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December 11, 2019
San Diego, California
THE MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone. Earlier today, the results were released in a study conducted by a committee of scientists regarding the performance of the official baseball. Joining us today to discuss their findings are the scientists who conducted the study.
First up, Dr. Alan Nathan, professor of physics emeritus at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
We have Dr. Peko Hosoi, professor of mechanical engineering and mathematics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Dr. Jim Albert, distinguished university professor of statistics, Bowling Green State University; and Dr. Lloyd Smith, professor of mechanical engineering, Washington State University.
Also joining us, Chris Young, MLB Vice President of On-Field Operations Initiatives and Strategy; Morgan Sword, Senior VP, League Economics & Operations; and from Rawlings, Michael Zlaket, Rawlings President and CEO; and Rawlings Business Manager, Ben McIntosh.
We'll start with a few words from Dr. Nathan.
ALAN NATHAN: Okay. Thank you for coming. Let me first start by quickly reviewing what this is all about. So from roughly 2000 until 2014, there was sort of a slow decrease in home run rates, and that -- beginning in 2015, that suddenly changed, and there's been an upward trend ever since with the exception of one dip during the 2018 season.
So back in 2017, the increase during that period prompted MLB to contact us, asked us to be on a committee to investigate why such a big increase in home runs. So the committee was formed. We worked for three or four months during the latter part of 2017 and produced a report that was published in May of 2018, and it's useful to actually review what we found based on that study because it has relevance to the current study.
So the first thing we discovered was that the home run changes over that 2015 to '17 period were due nearly completely to a change in the aerodynamic properties of the ball, reduced air drag, meaning the ball travels further and therefore you get more home runs. We determined that the home run increase was not due to changes in the launch conditions -- exit velocity, launch angle, et cetera.
Now, with a variety of techniques, including both analysis of Statcast data and laboratory experiments, we determined that, in any given year, the ball-to-ball variation of this drag property of the baseball was actually much larger than the relatively small amount of change in the average drag from one year to the next, and it's that average drag change which accounted for the home runs.
Finally, we discovered that neither the year-to-year changes in the drag nor the significant ball-to-ball variation in the drag could really be associated with any particular property of the ball that we were able at that time to investigate, nor could these factors be explained by any changes to the manufacturing process.
So now we fast forward to 2019, where, again, home runs are way up. There's a record for home runs in a single season, and a subset of the original committee of the people you see here was reformed, and we started investigating again.
We started by posing three questions for ourselves -- initially, two questions, and then a third question came up along the way. The first question, going back to the 2017 study, well, what are the underlying causes of the changes in home run rates during the 2018 and '19 seasons? Particularly, how do they break up between changes in launch conditions and changes in the carry, the thing that's affected by the drag on the ball?
Number two, again, leftover from the 2017 study, what are the physical properties of the baseball that lead to both a large ball-to-ball variation and the smaller year-to-year variation in the drag properties of the baseball?
Then when we were nearly done with all this, another issue came up, which was the postseason from 2019, and the question then arose: Did the home run rate change during the 2019 postseason? And if so, what's driving that change?
So the methodology that we employed was similar to what we did in our first report. First of all, there was laboratory testing of large samples of baseballs at Washington State -- that's Lloyd Smith's bailiwick -- including the development of improved methods on instrumentation to measure properties of the baseball with the needed precision for measuring small effects.
Then the second thing was, again, analysis of Statcast data using improved modeling techniques to be able to separate launch effects -- exit velocity, launch angles, et cetera -- from carry effects, things associated with the drag. This included an analysis of actual Statcast trajectories both for pitched balls and for batted balls.
So here are the principal things that we found. First, let me address the Statcast analysis, which shows that the home run increase in 2019 was due both to a decrease in the drag, that is, improved carry. That accounted for roughly 60 percent of the increase, and changes in launch conditions accounted for another 40 percent of the increase.
By the way, in 2018 home runs were down. The drag was actually higher although the launch conditions were more favorable. So you had two effects going in the opposite direction.
