the baseball itself. The namesake and fundamental implement of his sport — a tool he has gripped and thrown more than 7,000 times — has in recent years begun to behave in ways that defy his finely honed sense of its character.
"I feel like I normally have a pretty good handle on being able to judge a fly ball or a line drive, like a ball in the air to the outfield," Doolittle, now a free agent hoping to bounce back after an up-and-down stint between the Cincinnati Reds and the Seattle Mariners, told Insider. "There were a few instances over the course of the  season where, you know, we're sitting in the bullpen watching the game or whatever. And like a home run gets hit and you're kind of like, surprised that it got out. And so, like you're looking at it and you're like, 'That's kind of weird.' ... it can only happen so many times before you start, like, questioning things."
It isn't just the odd home run that gives Doolittle reason to question the baseball. League balls are made by hand in a Rawlings factory in Costa Rica; each one exhibits minor variations from the next, and manufacturing protocols have changed over the decades. In February, the league revealed that, on the advice of its cadre of scientific experts, it had secretly begun making the ball's center — the layered complex of yarn wound around a cork and rubber core that you find beneath the leather exterior — slightly lighter and less dense "in order to improve the consistency of the baseball's performance."
Specifically, the league said, Rawlings didn't wind the yarn as tight as before. The new, looser balls came off the bat softer, the league said, ultimately traveling shorter distances — welcome news for pitchers dealing with the ramifications of the most homer-happy era in the sport's history. These new and improved balls, the league said in an internal memo explaining the move, would be introduced in the 2021 season.
https://www.businessinsider.com/mlb-used-two-different-balls-in-2021-2021-11According to a new study by Meredith Wills, a Society for American Baseball Research award-winning astrophysicist, the league used two distinct types of baseballs — one lighter and deader than the other — during the 2021 season. By dissecting and carefully measuring hundreds of balls used in 15 major-league parks, Wills found that the league did indeed introduce a new ball with a lighter center, as it pledged to do in the February memo. But she also found that MLB continued to use the older, heavier-center ball at the same time, apparently without telling fans, clubs, or players.
Wills' findings could have far-reaching implications for the sport, shattering what little trust and goodwill remains between league officials and players, whose fortunes rise or fall on minuscule and obscure details like the weight of a baseball's center. Informed by Insider that the league sent teams two different balls with different performance profiles, players, scouts, and front-office staffers expressed bafflement and frustration. "There's a lot of things that ... the public doesn't really see," said one National League outfielder who asked not to be named. "There's just, like, lack of transparency, with [these] issues. And, you know, I don't know why that is."
Wills, whose work to reverse-engineer the design and manufacture of baseballs has been covered in Sports Illustrated and The Athletic, has been collecting and deconstructing game balls since 2018 to track changes that the league — which purchased Rawlings in 2018 alongside a private-equity firm — makes. When Wills took apart balls used last season and weighed their centers, she found that just under half clustered at about 124 to 125 grams, roughly in line with the league's new process for balls with a lighter center. The other balls, however, had centers clustered at about 127 grams, consistent with all the baseballs she had cut open from the previous 20 seasons.
It's important to note that all of the overall ball weights were within the 5 to 5 1/2 ounces that league rules permit, and that one would expect to see some variation in a handmade product. But the differences Wills found aren't random. Inside the Rawlings balls' leather coverings are batch codes — seven stamped letters that indicate the production week, a receipt that allows an exceptionally curious person to know the date the ball was manufactured.
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