Spare Parts: The ball has changed, and so White Sox must adjust

The White Sox offense opens a fresh week still leading all of baseball in expected slugging percentage. They’re 19th in actual slugging percentage, and moral victories don’t count in stopping a seven-game losing streak, so it’s cold comfort for burning questions.

Similarly, there’s not much relief in noting that the rest of the league is saddled with the same issues; that the league’s OPS (.675) is worse than Leury García’s previous eight years with the White Sox (.677); that players on other teams are surprised by the deadness of it all.

Players aren’t surprised by their surprise, because they’ve gotten used to the inconsistency of the object that gives the sport its name. This time around, the baseball just isn’t carrying. It shows up in first-hand anecdotes, like one James McCann provided to Bob Nightengale

McCann said that he used to laugh about pitchers trying to convince him there are two different kinds of baseballs, but no longer, saying he can feel the difference, with some baseballs having bigger seams than others. 

“There definitely have been moments where I can get a ball from the umpire and can feel the difference,’’ McCann says. “The big thing for me is that the deadened baseball has a bigger seam. The lively balls, or whatever you want to call it, the seams are not as raised.’’ 

… and it shows up in the data measuring travel:

Through about two weeks so far this season, it appears we are on track for a high-drag, and thus low-homer, year. That dovetails nicely with other studies on the topic that are finding home run rates quite reduced, even adjusting for the weather, as well as other investigations of the baseball and home run rates by two researchers helping MLB study the topic, Alan Nathan and Jim Albert. In raw (non-weather-adjusted) terms, we are seeing the lowest rate of balls leaving the park since 2014, though that will creep up as the summer brings warmer, less dense air for the smashed baseballs to travel through.

There are various theories about why drag has increased — the implementation of humidors across the league is a new variable — but the general premise seems like it’s beyond debate. The question is how long the White Sox and other teams will be beating their heads against the wall, or whether they’re forced to find another way around it. If homers are harder to come by, then stringing together baserunners is the next best option. but the Sox are swinging indiscriminately and have the league’s second-lowest walk rate.

Yes, Frank Menechino has noticed.

“We’re getting slider’d to death, we’re getting offspeed to death,” Menechino said. “We’ve been more aggressive, especially on the fastball, and teams have recognized that and now they’re going to try to make us have patience, they’re going to tease us in and out of the zone, especially with offspeed. If you’re not taking your walks, you’re falling into their plan.”

Spare Parts

It would’ve been a lot easier to forecast success for Kopech’s return to the rotation had we known that his curveball would turn into the viable third pitch he’d been searching for. In fact, he’s thrown it like his second pitch his last two times out, although partially because he only really needed his fastball last Friday.

With so many no-hit bids lasting to the second half of a ballgame — and with a few high-profile pursuits abandoned by managerial discretion — there’s a heightened focus on whether starting pitchers will be allowed to do the jobs they’d previously been assigned. As Russell Carleton argues in the BP piece, the league is still working through the repercussions of the relief evolution that started in the 1980s, and now just about every pitcher is defined by his point of diminishing returns.

I’d argue that the idea of a pre-determined end-point to an outing is what really launched the reliever evolution. There were pitchers who didn’t start, but they were failed starters and they pitched like starters. The modern reliever is a new species of baseball player.

We’re now seeing those pre-determined end-points moving into the starting rotation. It might be six innings or 18 batters or 100 pitches, but the effects are going to be similar. With an end in sight, a starter can ration the energy meter to fit the job. It’s a much larger job in terms of innings covered, but there’s an end-point. If end-points were what made pitchers into relievers, then (just about) everyone is a reliever now.

If you want to understand modern pitching usage, you have to understand how those end-points have re-shaped pitching strategy.

Tyler Danish is back in the big leagues for the first time with a team besides the White Sox, which I only noticed when he gave up a go-ahead grand slam to Bo Bichette in Toronto Monday night.

That said, being in a position to give up a grand slam to the Blue Jays represents progress. I figured he was done after 2019, when he posted one of the worst statistical lines I’ve ever seen at Triple-A Tacoma (15.2 IP, 44 H, 41 R, 37 ER, 9 HR, 9 BB, 10 K, good for a 21.26 ERA). He needed two years in independent ball to wash the stink off, but he’s back to being an up-and-down guy, and he’s still just 27 years old.

Speaking of former White Sox draft picks, Luis Gonzalez is following in Luis Basabe’s footsteps as a Birmingham Logjam alum who is logging playing time in the Giants outfield. He hit his first homer on Monday, and it was a go-ahead two-run shot in the ninth inning.

Following up on Tony La Russa’s fear of Luis Arraez’s ability to hit a fastball, here’s Luke Hooper noting that Byron Buxton covers velocity at the top of the zone better than anybody in baseball.