So regarding the drag, both the laboratory experiments that were done on large samples of baseballs and the Statcast data continued to find both large ball-to-ball variation and smaller year-to-year variations of the drag, just as we found in our initial studies.
Now, in looking for the properties of the ball that are responsible for the variation in drag, the laboratory data show a clear correlation between drag and seam height. This is something that escaped our observation in the preceding study simply because the equipment that we were using was not precise enough to determine that, but with the improved equipment, we could do that. So we see a correlation both ball-to-ball within any given year as well as correlations from year to year.
Now, seam height is definitely one of the things that -- the changes in seam heights certainly related to some of the changes in drag, but only about 35 percent of it. Just to give you an idea, the change in seam height of a fraction of the thickness of a sheet of paper like this would give you a measurable effect in the change in the drag. So these are small effects, they're subtle effects, and they need rather sophisticated equipment in order to be able to measure them.
Now, factors other than seam height account for the remaining 65 percent of the variation in drag, and unfortunately, we have not yet been able to identify these factors, despite lots of effort.
Nevertheless, there have been various alternative hypotheses for a change in the drag that have been discussed in the media, such as the roundness, the surface roughness, the lace thickness, and none of these are correlated with drag. That's a firm result from the laboratory measurements.
We conclude from all this that a baseball is actually a rather complicated object from the point of view of drag. It's very, very subtle, the effects that can occur. For example, in a pilot study that will be extended, we discovered that application of mud to the baseball actually has a significant effect on the drag. That particular study will continue.
Now, as I said, 40 percent of the increase in 2019 came from changes in the launch conditions. We found no clear-cut evidence that these changes in launch conditions had anything to do with the baseball itself and are most likely due to changes in batter behavior.
Finally, the issue of the 2019 postseason, definitely it's true that the home run rate in the 2019 postseason was lower than during the regular season, drag was slightly higher. Despite the fact that Rawlings uses the same manufacturing process to create baseballs in the postseason as they do during the regular season. They just put a different stamp on the ball.
Laboratory measurements confirm that the drag is higher, but interestingly, there is no change in seam height between the postseason baseballs and the regular season baseballs for 2019. Once again, it shows that there are things that we really do not yet understand about what are the contributing factors to drag.
Finally, let me say that going forward in our report -- and you can read it for yourself, but let me just sort of quickly summarize -- we made various recommendations. In broad terms, the recommendations are further studies to help elucidate the reasons for the change in drag from one season to another and how that affects the ball performance; then recommendations to develop mechanisms to better control the ball performance.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you. Next up is Chris Young.
CHRIS YOUNG: On behalf of the Commissioner's office, I want to thank the committee for their work on this report. They've completed this project efficiently and made a number of very important breakthroughs, and we're extremely grateful for your expertise and availability to study this incredibly complex issue.
Moving forward, we will continue to work with them as we explore the sources of drag variation in the baseball. We do understand, however, that this is a handmade, hand-stitched process, and the use of natural raw materials creates a variability in the baseball performance that is, to some extent, unavoidable.
In addition to accepting the recommendations of the committee, we'll remain focused on controlling the sources of variability as best we can, including the mudding application process, the shipment, and the storage conditions.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks, Chris. Next up, Michael from Rawlings.
MICHAEL ZLAKET: Good morning. For clarification, my last name -- which is tricky, admittedly -- is pronounced Zlaket. I'm the President and CEO of Rawlings. I too appreciate the work that's been done. It's a complicated issue, but hopefully a little bit of perspective is what I want to add in our opening statement.
Look, we've been around for 130 years. The company was founded in 1887. We've been the official baseball of MLB for more than 40 years, since 1977. We make a great product, one that's consistently within MLB specs, as you heard, has been validated in the report.
And yet we're always -- and this is important -- we're always committed to continuous improvement. It's part of what we do. We continued to be -- we always have been and continue to be transparent with all of our stakeholders. We've always had a great working relationship, a collaborative working relationship with MLB. Importantly, we have never been asked to juice or dejuice a baseball, and we've never done anything of the sort, never would on our own.
