Can MLB Build a Better Ball? by Travis Sawchik July 20, 2017 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: Rob Manfred says that MLB is considering tweaking the standards for how baseballs are manufactured so the standards aren't so broad. — Jared Diamond (@jareddiamond) July 11, 2017 And consider, as well, noted ball investigator Rob Arthur’s reaction: Would you say this counts as "tacit acknowledgement"? https://t.co/oACMJp7zsi — Rob Arthur (@No_Little_Plans) July 11, 2017 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.