The Great Australian Home-Run Spike, Part 2

This is Alexis Brudnicki’s fourth 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.

This is also the second installment of a three-part series exploring whether the Australian Baseball League is in the midst of their own juiced-ball and bat controversy. In this installment, the pitchers respond. You can find Part 1 here.

The Pitchers

For some, the conversation started early.

In the opening weekend of the 2017/18 Australian Baseball League season, 111 runs were scored and 30 home runs were hit. In just 11 games. More than half of those home runs were hit at Melbourne Ballpark, home to the Aces, who hosted the Perth Heat for four contests.

“I noticed a difference in the league in Round 1,” said Josh Tols, a current Phillies farmhand and southpaw for the Aces with five seasons in the ABL under his belt. “There was an abnormal number of home runs hit at Altona in our opening series against Perth. Typically, with the wind at our field, the ball doesn’t get out all that much. Just looking at the home-run numbers after Round 1, you kind of had a feeling it was going to be a long year for the pitchers.”

Other hurlers didn’t begin to notice a difference until a little later.

“It didn’t become immediately apparent that the new Brett baseballs were flying off bats harder and faster than in previous years until a few weeks into the season, looking back,” one veteran Sydney Blue Sox hurler said. “What, at first, just seemed like an anomaly turned out to be much more than that in hindsight.

“Our first series of the season against Adelaide at Blacktown [in the Sydney area] saw five home runs hit in four games, four of them in the first game. I remember thinking to myself and commenting with the other guys in the bullpen that we couldn’t remember seeing the ball fly so well to right-center field on such a regular occurrence.

“At the time, being the first week of the season, we didn’t give it much thought and just put it down to a bit of luck. But Blacktown being a notorious ‘graveyard’ — as the hitters affectionately put it — had already given up five homers in the first series, which was pretty unusual… As the season progressed, we started to realize that power numbers for hitters were way up on last year, and we as a team — mostly the pitchers — began having casual discussions as to why we thought the ball was traveling so far and hard, so often.”

Added one Adelaide Bite hurler: “I definitely feel like the equipment was the main factor in the elevated offensive numbers, especially when players in the top-10 ERA leaders have numbers in the fours and fives. The balls traveled much further, and the bats were almost composite along the handle of the bat.

“There is a fine line to walk when trying to keep the ‘legitimate league’ label and still trying to grow the sport. No doubt the fans loved watching a home-run-flying game, but the players, not so much. I don’t think it had a huge impact on players being scouted or their ability being judged — there were still players signed and released, good numbers and bad numbers. Pitchers were definitely the most frustrated.”

The difference between those good and bad numbers was significant. Only two qualifying pitchers produced ERAs under 3.00, and only eight qualifiers in the entire league had marks under 5.00. The league’s batting average, meanwhile, was a whopping .288. Of the 119 total regular-season games, there were 52 matchups in which a team scored 10 or more runs, and 16 contests where teams scored 15 or more runs, all in nine innings or fewer.

“What was routinely observed about watching different hitters in the league was that, for a large number of hitters, it was like watching a much-improved version of the player that we had seen in the past, in regard to power and average numbers,” a veteran league hurler said. “Guys around the league were hitting balls off batters’ eyes, off fences, well over walls — guys who had previously only done small amounts of damage with the bat when it came to production.

“Of course, it’s only speculation that the increase in these particular hitters’ numbers was due to the new balls, but after chatting with the other pitchers on the team and around the league, we unofficially collectively agreed that something was a little off, perhaps with the baseballs. By the end of the season, I think every pitcher in the league, barring a few who had managed to avoid giving up a ton of runs, agreed that the baseballs had an element to them that was much different than previous years, using Rawlings-branded baseballs.”

The league ERA during the 2017/18 season was 5.93, with an average of 6.51 runs scored per game. In the previous five seasons, the circuit’s ERA had never been higher than 5.00 and only twice reached marks beyond 4.50. In all of the seven seasons that preceded this year’s offensive anomaly, there had never been more than 5.25 runs scored per game on average, and only three times did that number stretch over five.