There's always going to be -- as Chris said, there's always going to be some inconsistency in the product. It's created by the fact that it's natural materials, and the production process has a lot of manual steps, but I'm confident that we have always done it, and we will always do it better than anybody else in the world. Thanks.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks, Michael. We're going to take questions from the media.
Q. I asked around, some pitchers, actually, who have told me they thought the balls felt different, and I think that's been true throughout baseball. Has there been any studies about the hide itself? Because a number of pitchers told me it felt slicker, felt harder this year, harder to control. Has there been any study about that aspect of the baseballs?
PEKO HOSOI: I haven't seen any studies. Someone along this table could correct me, but I think that's actually a super interesting study to do. I would recommend that we did actually a blind test on pitchers to see what level of differences they can detect.
Q. This year with the Major League quality ball -- this is for the president of Rawlings. You all are making a lot more of them because you're also using the same type of ball for AAA. Were there differences, because of that, in the drying or any other part of the process that was different than how those balls have been produced in the past, or was it the exact same process?
MICHAEL ZLAKET: So for clarification, what you're referring to is the switch in AAA, the shift this year in the balls. It's important to note we manufacture all of the balls for Major League in our facility in Costa Rica, and historically, prior to this year, we sourced the balls for AAA out of a factory in Asia.
We're the best in the world in terms of zeroing in on a certain range of tolerance, and I think what you saw this year is the fact that the ball that we made for Major League Baseball is much more precise, much more exact, and stands to reason it would produce offenses more similar to Major League Baseball than Minor League in the past.
Q. But did the process with drying or anything else change from last year, the air drying procedure?
MICHAEL ZLAKET: No, the Major League process you're referring to, none of our processes have changed.
Q. Also for the Rawlings president -- I apologize, I forgot your name -- you mentioned everything within the specifications. Has there been any talk, or would it be practical to tighten the specifications so the balls are more consistent from one to the other?
MICHAEL ZLAKET: Well, for clarification, the specs have been and will be initiated by Major League Baseball. So it's in their court and their decision. We make to the best of our ability within them, and I do think it's fair to say that over time we've gotten better and better at the process. I'm really proud of that actually. But that makes for a more precise product that is going to perform better on the whole, I guess, than one that ranges from here to here.
As far as where we go in the future, again, I defer. We've always made to the specifications that we've been given, and that's the way we'd approach it going forward.
MORGAN SWORD: We made some small tweaks to the specifications coming out of the prior report based on the recommendation of the committee, and I think we're engaged in continuous conversation with the committee here on that topic.
ALAN NATHAN: I want to actually make a comment also. Prior to our earlier report, the issue of drag was not something anybody was paying attention to. So it wasn't something that's spec by Major League Baseball because no one thought it was an important parameter.
And one of our recommendations is that we sort of codify the measurements that Lloyd has been doing in his lab and specify what the allowable range of drag coefficient would be.
Q. For Chris, because you pitched for so long, when you see the numbers from where home runs were in, let's say, '14 to where they quickly have shot up to, how much do you think it really is the behavior of the hitters and the launch angle that accounts for this? Or what do you -- do you believe -- when you were watching it last year before you were in the study, did you think it was the ball mostly?
CHRIS YOUNG: Yeah, that's a great question. I think that players have -- these athletes are highly refined and skilled, who have incredible abilities to make adjustments on a daily basis. Certainly, they adjust to the circumstances and the conditions of the equipment, materials, whatever they play with. So these are tremendous athletes who can make adjustments.
Yes, and they are smart athletes as well. That's why our sport is great because we have such highly skilled players who can make those adjustments on a daily basis.
But there always be a level of variability to the baseball, and certainly with everything that goes into the manufacturing process, it's unpredictable at times. But I think that our guys, our athletes make great adjustments to the conditions they're given.
Q. For any and all of you, how confident are you, coming out of this study and all the discussions you had, that we can stop talking about this? Or do you feel like this is just an ongoing issue that can only be resolved if you switch to synthetic baseballs, which would seem to have more consistency?