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Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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HallofFrank

MLB fiddling with the baseballs is just weird. I get the bouncy ball. Home runs are fun to watch, and they’re trying to create a more exciting product.

But why this? What could their motivation possibly be? They surely know by now that changes in the ball won’t go unnoticed. It seems like the guaranteed outcome of this from the beginning was: less home runs + everyone annoyed at MLB for covertly changing the balls again.

I suppose a possible motivation is shorter games? But have games gotten shorter? And this seems like such a strange way to do it.

jhomeslice

There are so many complete a-holes in MLB, from the owners to Manfred, to our very own Jerry and TLR. You can never guess what their motives are, it’s almost like they just want to make fans unhappy.

HallofFrank

I can be cynical, but I do not think MLB is messing with the balls just to piss fans off. If it’s intentional, it surely has something to do with MLB making more money. I’m just trying to figure out what that could possibly be.

jhomeslice

You are probably right. But it is not uncommon for agendas that have to do with making more money to be at fans expense. I think some of them enjoy pissing fans off even if not their primary motive. Jerry has no love for the fans, that is an obvious truth.

joewho112

I wonder if they’re assuming everyone will quickly adjust and start hitting for average, which seems unlikely to happen in the short term.

They want to decrease strikeouts so they have to disincentivize swinging for the fences.

mrridgman

Yeah, that will happen in about 5 years; in the interim the product is less interesting.

joewho112

I wonder if the owners have assumed this would be a bad year (in terms of fan interest and player performance) no matter what given the lockout and shortened Spring Training so they might as well cram as much pain into this year.

GrinnellSteve

I think this is it right here. The sooner Sox hitters start adjusting by trying to spray line drives all over the field, the better.

You’ll have more balls in play, which can be exciting if they’re not all cans of corn just inside the warning track. Base stealing will be incentivized again. That’s exciting. Strikeouts will go down if hitters stop selling out for power. Athleticism in the field will matter more if we move away from 2 of the 3 true outcomes.

My fear is the Sox belatedly joined the launch-angle revolution only to discover they’ve learned to fight yesterday’s war.

GrinnellSteve

Have the Sox been beefing up their scouting?

GrinnellSteve

I didn’t know. Thanks. I wonder if they added any good ones. Whether it’s pro scouting or amateur, it doesn’t seem like the Sox do a particularly good job of identifying talent.

BenwithVen

I dunno, I think they’ve definitely been better on the amateur side.

jhomeslice

This winter they signed Harrison, Velasquez, and Garcia. Is that not talent?

ForsterFTOG

Were any of them competent scouts?

HallofFrank

I can’t imagine this is the motivation. It would take years for players to adjust, and it’s not clear that they would/should. Who’s to say it wouldn’t have the opposite effect? With a dead ball, home runs are even more valuable. And it becomes more difficult to string multiple hits together.

metasox

It would also incent guys to be less beefed up in the weight room. Less weight might reduce some injuries

phillyd

Higher seams on the baseball will increase movement on pitches and make it harder to hit.

As Cirensica

I don’t know how much control MLB has over the manufacturing process of baseballs which is surprisingly complex, and quite honestly primitive. One would have thought that by now, baseballs would be produced in mass by an automated process. Yet, the fabrication of baseballs is almost entirely manual.

Qubort

MLB owns Rawlings, so if there is a quality control issue, it’s completely on them.

As Cirensica

This isn’t my point. Have you seen how a baseball is made? It is so manual and it depends heavily on human interactions. Those variables make it hard to tinker with baseball, but I could be wrong.

I see it like Cohiba’s cigars. They are handmade with raw materials that can vary from tobacco plant to tobacco plant, weather, soil….surely not two cigars will taste the same no matter how much tinkering you can do.

itaita

My biggest problem isnt that they’re tinkering with the balls but that they are just silent on the matter. If they want to say “We’re trying out balls with more drag that try to make hitters focus more on contact then selling out for dingers” then that’s okay. But its pretty dumb to just throw them out there and let the players and teams guess. Of course why they would want people to be more contact focus while keeping the extreme shift in is beyond me.

HallofFrank

But surely “more contact” isn’t the motivation. Why would making the ball dead encourage more contact? It makes the home run more valuable and makes hits harder to come by.

The only thing I can think of is the pace of play. Less hits = less offense = shorter games. But this still strikes me as an odd way to do it, since it arguably makes the games less exciting.

Which has me wondering: is it even intentional? I’m not sure if it’s better or worse if it is.

mrridgman

Often in life a decision is made to achieve “X”, and the result is not X but “Y”. Law of unintended consequences. I think there’s a general consensus here that MLB leadership is not the sharpest tack in the factory, so maybe.

HallofFrank

I just have a really hard time buying this. When we do x to achieve y and z happens instead, we usually have *some* reason to think x will achieve y. In other words: we all have reasons for what we do, even if those reasons are mistaken.

mrridgman

Terrific. I didn’t say that the original goal isn’t ever met, I said often another unexpected outcome occurs, perhaps as well.

calcetinesblancos

If anyone can adjust to anything, it’s Tony the Russa.

jhomeslice

I predict that post will age well. Good one, thanks!

calcetinesblancos

You know what else ages well? Tony. There’s nothing the man can’t do.

chipporter

I deleted my cheap shot….shame on me

calcetinesblancos

A cheap shot at Tony? Shame on you indeed; he deserves all the cheap shots.

chipporter

So that means that Robert needs to score 11 times for the sox to have a chance tonight.

jhomeslice

Good news on Robert. Any update on Eloy? I was thinking we’d hear something sometime today.

roke1960

Robert not in the lineup. Probably keep him out of the lineup until it warms up, which means June.

roke1960

Eloy had successful surgery. Timeline remains 6-8 weeks.

jhomeslice

Thanks. Did not see any follow up from this weekend or know he had surgery. That’s pretty positive news, I assumed there was a decent chance he might miss a lot more time than that. 2 months isn’t great but could easily have been season ending.

So he should be back for 2nd half at least.

roke1960

I agree. When it happened I thought he was done for the year.

Hahn says Robert should be in the lineup tomorrow.

asinwreck

Best Sox news all week. Now the question is what he looks like when he returns this summer.

a-t

it’s not just the ball that’s changed. MLB also had humidors installed in every single park, not just the desert parks. Apparently mlb offices control the humidor settings, so they can literally turn a dial to favor offense or defense. The parks that had humidors before have barely changed in offensive output; the ones where it’s new have BA & SLG way down.

itaita

One of my friends is convinced when the Angels are visiting the balls will be a lot more jumpy with Ohtani in town.

calcetinesblancos

Fresh from the Sox:

“I thought he was playing with me. I thought it was a joke. After the first inning, it’s the same. So, I don’t think about it … I don’t really care where I’m at in the lineup. I just want to be in the lineup, be in the game and try to win.” — a smiling Leury García on the surprise of hitting third on April 20 and April 21 against the Guardians

mrridgman

Why would the Sox publish that? They really don’t get it.

calcetinesblancos
jhomeslice

For the same reason they hired La Russa. Whatever that is.

metasox

He hit third once last yr. Shouldn’t have been such a shock

calcetinesblancos

To Leury or everyone else?

jhomeslice

So Mendick over Leury at 2b tonight. I’m down with that. But Harrison over Sheets at DH just because it’s a lefty. Um, no.

a-t

Probably has more to do with easing Harrison back into the lineup, since he’s been sitting with a gimpy back for a week or so

HallofFrank

I’m happy with Harrison over Sheets. Sheets is a platoon player. -26 wRC+ vs. LHP last season; 1-5 with three Ks this season. He can’t hit lefties. Harrison is much preferable vs. LHP. And, as already mentioned, it also allows Harrison to ease back in. And it has the added benefit of letting Sheets come off the bench vs. a RH reliever late in the game, when you can pick your spot.

NDSox12

Agreed. While it would be nice to get Sheets some reps against lefties at some point, now doesn’t seem like the ideal time with the rest of the lineup scuffling so badly.

jhomeslice

I know Sheets hasn’t hit them yet but he did have a .799 OPS against lefties at Charlotte last year. I get what you’re saying, but Harrison just looks so bad to me, I’d rather see Sheets try and learn to hit lefties than Harrison prove how bad a hitter he is.

Anyway I’m biased and programmed to rail on Harrison as a symbol of why this team never wins. They needed to get somebody better, and instead got someone who is almost identical to Garcia. We’ll see, just about everybody in their lineup needs to get it going at the moment.

calcetinesblancos

Yeah I agree. Sheets is hitting better than Harrison and could learn something from the reps.

a-t

Charlotte’s tiny and used the bouncy ‘19 ball last year. “.799 OPS vs LHP in Charlotte” translates to a .600 OPS in the bigs. There’s plenty of room to clown on TLR without going on about perfectly reasonable decisions like this one

HallofFrank

That’s not a great OPS in Charlotte for a DH only bat. He may be better than he’s shown vs LHP, but he’s likely never going to be a good play against them.

Harrison had a 114 wRC+ vs LHP last year. He’s only played 8 games this season. I still think there’s something there—or there’s at least a reason to see if there is.

670WMAQtheElder

Forget the baseballs, the real reason the guys are struggling is Menechino’s comment. Too much chasing outside the zone. I’ve seen this for years, it seems. No pitcher in his right mind should throw a fastball to a Sox batter except to pitch backwards. Slider, low and away is the way to beat the White Sox. Why these guys don’t adjust is beyond me. Don’t chase, take your base.