Red Sox DH J.D. Martinez disagrees with juiced ball conspiracy theory
By Sean Penney
Some players are convinced that MLB is intentionally juicing the ball but Boston Red Sox star J.D. Martinez has his own theory about the rise in home runs.
Fans dig the long ball but the enthusiasm for home runs isn’t always shared by the players. The varying opinions certainly have something to do with whether that player earns their paycheck on the mound or with a bat in their hands. Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander is clearly concerned with the rising home run totals while Boston Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez finds himself at the opposite side of this debate.
Verlander recently told ESPN’s Jeff Passan that he “100 percent” believes that MLB is intentionally juicing balls to increase offense. The basis for his argument is that it’s an “f—ing joke” that MLB pretends not to know why home runs are increasing when they own Rawlings, the official supplier of major league balls.
Home runs are up nearly 60 percent since 2014 when major league teams averaged 140 home runs. The average went up to 164 in 2015, increased to 187 the following year, before jumping to 204 in 2017. While we did see a dip back to 186 last year, teams are on pace for an average of 221 entering the break this season.
Verlander is having another sensational season that has earned him the starting nod in the All-Star Game but he has reason to be concerned about this power surge. While he owns a very strong 2.98 ERA, Verlander leads the league with 26 home runs allowed and his 1.8 HR/9 rate is the highest of his career.
No wonder Verlander is pissed about the balls allegedly being juiced. However, there are some holes in his theory. Most notably, MLB bought Rawlings in June 2018, long after this power spike began. MLB manipulating the balls to increase offense may explain the pace teams are on this year but there has to be more to it than that if this trend began years earlier.
That’s what Martinez believes. Boston’s designated hitter views a change in approach by hitters and pitchers as the primary reasons for the uptick in home runs.
"“It’s a power-arm league,” Martinez told ESPN. “It’s either a walk or a strikeout — stuff over command. I think you see a lot more mistakes over the plate. The velocity, the guys trying to hit the ball in the air — I think it’s a recipe for home runs.”"
Martinez has been one of the poster children for the launch angle craze that has captured the league in recent years. The philosophy caught on, at least in part, as a way to counter the trend of infield defensive shifts. Beat the shift by hitting the ball in the air, which naturally increases the odds of a home run. The change in approach saved Martinez’ once-floundering career, transforming him into one of the game’s most feared power threats.
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Pitchers have changed their approach as well. In the past, more pitchers relied on movement and location to induce weak contact. Now most pitchers want to pile up strikeouts by dialing up the velocity to blow it by hitters. Increased velocity helps generate power for exit velocity. While it may be harder to hit, the ball is also going to travel further when contact is made. Especially if the ball ends up over the plate because the pitcher is more concerned with how fast he’s throwing it rather than where he’s aiming it.
Martinez also pointed out how teams loading up their bullpens with power arms is partially responsible for the increase in homers. Teams want relievers who throw gas and many of them don’t have a deep arsenal of reliable pitches to work with – otherwise, they’d be starters. We used to see more variance in relievers with teams piecing their bullpens together to fit different situations. Now it seems every reliever throws the same thing.
"“You look at a bullpen now versus a bullpen back then and you feel like you face the same pitchers every team you play,” said Martinez, per WEEI’s Rob Bradford. “It’s like, ‘OK, this guy throws a four-seam and breaking ball. Great. Four-seam, breaking ball guy.’ Goes to the next team and, oops, same thing.”"
Baseball is a game that naturally evolves. Pitchers adapt to hitting trends, forcing hitters to adapt in response. The hitters have caught up again so now it’s up to the pitchers to make adjustments. As far as Martinez is concerned, that’s what will return home run rates to normalcy rather than worrying about how the ball is made.
A pitcher sees rising home run totals and cries conspiracy while a power hitter claims everything is fine. Go figure. So which one of them is correct?
The baseball may be slightly different than in the past and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred says the location of the “pill” in the center is a theory they are exploring. That doesn’t prove that there is a nefarious plot to increase offense but we’d be naive to pretend that MLB isn’t secretly thrilled with the results even if it wasn’t done intentionally.
Verlander’s conspiracy theory ignores the timeline of when MLB purchased the company that makes the ball and any of the rational explanations that Martinez points out. If MLB really is juicing the balls to increase offense then the impact must be fairly minimal considering the various other factors that would also lead to this recent spike in home runs.