MORGAN SWORD: That's a good question. What I've taken from this and learned from these four is that we choose to use a piece of equipment in our game that is made of natural materials and hand-stitched, and that introduces a lot of variability into that piece of equipment that wouldn't exist if it was fully synthetic or something that was made with less human involvement.
I think one of the things we're going to have to do as we continue this journey of discovery is accept the fact that the baseball is going to vary and the performance of the baseball is going to vary, and we're going to do everything we can to control it, but that that is kind of fundamental to the equipment choice we've made.
Q. And you think your players and your fans are in agreement with that?
MORGAN SWORD: I mean, it's always been the case. The baseball has varied in its performance probably for the entire history of our sport.
Q. This is for Morgan. So considering it seems like the mud is a factor based on this study, where do things stand with trying to build this ball that wouldn't require the mud, the tackier ball?
MORGAN SWORD: Sure. So we've been working with Rawlings to develop a kind of pretacked baseball that doesn't require mud application. That is a fairly long process, one, to develop a product that's suitable, and then to get it in the hands of players and coaches to test it.
We have made some progress on that in the last couple of years. I think the other option is to proceed with the current ball and do a better job of standardizing the way we apply mud to baseball. Last year we actually implemented a set of standards for each club to follow in how they apply mud to baseballs before the game. I think coming out of this report, we're going to look to enhance and enforce those standards a little more rigorously.
Q. So any of the scientists, there was a mention of storage, I think. Is it your opinion that humidors or other -- those sort of facilities would in some way benefit the seeking of less variability?
ALAN NATHAN: Lloyd, why don't you answer that one.
LLOYD SMITH: So humidity is an important part of the ball, and that could be used to control the ball. There's wide ranges in humidity across the country. So that's certainly a knob that could be turned.
But that's also changing the way that the ball performs. That's a very proactive way. Certainly, that could be done. Whether it's good or wise to do, that really depends on how the game should be managed, but that's certainly one feature that could be used to control the ball.
Q. So at this point, not your recommendation?
LLOYD SMITH: We are recommending we monitor the humidity environment, where the balls are stored, so we know where we are today. We're not necessarily recommending that that be a fix to this problem.
PEKO HOSOI: And one more thing to add, the humidors don't really address the issue of drag. The humidors will affect the coefficient of restitution, but sort of the topic of drag isn't likely to be impacted by that.
Q. Chris, in terms of implementing some of the recommendations, what's the move from MLB's standpoint? At this point, obviously, a lot of it is very complex stuff. What can be done in the short term to try to -- either from a humidor standpoint or ballpark factors?
CHRIS YOUNG: I'll defer to Morgan on this one since he's more familiar with the process.
MORGAN SWORD: Yeah, sure. I think we're going to accept all of the recommendations in the report. They vary widely, but generally the gist of them is to assist future investigation into the sources of variability and drag, so things like installing environmental monitors in our ballparks, monitoring more closely storage conditions of baseballs, the chain of custody of baseballs from shipment into our ballparks and storage and use ultimately in the game, and giving this group the tools to continue to push the ball forward here.
Q. This is a question for the panel. I'm not sure who's going to want to field it. But when the specs or the manufacturing process changes or the scientists make the recommendations that result in those changes, is there any kind of like feedback and testing to say, hey, we haven't done -- or what we've done here is still producing an effect that is within our expectations of how this ball will perform? Is there any kind of -- before these balls get put into the pipeline to be used in the Major Leagues.
ALAN NATHAN: Well, since we've been actively working on this since 2017 season, there have been no changes of specs. So there's nothing that anyone's asked us for advice on. And, again, let me reiterate what I said earlier. There is no spec on anything related to drag. Well, on the so-called drag coefficient.
Q. Do you anticipate adding some kind of spec for drag that will be -- that you will attempt to adhere to?
ALAN NATHAN: Well, it is the recommendation of the committee to do that. You'll have to ask Morgan about how that would be implemented.
