The Great Australian Home-Run Spike, Part 1

This is Alexis Brudnicki’s third piece as part of her March residency at FanGraphs. Alexis is the Director of Baseball Information for the Great Lake Canadians, an elite amateur baseball program in London, Ontario, Canada. She has written for various publications including Baseball America, Canadian Baseball Network, Sportsnet, The Hardball Times, and Prep Baseball report. She won a 2016 SABR Analytics Conference Research Award for Contemporary Baseball Commentary. She can also be found on Twitter (@baseballexis). She’ll be contributing here this month.

Juiced or not juiced?

While the question has become a persistent topic of conversation in Major League Baseball of late, similar rumblings about the state of the baseball have begun to pick up steam across the world.

After the six teams in the Australian Baseball League combined for 171 home runs over 119 total regular-season games during the 2016-2017 season, those same squads hit 379 long balls in the same number of matchups during the most recent winter.

A comparison of the offensive stats of the 2016-17 season to the 2017-18 season highlights the shift:

ABL 2016-17 vs. 2017-18 Batting Comparison
Season R/G R H 2B 3B HR K OBP SLG OPS
2016/17 4.78 1138 2053 394 34 171 1746 .339 .388 .727
2017/18 6.51 1550 2343 476 35 379 1999 .361 .495 .856
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Numbers represent league totals

And the pitching stats diverge similarly:

ABL 2016-17 vs. 2017-18 Pitching Comparison
Season ERA R/9 IP R ER BB WHIP H/9 HR/9
2016-17 4.28 5.08 2016.1 1138 958 812 1.421 9.2 0.8
2017-18 5.93 6.97 2002.0 1550 1320 849 1.594 10.5 1.7
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Numbers represent league totals

Power numbers went way up, offensive numbers increased in every statistical category across the league, and pitching stats were abysmal, with more runs scored per game than ever before. It was a significant enough difference to inspire the players and fans to speculate on the causes.

The obvious answer in Australia was that the equipment was different. Though there has been speculation about modifications to the baseballs in MLB, the Aussie league’s transition to a new equipment provider — moving from Rawlings balls and SAM BAT sticks to bats and balls from Brett Sports — removes any need to speculate.

Or does it?

Some believe the conversation down under wouldn’t have even started if it hadn’t already begun across the pond and in the majors.

“Our balls were not juiced, I’ll guarantee it,” said Jackson Brett, vice president of Brett Sports International. “They weren’t, just flat out. It’s just a conspiracy theory. People love conspiracies. I love conspiracies… I don’t think this would be a topic if it wasn’t going on in MLB.”

Added the ABL’s general manager, Ben Foster: “I do think it is natural for people to speculate about every aspect of the game when they see unexpected results. We saw that last year in the major leagues, and with MLB as the clear industry leader, what happens there is bound to trickle down to most other leagues around the world. I don’t think we are any different.”

Even a few of those who agree that something had to have changed in order for the numbers to be so vastly different in the most recent season don’t believe the proposed answer would be in the equipment if not for the conversation having already started overseas.

“[With] the conspiracy discussion about having juiced balls in MLB and seeing the influx in offensive numbers in the ABL is exactly why we are talking about it,” said veteran ABL outfielder David Kandilas. “If there wasn’t a conspiracy in MLB, there wouldn’t be any talk of it in the ABL.”

“It’s hard to compare the two,” Phillies farmhand and Melbourne Aces southpaw Josh Tols said. “If we used MLB balls, then sure. It has been fun to watch people break down the balls at both levels, though, with MLB using ultrasound and modern technology*, and the ABL using a jigsaw.”

*Editor’s note: the study conducted at FiveThirtyEight relied on X-ray and CT technology.

Others are adamant that the massive spike in offense in Australia would be a topic of conversation no matter what was happening elsewhere.

“Even without the conspiracy of juiced balls going around MLB right now, this conversation still would have been occurring in the ABL,” longtime Canberra Cavalry hurler Steven Kent said. “With such a drastic increase in offensive numbers this year, it was always going to be speculated. And just seeing firsthand how differently these balls carried, even when guys didn’t really hit them well, was going to get people talking.”

Added an Aces hitter: “This would still be a talking point regardless of what’s going on in MLB. Whenever there’s a large deviation in stats from previous years, people are going to ask why.”

Australian Baseball League pitchers believe they have a strong case supporting the idea that the balls, and even the bats, were different enough to contribute to a significant change in numbers without a significant difference in talent.