“Deeper into the season, it was becoming obvious that something was indeed at play, and the issue of ‘juiced baseballs’ came to mind,” the Blue Sox pitcher said. “We asked the hitters what they thought, and mostly they gave answers pointing to their own increase in production as a result of a number of contributing factors.. Only pushed a little further did they admit they thought the baseballs were harder or wound tighter than in previous years.

“We did, however, talk to a prominent hitter in the league who was quoted as saying, ‘[I]t was like hitting rocks,’ which was pretty solid evidence of a much different ball, given his experience around the world of professional baseball.”

During the recent season, 11 players hit 10-or-more home runs, playing in an average of 37 games apiece, with two sluggers tying the ABL’s long-ball record of 16 in a single season, previously accomplished during a 52-game season. In the previous seven seasons, 16 total players hit 10 or more homers, with more total games played in four of those campaigns.

“What made it so noticeable was the fact that simply so many home runs were being hit,” the Blue Sox hurler said. “And not only that, we as a group of players noticed that balls seemed to be finding holes through the infield more often, and infielders’ reaction times seemed to be less.

“It became commonplace that hitters were hitting with averages approaching .375 to .400, which was more or less unheard of in previous years. Guys seemingly were hitting balls much harder than in previous years, and given the fact that not much had changed in terms of venues, playing time, quality of rosters, we again figured that the change of balls must have been a contributing factor to the huge increase in offensive stat categories.”

For many of the pitchers around the league, the consistent increase in offense began to change the way they approached hitters.

“Adapt or die,” Tols said. “I noticed a lot more comfortable at-bats this year.”

“For me, personally, it was a pretty tough year,” said Steven Kent, a longtime Canberra Cavalry pitcher who has played in all but one season of the ABL. “I don’t particularly like giving up runs, but this year I gave up plenty of them, which was hard initially. My mindset became that it was basically a given that I was going to give up a few runs each start, but that I needed to try and limit the damage and keep us in the game, because there was every chance my team was going to score a few runs, too.”

Added Tols: “It wasn’t just the power hitters who normally hit bombs who would hurt you. It felt as though any hitter, one through nine, who put a semi-decent swing — in some cases, any swing — on a ball, had a chance to put it out. The numbers also reflect that when you look at guys with five or more bombs this year compared to last year.”

For one Bite hurler, the offensive jump didn’t affect his mindset on the mound except to underscore the need to adapt to the direction the game is going.

“After years of playing, to succumb to the mercy of a ‘juiced’ ball or bat theory would be accepting defeat before even throwing a pitch,” he said. “In MLB, there has been talk of pitching becoming too good and the games becoming boring, but I feel that is just the sport adapting and evolving, and I’m sure it will swing back to the hitters being too good in years to come. If you like baseball and want to watch, accept it for the way it’s being played and leave it at that.”

Though the statistics — and inevitable adaptation in strategy — didn’t play a part in the perception of the league for everyone in it, some players fear that it may have altered the thinking for some outside of the circuit.

“I know from talking to a lot of pitchers both on the team and around the league that it certainly does change people’s perception of the league,” a veteran hurler said. “Pitchers became more tentative and ‘nervous’ about pitching, especially on days where the wind was blowing out or there were other factors in play. It was pretty common that pitchers were being punished with giving up home runs for seemingly good pitches in good locations…

“It conceivably would have an impact on visiting import players and potentially affiliated clubs sending players here. What I think most teams would end up finding is that their prospects’ numbers would be inflated one way or the other depending on whether they’re a hitter or a pitcher. This, of course, isn’t the case for all players who come and it is unfair to suggest that. Some pitchers did have excellent seasons on the mound, but the point is that, on average, the majority fared a lot worse than in previous years.”

One pitcher added: “I know a few pitchers who reached out and admitted they would not come to the ABL to pitch. The league ERA was something like a 5.93, and when a guy is out there pitching for his career and trying to earn a job elsewhere, it’s just not a good look.”

While some players were concerned about the effect of the season’s numbers on incoming talent, some believe that there are other factors that might balance out those concerns.

“I don’t think the balls being juiced will have too much of an effect on guys wanting to come out here to play, because at the end of the day, coming to Australia is on a lot of people’s bucket lists, so the attraction of going here on a ‘working’ vacation will be enough of an incentive for guys to still come out,” Kent said.

“I do, however, think that it will have an effect on position players getting jobs out of the league because scouts might credit a really good year to the bats and balls and not the player. That might be flipped for pitchers, though, and a really good season might be held in even higher regard for the same reason.”

Several pitchers also had concern surrounding just the discussion of juiced balls in the league, whether the equipment played a real factor or not, as well as the plethora of high-scoring affairs.

“We did note that chat on social media picked up on the huge increase in offensive numbers, and largely speaking, we found that it had a negative effect,” one ABL reliever said. “Lots of people were commenting on the large number of games where each team had scored more than 10 or 15 runs.

“This was beginning to happen much more commonly, as well. Playing in those sorts of games was really tough as a pitcher, and there was talk among the guys that if there was a foreign prospect with the chance of playing here, they would politely decline the offer because the risk-reward process was too hard to justify.”

Added Tols: “I know the scores generated a bit of publicity this season, and they say any press is good press, but I’m not sure the players in the league would agree. We had guys come in who were all-stars in their respective leagues and leave the ABL with 10-plus ERAs. Guys who aren’t typically home-run hitters were setting career highs…

“They say fans want to see high-scoring games because they are exciting, but I think we saw the opposite in some games. Yes, home runs are exciting, but games with 40 runs scored [an occurrence that happened twice] is a bit outrageous.”

While the concern for the future of incoming talent is legitimate, a bad year didn’t preclude some ABL players getting opportunities to play elsewhere. Tols received one such chance, when long-time scout Howie Norsetter offered the lefty a minor-league contract with the Phillies, his first chance in affiliated baseball.

“The league definitely helped me sign with the Phillies — again, something I never saw happening,” Tols said. “But talking to Howie, I believe it was more due to consistency. I’ve been lucky enough to put up solid numbers most seasons. This year, I saw an increase in my ERA, hits, home runs, and strikeouts. Did I think it’d be this year I signed an affiliated contract? Not a chance, but I am glad Howie and the Phillies gave me the opportunity.”

And though the pitchers would like to see a few questions answered and some statistical balance restored around the league, they acknowledge that they were all beneficiaries of the environment, as well, and most were happy when they were on the receiving end of the offensive support.

“We all had to compete using the same baseballs, so we got on with it, and we used the data more to satisfy curiosity than to create a large-scale war on Brett Sports or anything ridiculous like that,” one pitcher said. “We were happy as pitchers on one side of the equation that our hitters were supporting us so well with increased run production.”

Said a Bite hurler: “If you want to sell a good product, it has to be exciting, so mission accomplished on that. For the players, you just have to wear it. As the saying goes, ‘Don’t like it? Play better.’”

Added Tols: “I personally don’t care if the balls are juiced. Everyone uses the same balls. We saw a massive increase in offense this season, so I guess pitchers will just have to adapt. I would, however, like to know if they are in fact different in any way. To just claim they are the same as the old balls and not back it up is not enough. Would I like to go back to Rawlings balls? Yes, 100%. But as long as we have a league, and companies like Brett Brothers Sports that provide equipment and sponsorship, I will be happy.”

We hoped you liked reading The Great Australian Home-Run Spike, Part 2 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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Perhaps they should let Bancroft use sandpaper on the ball to stop this. Not sayin’, just sayin’.