MORGAN SWORD: I think we would like to do that. I think part of creating a spec is understanding the sources of the variability, and I don't think we're quite at the point yet where we would feel comfortable drawing lines on the drag properties given that so much of the source remains unexplained.
Q. You mentioned 65 percent of the source of the drag is unknown. Roughly how long would it take you to potentially find the source of that, and what would that process be like?
ALAN NATHAN: That sounds like a Lloyd question. (Laughter.)
LLOYD SMITH: We have no idea. (Laughter.)
We're working very hard on it, and we've got support from MLB, and motivation, so it's going to be a very active process for us. But at the conclusion of our last report, we knew the drag had changed, we didn't know why, and we didn't know how long it would take us to find the answer. We didn't know if it was because of the accuracy of our measurements or if it was because of some phenomenon that we hadn't yet considered that we needed to consider.
So we just have to go back through that process again, refine what we've done, look at other ideas, and talk to other people and take lots of measurements.
ALAN NATHAN: Let me just add to that, that when Lloyd says we have no idea, you could interpret that to mean that nobody in this world has any idea because, if Lloyd doesn't know, then nobody knows. (Laughter.)
Q. This is for either Chris and/or Morgan, I guess. When you speak to people in front offices about the baseball, the most common reaction they have is we'd just like to know going into next season what kind of baseball we're going to have. Based on this study, do you have any ability to assure them heading into next season whether the baseball is going to behave like this year's baseball or something else?
MORGAN SWORD: We have some ability, yeah, and I think that one thing that happens in the production of baseballs is that there's a natural lag between when they're produced and when they're used in games, which gives us an opportunity to do some of these new aerodynamic tests that Lloyd has developed prior to the use in games, but to me, one of their most important findings in the prior report and in this report is that the ball-to-ball variability far exceeds the year-over-year variability. So just any given ball can have drag properties that are significantly different than any other ball.
So in terms of the way clubs prepare for the ball in a certain year, we can give them some information, but I don't think we'll ever get to the point where they can have complete certainty about that.
Q. Isn't that troubling? Like if the ball-to-ball variability is sort of more extreme than the year-to-year average variability -- first of all, how extreme are we talking? That would be a question for you guys. And then also, wouldn't that have a greater impact in terms of -- because the thing that players and front office personnel have been saying to us is, well, we're all playing with the same ball, but is that not true? Like are certain batters getting -- I mean, on any given pitch, they could be getting a ball that is more likely to go out, which would seem to determine the outcome of games with an even greater significance than if the ball was just changing year to year.
ALAN NATHAN: Well, that's what the data is telling us.
MORGAN SWORD: I think the other thing that it's important to understand is that's always been true in Major League Baseball, and we have, we're pretty confident, the most consistent baseball of any baseball. There is no baseball that is machine stitched, which introduces variability into the process. So the ball that we're using in the Big League games is as consistent as exists, as far as we understand.
MICHAEL ZLAKET: I would just dovetail for clarification, it's sounding like a lot when we're talking about very, very, very small. We produce at the tightest part of the range, and we're on target the vast majority of the time.
So while I understand the questions in terms of the ball-to-ball variability, just for perspective, I don't think we're talking about something so dramatic that it could literally alter an at-bat or alter player to player.
Q. But isn't that sort of the point, is that it is altering?
MICHAEL ZLAKET: No, I think if you read through and you hear what the scientists concluded, there are many factors that play in here. I think that's what's been borne out by the study as much as anything. The ball has some natural variation, the game has some natural variation, and there's just many contributing factors to it, which is kind of as we've maintained.
Q. Question about the 2019 postseason ball. And I understand from the report we're dealing with a small sample size. It was previously reported that all the 2019 postseason balls were manufactured in quarter one of 2019. How was that determined? Was that determined? Were the balls taken apart? Was this by batch code designations? Do we have a way of knowing exactly where these balls came from?
BEN MCINTOSH: By batch code designation at Rawlings, yes.
Q. What is the range on batch code designations? Does that deal with a date and time of manufacturing, and how big is that range?