The hitters understand that the statistics certainly took a turn in their favor but offer a number of other potential causes as explanations. The numbers have their own story to tell, and the league and the equipment company have provided their own arguments against the idea that they might be working with juiced equipment. This three-part series will explore the diverse perspectives on the juiced ball question. First, the hitters respond.

The Hitters
It was a season for the hitters, on that everyone can agree.

But all the credit can’t be given to the bats and the balls, can it?

Many of the pitchers acknowledged that the talent level improved down under during the most recent season, and the ballparks have typically been hitter-friendly. But they still believe that the addition of the new equipment into the equation made the biggest difference in the league’s collective offensive outburst.

“I’ll definitely give credit to the hitters,” said Melbourne’s Josh Tols. “There was a lot of new talent in the league this year, and there were guys who could hit. The league has good talent every year, but to argue the increased offensive numbers was due to the pitching being worse is kind of insulting.

“We saw guys who have been playing in this league for a long time put up career numbers, and pitchers who have dominated most seasons get touched up. The numbers would suggest this was the best group of hitters in the new ABL history. They also suggest that pitching was at an all-time low, and I just don’t agree…

“Is it a coincidence that the biggest spike in offensive numbers in league history occurred the same year the balls were changed? Would those guys put up those same numbers if we didn’t get new balls and bats? We will never know.”

Said a veteran hurler: “It is a fact that five out of six ballparks in the ABL are smaller than the MLB average, and when you throw in other factors like wind or weather, it becomes a really hard league to do well in as a pitcher. In addition to that, if you introduce another major factor like a harder or tighter baseball, it really does become a hitters’ league and a place of nightmares for about 90% of the league’s pitchers.”

“It’s been widely talked about how the balls, and even the bats, may have been ‘juiced’ this season, and I can’t say I disagree with that,” said Canberra’s Steven Kent. “There’s no doubt the talent in the ABL was better this year than in years past, but the way the ball carried this year was unlike anything I’d seen before. Line drives in the gap last year turned into home runs this year. The massive increase in offensive statistics this season makes it pretty evident that there was something different.”

Many hitters agree with the premise that something was different but have some possible explanations that aren’t a direct result of the external factors previously mentioned.

Mitch Nilsson, a former Indians farmhand and a member of the Brisbane Bandits in each of the eight ABL seasons, had an offensive surge two seasons ago after gaining some confidence while playing in Europe through his offseason.

It was his best overall year, in terms of being able to play consistently — getting into 55 games — though his numbers improved again last season. Through 25 contests, he showed even more encouraging results this season.

The 26-year-old utility player hit .341/.426/.718 with eight home runs in his 25 games and 101 plate appearances this year, and believes he was aided in his development through another successful offseason, as he continues to figure out what works for him and how to best utilize his tools on the field.

“I had an offseason in Germany, so it helped out with only having two or three games a week, so I could work out during the week like it was an offseason, while still playing games and getting at-bats,” Nilsson said. “So when I came back to Australia, I was already in game shape and could hit the ground running.”

The native of Brisbane — and nephew of Milwaukee Brewers all-star catcher Dave Nilsson — was a member of arguably the league’s best lineup, and certainly the one that hit the most home runs (96) in the latest season. The club also won its third straight league championship in February. The success of the hitters around him was really nothing new.

“We have such a good hitting lineup that there isn’t a lot of pressure you have you put on yourself to make something happen,” Nilsson said. “There’s always confidence in the guy behind you to pick you up. So that made it a lot easier to relax at the plate and just have fun up there.

“I don’t know if the equipment made a huge difference or not. There were definitely some big homers hit, but I don’t really want to get caught up in all the conspiracy stuff. But in saying that, guys still have to square the ball up at the end of the day.”

Another Melbourne hitter thought that, like Nilsson, his success in the 2017-18 campaign was merely the result of an ongoing process and greater understanding of his abilities.

“It’s been a gradual progression as a hitter and athlete,” he said. “Getting stronger has definitely helped my numbers and also pitch selection. Some mechanical adjustments made throughout the season also helped that…

“A few of the Australian hitters have really started to come into their own as hitters. It’s now been several years, so the younger players are maturing and have developed their approaches. I think it was a combination, though, of the pitchers making more mistakes than usual, and the hitters were able to capitalize on those mistakes more than I had ever seen before.”

The Aces hitter also believes that the offensive spike was part of an evolutionary process throughout the season, with players gaining confidence from early success at the plate, leading to more comfortable at-bats and better plate approaches.

“As a hitter, confidence is massive,” he said. “So once the hits started flowing, things really just went from strength to strength, being comfortable in the box. On defence, it required a lot of resilience, being down early and sometimes by multiple runs. We learned to disregard the box score and focus on doing what we could.”

The same hitter acknowledged that the recent season was a tough one for the pitchers with all potential factors taken into account, though his sympathy level may leave something to be desired.

“This past season, the ABL will be taken more as a hitters’ league, but some of the ballparks in the league are pitcher-friendly, so it does even out the playing field there,” he said. “But as far as hitters’ parks, combined with juiced equipment, good luck to the guys on the hill. Don’t make mistakes.”

David Kandilas has been a consistent offensive threat through his seven seasons in the ABL, playing his first five with the Sydney Blue Sox and last two with the Canberra Cavalry. While he posted the best numbers of his career this year, hitting .380/.434/.696 with 12 home runs in 39 games — after slashing .273/.351/.383 with just 11 homers over 159 games in the previous six seasons — he believes the spike in offense was a product of more than just bats and balls.

“The game is evolving,” Kandilas said. “You are seeing more home runs and more strikeouts. Scouts are looking for guys who have power and pitchers who throw harder. Hitters are more informed about launch angle, and approaches are changing consistently on ball flight. And there is a more conscious effort going into driving the ball in the air as opposed to letting the ball get deep and driving it the other way, which is still a great teaching point but is more of a two-strike approach now.”

The 27-year-old outfielder thought it was essential to peer further into the league’s stats.

“Offensive numbers were at an ABL league high this season,” Kandilas said. “But if you cross-reference the data collaborated from previous years, I have a couple of interesting [data points]. Team batting average only went up, on average, 10 points per team from the 2016/17 season to the 2017/18 season. Another interesting stat I found was roughly each team averaged 100 more strikeouts this season from last.”

As Kandilas notes, team averages increased across the board, along with the strikeout numbers. During the recent season, the six teams totaled 1,999 strikeouts in their 119 games, with more than 300 strikeouts from each individual squad in their 39 or 40 matchups. The previous season, which featured an equal number of games, produced just 1,746 strikeouts.

“As for the power numbers, do I think the balls were juiced?” he said. “The short answer is – I find it hard to believe they were. However, I am open to further discussion into this, as I feel there are many pros and cons to it.”

Receptive to the data and arguments from every side, Kandilas believes the statistical anomalies from the recent season might also be a product of changes in roster makeup.

“I found across the league this past season, there were many more development players being used throughout the season,” Kandilas said. “I am totally for this and [for] developing the younger Australian players, and exposing them to the competition level. However, in saying that, I found the more experienced players, both offensively and defensively, exploited those situations very effectively.”

Ben Foster, GM of the league, noted another difference among the rosters this season — namely, that teams were allowed to have five imported position players in their lineups, something that was not previously a factor.

“In general, I believe 2017/18 was our best overall year in terms of offensive talent and depth on ABL clubs,” Foster said. “Most teams chose to recruit five or more import position players to supplement their core Australians and were, in general, less focused on pitching depth — especially in their bullpens. We saw several MLB players and former batting-title champions and MVPs from Asian leagues up and down lineups. That level of talent was the biggest influence on offensive stats over the year.”

Kandilas believes that whatever the cause of the offensive outburst, the results were positive for fans and the league, though he does have some concerns with what a few of the season’s scores might have looked like from afar.

“The increase in offensive numbers is always a good thing for the league,” he said. “Fans love to watch a game where they witness home runs and strikeouts because it’s exciting to see; however, I do think this comes at a cost, for what it must look like from the outside.

“If you were a GM or owner of a team or league, checking in on the past ABL season and constantly seeing outrageous line scores, you can’t help but think something isn’t right. A game should never be over in the fifth inning. Obviously, from time to time, that happens, but as regular as it did happen last year is something that would have been noticed.”

We hoped you liked reading The Great Australian Home-Run Spike, Part 1 by Alexis Brudnicki!

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A competitive baseball player growing up, Alexis Budnicki has worked for the Toronto Blue Jays, and written for Baseball America, the Australian Baseball League and Canadian Baseball Network, among others. Follow her on Twitter @baseballexis.

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I blame Lars.