Did Major League Baseball Really Switch Out The Baseballs In October?

Divisional Series - St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves - Game Five
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The St. Louis Cardinals hit 210 home runs in the regular season, finishing 12th in the National League as a team. It's a stark contrast from the 2018 regular season, where they hit 205 homers as a team but finished fourth in that category in the NL. But despite long-balls being up at an unprecedented rate around the league this year, there has been a sudden drop-off in the flight of the baseball in the postseason.

Marcell Ozuna crushed a ball to the outfield in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Washington Nationals, but it failed to carry out of the park. That's the smallest of small sample sizes, but the team's analytics suggest something has changed.

“I thought Ozuna got his ball, based on the sound, based on the swing,” said Cardinals manager Mike Shildt. “But clearly it didn't get out … Our front office and analytical group is saying the ball's not traveling at about a 4.5 foot difference.”

The Cardinals front office aren't the only ones who have noticed. Baseball Prospectus' Rob Arthur has written extensively on the topic.


“In the last week’s worth of Division Series games, the drag coefficient spiked to a high it hadn’t regularly sat at since 2016. October days only contain a fraction of the games of a typical regular season night, but we’re still dealing with a sample of more than 800 fastballs to measure drag with.

The probability that a random selection of games from the rest of the regular season would feature as much air resistance as we’ve seen so far in the postseason is about one in one thousand. This was an abrupt spike, as well: It’s the largest change in drag coefficient from week to week this season, by a factor of three.”

One common theory for the change is that the baseball itself is different. There have been plenty of rumors that the league turned away from the baseballs that jumped off the bat like golf balls in the regular season. That would represent a major change to the way the game is played. But according to Shildt, the change in the flight of the baseball hasn't been significant enough to change the way he manages the game.

“There's probably all kind of different theories behind that that I won't really get into,” said Shildt. “Just the fact of the matter, it could be any number of things. And again, small sample size. I don't know whether it's just our games or in total postseason baseball or what have you. It's not a big enough number or sample size for me to do anything about.”

Nats manager Dave Martinez wouldn't get into any theories about the change beyond the cold air at Busch Stadium on Friday night.

“He hit it awfully high and awfully hard,” Martinez said of Ozuna’s flyout. “The thing I know about this time of year is the air gets a little heavy, so I was just hoping that the air was really, really heavy after he hit the ball and it stayed in the park.

“Our outfielders played a little more shallow yesterday than they normally do, only because we figured the ball wasn't going to travel as far.”

However, Arthur's data paints a convincing picture that it’s more than just small sample sizes and cooler air.

“The data is conclusive in showing that the playoff baseball is very different from the one used in the regular season. But we’re still left with the question of why.”

If the league switched the baseballs out, the better question is why now? Commissioner Rob Manfred needs to set the record straight, and that includes an explanation not only for the alleged switch but why it needed to be done in secret.

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The St. Louis Cardinals hit 210 home runs in the regular season, finishing 12th in the National League as a team. It's a stark contrast from the 2018 regular season, where they hit 205 homers as a team but finished fourth in that category in the NL. But despite long-balls being up at an unprecedented rate around the league this year, there has been a sudden drop-off in the flight of the baseball in the postseason.

Marcell Ozuna crushed a ball to the outfield in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Washington Nationals, but it failed to carry out of the park. That's the smallest of small sample sizes, but the team's analytics suggest something has changed.

“I thought Ozuna got his ball, based on the sound, based on the swing,” said Cardinals manager Mike Shildt. “But clearly it didn't get out … Our front office and analytical group is saying the ball's not traveling at about a 4.5 foot difference.”

The Cardinals front office aren't the only ones who have noticed. Baseball Prospectus' Rob Arthur has written extensively on the topic.


“In the last week’s worth of Division Series games, the drag coefficient spiked to a high it hadn’t regularly sat at since 2016. October days only contain a fraction of the games of a typical regular season night, but we’re still dealing with a sample of more than 800 fastballs to measure drag with.

The probability that a random selection of games from the rest of the regular season would feature as much air resistance as we’ve seen so far in the postseason is about one in one thousand. This was an abrupt spike, as well: It’s the largest change in drag coefficient from week to week this season, by a factor of three.”

One common theory for the change is that the baseball itself is different. There have been plenty of rumors that the league turned away from the baseballs that jumped off the bat like golf balls in the regular season. That would represent a major change to the way the game is played. But according to Shildt, the change in the flight of the baseball hasn't been significant enough to change the way he manages the game.

“There's probably all kind of different theories behind that that I won't really get into,” said Shildt. “Just the fact of the matter, it could be any number of things. And again, small sample size. I don't know whether it's just our games or in total postseason baseball or what have you. It's not a big enough number or sample size for me to do anything about.”

Nats manager Dave Martinez wouldn't get into any theories about the change beyond the cold air at Busch Stadium on Friday night.

“He hit it awfully high and awfully hard,” Martinez said of Ozuna’s flyout. “The thing I know about this time of year is the air gets a little heavy, so I was just hoping that the air was really, really heavy after he hit the ball and it stayed in the park.

“Our outfielders played a little more shallow yesterday than they normally do, only because we figured the ball wasn't going to travel as far.”

However, Arthur's data paints a convincing picture that it’s more than just small sample sizes and cooler air.

“The data is conclusive in showing that the playoff baseball is very different from the one used in the regular season. But we’re still left with the question of why.”

If the league switched the baseballs out, the better question is why now? Commissioner Rob Manfred needs to set the record straight, and that includes an explanation not only for the alleged switch but why it needed to be done in secret.

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I am a freelance journalist and a baseball contributor at Forbes. My work has also been published at NBC Sports Chicago, The Athletic, the Sporting News, Bet Chicago, an...