BEN MCINTOSH: Yes. It's weekly buckets basically.
BEN MCINTOSH: Yes.
Q. And for my clarification, do you find batch codes by taking the ball apart?
BEN MCINTOSH: We have it on the outside of the case packs for our own uses that we know. That's part of the recommendation, is to better develop a tracking mechanism all the way through.
Right now we can track all the way through our processes all the way out of our warehouse. Now it's a matter of extending it out to the clubs and putting it all together so we can basically provide the scientists data tracking all the way back.
Q. Just to follow up on the drag question, I follow what you're saying that you don't -- you all don't fully understand yet, don't know yet what is causing all the drag variance. I guess the followup, though, is do you need to know? If we know that drag -- if it's been proven and the recommendation is that drag plays a significant factor in how the ball plays, if you can measure drag, do you need to know why a ball is out of variance to basically throw it out? Or can you just say this is not -- if you put in a drag standard, if a ball doesn't meet that drag standard, you just then say -- maybe we don't know why, but this ball does not meet that standard, and then you -- it does not meet the standard.
MORGAN SWORD: Yeah, I think we haven't yet reached the point where we'd be ready to develop some kind of binary test like that, where -- and maybe Lloyd could go into what exactly is involved in testing the drag of a baseball. That might help clarify a little bit.
LLOYD SMITH: That's not practical that we would test the drag of every ball in production. It actually costs more money to measure the drag of a ball than it does to produce the ball. So we've always got to be in some type of model where we're testing smaller sample size than are actually produced.
It's not like the weight of the ball. Every ball is measured for weight. It's a simple measurement to do, but you just can't do that with drag.
Q. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about this frustrating, I guess, conversation. So some pitchers have reported a disproportionate negative impact on their performance, some with the quality of pitches, just sliders and splitters not breaking the way they used to. Others with injuries, like blisters, all due to changes in variance and seam, I guess, but all of them bear like significant consequences on their performance. Are there any plans to study at a more granular level those specific effects and provide even resources for players?
CHRIS YOUNG: I think, first of all, the player health and safety is something we take very seriously. We're constantly monitoring that, studying it, talking to the players association and the players themselves, getting feedback. They are a very important component to this conversation, and certainly we value their opinion and feedback.
Yes, these, again, given the variability in the baseball that's always existed, these are things that have been there throughout really the history of baseball, and anything we can do to improve those areas, we're going to continue to monitor and work towards.
Q. And have you discussed sort of the inherent financial implications of a declined performance, especially for pitchers who are like, say, in arbitration or (indiscernible) guaranteed contract?
MORGAN SWORD: Even though there is variability on the drag of baseballs, all our players fortunately are playing with the same baseball, and, again, this is not a new issue. I think we have been using a naturally made baseball for the entire history of the sport. So in that respect, nothing's changed.
Q. One more for Chris. As Morgan noted, we'll just have to accept the fact that performance will vary. How difficult will that be for Major League pitchers to accept that? And is that, I guess, realistic to ask of them given how important the ball is to their livelihood?
CHRIS YOUNG: Yes, that's a fair question. Again, it's something that's always existed. I can speak personally to that and say that on any given night my job was to be better than the opposing pitcher. Ultimately, if you're both pitching with the same baseballs and playing with the same baseballs, then you have to be better, and that's what our sport is about, and that's your responsibility.
Q. One question. Now, the study is out and the panel has taken the time to address the media. Does MLB have -- how are you guys going to address the teams and the players come Spring Training or something? Is MLB going to go out to the teams and the players and make some sort of presentation on this, or are they going to get their information through us in the media?
MORGAN SWORD: Yeah, we've actually updated our clubs at recent meetings, both in the baseball operations group and the ownership group. So they're aware of a lot of the ongoing work on this topic. To the extent we kind of formally adopt these recommendations, we'll obviously provide notice to clubs.
THE MODERATOR: That's going to conclude today's press conference. We appreciate you coming out. Commissioner Manfred will be out here doing a media availability at 12:30.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports