This is Alexis Brudnicki’s fifth 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 third 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, league officials and the equipment manufacturers respond. You can find Part 1 and Part 2 here.
Increasingly aware of the way the numbers were adding up throughout the season, the Australian Baseball League’s general manager, Ben Foster, understands the natural inclination for players, fans, and others to draw their own conclusions about what led to the spike in home runs and the offense on a whole.
“One of the great entitlements for sports fans is their right to speculate and to try and figure out why something as unpredictable as sport always surprises us,” Foster said. “As a fan myself, I love to speculate on things like, ‘Will this player or that player have a great year?’ Or, ‘Why did he go to the bullpen in that situation?’ So I do think it is natural for people to speculate about every aspect of the game when they see unexpected results.”
But the league’s GM does not believe that the numbers point to any one thing in particular. Acknowledging that equipment might have been a part of the equation, he does suspect that the standard of baseballs used during the recent season were of superior quality to those used previously.
“I cannot rule out that equipment played a part, too,” Foster said. “But I think it’s an oversimplification of just the baseballs. In conversations I had with players and coaches, many commented on the improved quality of the bats we supplied this season.
“I also think we adjusted from using the third- or fourth-highest quality ball available from our previous supplier to using the highest-quality ball produced by our new supplier. In my estimation, the most probable answer is that a combination of offensive talent, pitching depth, changing trends in the way hitters approach the game, and equipment all had a cumulative effect.”
Brett Sports was a venture originally started by George Brett and his three brothers several years ago. After selling the company and then reacquiring it last year, George’s son Jackson took on the position of Vice President of Brett Sports International and began working on a contract to become the supplier for the ABL.
The young Brett had spent the last several months in Melbourne, working for the Aces in multiple capacities, so the relationship was a natural fit. It was Brett Sports’ first big foray back into the game, and was considered a success. The current contract with the league down under has an option for the next two seasons, which the ABL will exercise.
“There were some things we need to do better, but we’re a small company and we need to do a lot of things better,” Brett said. “With this deal again next year and [beyond], the products are going to get better and better and better. Hopefully the talent on the field will as well, too.”
The talent at the plate was a big part of Brett’s equation in answering the questions of the league’s offensive spike. He also cited a regression in pitching and made sure to note that the difference definitely was not in the bats or balls supplied by Brett Sports.
“Personally, I think it’s a lack of pitching in the Australian Baseball League compared to years past,” Brett said. “Our balls are made out of the exact same factory that Rawlings baseballs are made out of, so there’s nothing different about the baseballs. The same hands are putting them together. It’s the same materials.
“It’s just a different-looking stamp on the baseballs. The second thing I would say is the quality of our bats this year was head-over-heels better than the SAM BATs ever were. So the combination of good baseballs and good baseball bats… were what sparked the offensive numbers in my opinion…
“We use top-tier wood that we import from upstate New York to China, to then have them be manufactured in China. We’ll import billets of wood from upstate New York, very close to where Louisville Slugger gets a lot of their wood, so we use a hard U.S. maple. Then we also sold them a composite maple bat, which is actually a multiple-piece wood bat with a proprietary fibreglass wrap on the handle that eliminates breakage.”
Brett credited the new equipment for potentially allowing players a level of comfort that they may not have had in previous seasons, offering one reason for the increase in production.
“It could have been one of those things where they liked our product or were swinging something that they felt more comfortable with,” he said. “In years past, SAM BAT would send over 50 different models and just mix and match. We sent four. So theoretically, you could have the same model bat all year long… Guys don’t change.
“When SAM BAT sent stuff over, they were having to change, they could never get comfortable with it — especially with the amount of bats that broke in years past. This year, the more comfortable you are at the plate, the better you’re going to see the ball, the better you’re going to hit the ball. I try to look at it and see it that way, but I’m a little biased because I love our product. Our product is a premier product.”
At one point during the season, players took it upon themselves to saw open a Brett Sports ball, a Rawlings ABL baseball, and an MLB ball, noting the extreme differences, and asking the VP of the International organization why there was such a contrast.
“We sent over two different types of baseballs,” Brett said. “Practice balls are made to last longer, so the colouration on the twine is the glue to keep the ball in the shape that it’s supposed to be, so that you can use it over and over and over.
“From those pictures, I believe that those are a practice ball, and practice balls are cheap, so it makes sense to use those for batting practice, in cold-weather environments like Melbourne where it’s going to be raining and you’ve got to be out on the field on Wednesday night practicing. I’m assuming that’s a [batting practice] ball somebody found, that they then cut open, without realizing that there are two different types of baseballs that we sent over.”
Brett noted, however, that it would be incredibly obvious to anyone handling the baseballs which ones were designated for games and which were to be used in practices only.
“The boxes themselves are different,” he said. “Our practice balls are boxed in white, normal boxes with no graphic on them. Our game balls are packaged in the same packaging you find online… or in a Dick’s or an Academy Sports. The practice balls are also stamped between the two horseshoes, ‘Practice Baseball’ in very big letters, so no practice balls would have been used in a game. It would have been very easy to see that this is a practice baseball.”
After receiving confirmation that the cut-open Brett Sports baseball in question was not a practice ball, and was indeed a game baseball, Brett’s answer didn’t change.
“No, not at all,” he said. “I was just guessing on that. The [practice and game] balls are supposed to be the same. That’s what I was told and that’s what we purchased from our supplier and sold to the ABL.”
Whether the differences in the balls went beyond the colouration in their makeup, Brett stands by his company’s product and its use.
“Our balls were not juiced, I’ll guarantee it,” he said.