Can MLB Build a Better Ball?

Like a weird, leathery snowflake, each baseball is unique. (Photo: Keith Allison)

The nature of the ball — and the degree to which it has contributed to the historic home-run spike — has, of course, been a subject of interest during the first half of the season. It continued to be a subject of some interest during the All-Star break, as well, when the media had an opportunity to pepper MLB commissioner Rob Manfred with questions.

Did Manfred want more offense in the game? Yes, he’s on record saying just that. Is there a ball-related conspiracy to inject run scoring into the game? I do not have an answer for you. Manfred continued to generally defend the position that the ball is not juiced. That said, he also seemed to allow room for a different interpretation.

Consider his remarks, relayed here by the Wall Street Journal’s Jared Diamond:

And consider, as well, noted ball investigator Rob Arthur’s reaction:

You’re probably familiar with Arthur’s juiced-ball research and the independent experiments facilitated by Ben Lindbergh and Mitchel Lichtman that offer compelling evidence of a ball that is different and more apt to fly further.

While, as Lindbergh noted last year, the game ball has still likely fallen within MLB standards, a study commissioned by MLB back in 2000 found that “theoretically, two baseballs could meet the specifications but one ball could be hit 49.1 feet further than the other could be hit.” So those standards are rather laughable, variable — and even the commissioner suggests they are a bit lax.

While it might be relatively easy for a sport to produce a juiced ball — a different type of wool wound in the ball led to the livelier ball era beginning in 1920 — what might be more difficult is to create a ball that plays more consistently.

The average major-league game ball has a lifespan of about six pitches. But remarkably (at least to this author), baseballs are still handcrafted, each specimen’s 108 stitches handsewn in Costa Rica, where low-wage workers produce 2.4 million baseballs a year.

Rawlings laid off 200 of its 650-member Costa Rican workforce in 2015, though those cuts were related to uniform production and not the ball.

That a $10 billion industry has outscored its game-ball production to low-wage workers who toil long hours in a factory that lacks universal air conditioning is a subject for another post, a globalization story that has been explored by a number of outlets including The New York Times.

I’m not an expert in manufacturing, but it seems that any product that’s handmade is going to have a high degree of variance in its performance quality. To “juice” a handmade product would seem to require material changes to affect the core, interior threads, or seams of the ball.

In an effort to produce a ball that has less variance in ball-to-ball performance, it seems the ball itself would need to be manufactured by a mechanized process.

As Nicholas Jackson of The Atlantic notes, there have been attempts to automate the process over the last 100-plus years, though no effort has succeeded.

Starting in 1949, the United Shoe Machinery Company made three attempts at creating a ball-stitching machine.

Engineers at USMC broke down the problem into five areas: cover assembly (lasting); needle threading; start of stitching (anchoring the first stitch); stitching or lacing; and lastly, final stitching (final thread anchoring). Previous automated machines exhibited two serious problems: they were unable to start or stop the stitching process without manual assistance, and they were unable to vary the tension of the stitches … C.B. Bateman of USMC said in August 1963, “we have a long, long way to go for a commercial piece of equipment to be presented to the trade.”

There were some successes. Robert H. Bliss, Planning Director of USMC, noted in 1972 that balls produced by the company’s machine “were more uniform in appearance than a hand-laced ball” but added “there was some speculation that a major league pitcher could tell the difference and would prefer a hand-laced ball.” Ultimately, the company elected not to continue spending money on the project, which lacked “industry support.”

Baseball has made great technology advances, like with Statcast. But it would perhaps take another invention to create a more consistent ball — if that’s an objective worthy of pursuit.

Perhaps the consistency of the ball is not a foremost concern or issue, but as long as elements of the ball continue to be produced by hand, there will be no identical versions. Each ball is different than the last and each will be different than the next. Maybe that’s OK.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Deacon Drakemember
6 years ago

Additive manufacturing can replicate much more complex elements. It would be interesting to see what could be accomplished on that front.

I’m sure that golf balls and tennis balls went through the industrial revolution at some point and fundamental changes to the game occurred once more consistent balls were manufactured. Baseball has been putting this off 50+ years.

6 years ago
Reply to  Deacon Drake

Additive manufacturing is great for plastics, and is increasingly better for metals every day, but for organics like leather and wool, there’s a long way to go. Additive manufacturing also changes the material properties, so it’s very doubtful it would play the same as the current ball.

6 years ago
Reply to  erdero

Big picture, does the ball need to be made of leather and wool? If we are going through the effort of ‘building a better ball’, nothing (including entirely new materials) should be off of the table.

6 years ago
Reply to  HamelinROY

I don’t know Bob, there could be unforeseen problems that arise if materials are significantly changed. What if they build a new machine that only works with a certain kind of stitching, and then they find the new stitching causes even worse blisters than the current stuff? Or if the synthetic leather is great on natural grass and most dirt but has strange friction properties occur with certain types of glove materials (too sticky and it gets stuck in the glove, too slick and it bounces out easily, etc), or turf materials, or the surface is greatly affected by things like sunscreen or some kinds of dirt/rosin, etc. Changing as few variables as possible is always preferable. It may be that it’s easily doable and testable, but then again, why not just go back to the way the ball was made prior to this new “juiced ball” era? I don’t remember many problems back then. Surely they can identify what has changed about it despite their denial and insistence that it’s still within specs.

6 years ago
Reply to  Rotoholic

Doing something like this would require extensive testing and likely take years, but why not give it a try? I mean, if they had started doing this in the 90’s imagine what we would have learned by now. I feel like this is more about “baseball tradition” than anything else.

6 years ago
Reply to  Deacon Drake

As a PGA member for over 50 years I have been directly affected by the change in the golf ball. Without going through the days of the feathery, modern golf began in the early 1900’s with the development of the modern ball, the Haskell, which was a relatively small rubber core wrapped by several hundred feet of fine rubber thread and covered by a natural rubber, balata. This ball ruled the game until circa 1970 when Spalding introduced the Top-Flite, a one-piece core with a synthetic cover, Surlyn. This revolutionized the game. The original synthetic balls had dramatically different playing characteristics and for about twenty years both balls competed for market share. Continued improvement in the playing characteristics of the synthetic balls eventually ended the balata era in the 1990’s. What has this to do with baseball? Well in golf, it did serious damage to the game. All of a sudden everyone was hitting the ball much farther but that had unseen ramifications that the USGA acknowledges. 500 yard holes that were once played with a Driver and a 3-wood are now Driver and middle iron. Golf was forced to answer by building longer and longer courses with more land needed and the inherent increase in cost. Does baseball want to have to move the fences back so that the Freddy Galvis’s of the world can’t pop one over the triangle in right center at Fenway. Are 505′(???) shots by Abraham Almonte good for the game? Yes the baseball could probably be changed but is it good for the game?

6 years ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

Seems kinda apples and oranges. Golf ball manufacturers were aiming to find ways to make them go farther, which isn’t the goal with baseballs.

6 years ago
Reply to  Arjon

Are you sure that was not the goal?

6 years ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

MLB has a defined performance spec which includes COR, weight, circumference and performance testing (400 ft test). How hard is it to make a synthetic ball according to that spec within close tolerances that is verified by testing? It should not be that hard. Obviously its a considerable R& D project. Maybe they need to open it up to others and end Rawlings monopoly

6 years ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

Golf also allows for developments in club design and materials. So it’s not just the ball that changed over time.

6 years ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

If hitters bought their own baseballs this might be an issue.

6 years ago
Reply to  Deacon Drake

I think the far bigger issue are test methods that yield reliable enough result to optimize and standardize a manufacturing method around. Those would be some interesting test method validation schemes, to say the least.