The numbers behind this year’s dead ball

When the players union met with Nippon Professional Baseball in a working group meeting over the union demands, the surprise for the union was NPB having nothing to say about the baseball, how nothing had been done to change it.

Home runs through Sunday’s games in NPB are down 59 percent, not from last year, not just from last year from March to May, but from the previous three years prior to June. This isn’t something that happens by accident.

That only proves that NPB has been studying MLB’s ball manipulation. When home runs and pitcher blisters surged in 2018, astrophysicist Dr. Meredith Wills discovered that MLB — despite denials that its balls had not been changed — was using balls stitched with thicker and stronger yarn — that made them more aerodynamic.

When asked about the balls then, commissioner Rob Manfred said he would never mess with baseballs after NPB’s secret shift in 2013 from a dead ball to a more normal one had cost commissioner Ryuzo Kato his job.

Since then, Wills has documented numerous oddities in the way MLB uses baseballs, and noted inconsistencies in the way they are stored, making them anything but uniform and open to manipulation by the commissioner’s office. But Manfred does his best Nancy Reagan impression and just says “no” when asked what MLB has done.

The real lesson behind Kato losing his job because a subordinate of his who had previously worked for Yomiuri, worked in secret with ball maker Mizuno to change to a livelier ball that Yomiuri and the other owners wanted without telling the boss.

The whole thing was a sham from start to finish. Kato had implemented changes for the good of the game, such as introducing a third-party arbitrator when pitcher Hideaki Wakui had a salary dispute with the Seibu Lions.

The outsider ruled in favor of Wakui when the Lions, having assumed that since they were more powerful, whatever bullshit argument they brought up would be accepted. They didn’t do their homework, argued something that was objectively false, and were denied — infuriating 12 owners, who also hated the dead ball introduced in 2011.

The teams raised a stink on purpose to use the secret lively ball, which increased home runs per ball in play by 40 percent, as a reason to oust Kato and replace him with someone more compliant.

This year, there is no stink about a ball that has created a run-scoring wilderness, and virtually no response in the media, because there is no agenda to bring down the commissioner as there had been in 2013. And that ball differed far less from the balls in 2011 and 2012, than this one does from the balls used from 2021 to 2023.

The current ball is even deader than the one Kato introduced in 2011, but there is no outcry.

Instead, the owners have learned that if they follow Manfred’s example and just deny everything — despite the obvious data to the contrary. Instead, owners say, “Oh the pitchers are better this year.” Sure.

Of course, we don’t really know HOW much the new ball varies from what we had been accustomed to unless we compare trajectories, velocities and atmospheric conditions. Unlike MLB, which makes its Statcast tracking data public, NPB’s TrackMan data, now taken in every main park, is entirely secret.

But that doesn’t mean the players don’t make use of it. Yusei Kikuchi worked with a biomechanics analyst to improve his pitching, he used the data, and they are looking at it now.

What Tomoya Mori said

On Saturday, I asked Orix Buffaloes slugger Tomoya Mori, a former Pacific League MVP, about this year’s balls.

“The ball is definitely not flying,” he said. “I don’t have a single home run. It’s really frustrating, and even though you know there’s something different with the ball, you begin to think you are doing something wrong. It messes with you.”

He said he had checked his tracking data from previous years.

“Home runs in the past I hit with the same direction and launch angle with the same velocity are now dying on the warning track or hitting the wall. They’re not all being caught, but they’re not flying either,” he said.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have any control over the ball, because it is what it is.”

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