PHOENIX — They took the sticky stuff away from pitchers.
They implemented a universal designated hitter.
They didn’t even test for steroids and performance-enhancing drugs all winter.
So, what happens?
We’re seeing a historic power outage.
The batting average throughout baseball these first two weeks is just .230, which would easily rank as the lowest in baseball history for a full season.
Teams are slugging .366, the lowest since 1976.
MLB teams are averaging 3.94 runs a game, the lowest since 1972.
And there are just .089 homers per game, which is the second-lowest output since 1993, you know, before the steroid craze.
The offense around the game is so pathetic that five teams are averaging three or fewer runs this season: the New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds, Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles.
“Don’t we say that every year at this time?’’ New York Mets ace Max Scherzer said, “And then bats heat up. It’s still early.’’
Still, what gives?
Is it the humidor effect with every team now storing baseballs in humidor instead of just Colorado and Arizona?
Is it hitters swinging for the fences – no matter the count or situation? One veteran pitcher told USA TODAY Sports that “it’s never been so easy to pitch in my life.’’
Or, is it baseball’s dirty secret, the actual baseballs?
“Everybody’s talking about it,’’ Mets second baseman Robinson Cano says. “Something’s going on.’’
Balls that used to be flying, are now dying on the warning track.
“I’m not a conspiracy theorist,’’ Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said this week, “but it just seems like something’s different. …There’s been a handful that I felt off the bat, the sound, the trajectory, the velocity, that I thought would be home runs that didn’t get out of the ballpark.’’
Pitchers and hitters will tell you the 2021 deadened baseballs are back, with a stickier, almost all-weather surface, but before anyone gets comfortable, the old slick, juiced baseballs still can be found in games.
Yes, once again, players are convinced there have been two different baseballs used in games, just like a year ago when two different balls were secretly used, with MLB confirming it in November.
“Honestly, I can tell you right now there are two different baseballs still,’’ Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Ian Kennedy told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m not an idiot. I’ve been in baseball my whole life. At the beginning of the year, we were using just one ball, it took the mud better, it was more porous, a rougher feel. The other one is more noticeably different because it’s so smooth.
“I noticed when they started mixing in the old ones last year. We later found out that they’re mixing in the old ones because they had a surplus, right after the hitters were complaining the balls not flying as far. I’m like, ‘Why don’t we do this at the beginning of the year? Why are we trying to grab two different baseballs every single time?’
“It’s the same thing this year. There’s still one ball different than the other. But if we say anything about it, we’re just pitchers complaining. It’s frustrating to have two different baseballs that you have to adapt to.’’
Pitchers and hitters alike will tell you the same thing, they’ll see and hear a ball leaving the bat, believing it will leave the park, only to fall harmlessly short, and others they don’t think will go out travel 450 feet.
“The carry on the ball is down,’’ Mets reliever Seth Lugo said. “They’re not getting home runs, but we’re not getting swings and misses. It kind of evens out.
“I just hate that they keep changing them. Every year it changes. I would like to see a little consistency. Just let us know if you’re going to change it, so we can adjust.’’
Mets catcher James McCann said that he used to laugh about pitchers trying to convince him there are two different kinds of baseballs, but no longer, saying he can feel the difference, with some baseballs having bigger seams than others.
“There definitely have been moments where I can get a ball from the umpire and can feel the difference,’’ McCann says. “The big thing for me is that the deadened baseball has a bigger seam. The lively balls, or whatever you want to call it, the seams are not as raised.’’
There seems to be more new, deadened baseballs used this year, but if offensive woes still continue into the hot summer nights, there could be a switcheroo, with the old slick baseballs coming to a ballpark near you.
“It’s going to be interesting,’’ Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor said. “We’re the only sport where someone’s going to be happy, and someone’s going to be unhappy when they change baseballs. And that’s [messed] up. It sucks.’’
Said McCann: “My frustration is that some balls are good and some balls are not good. It’s just the luck of the draw. As a pitcher, you make your pitch and the guy puts the barrel on the ball, and it happens to be a juiced ball, that’s not fair. Or if a hitter makes a good swing, and it happens to be a deadened ball, and it doesn’t go out, that’s not fair either.
“My opinion is that it’s 2022. We should have the same ball all season.’’
Then again, maybe it’s simply waiting to see what happens the next few months. If the offense is still inept, guess which baseballs you’ll be seeing the second half?
“You’re going to have hitters complain if nothing changes,’’ Kennedy said. “You’ll hear people say, ‘The offense is down, let’s change it.’
“I guess it all evens out, just as long as we’re not using those bouncy balls when guys were breaking their own home runs records every month. That’s the ball I don’t want to play with.
“Just make it fair.’’
Rules for thought
Scherzer had some intriguing rule change ideas during baseball’s negotiations, and while none are on the books now, he’s still hoping they can be implemented.
– Starting pitchers must face at least nine hitters to start the game.
Purpose: It eliminates all of the openers, bullpen games and other gimmicks that cheapen the starting pitching matchups.
– Starters must complete at least five innings, or throw 100 pitches, to keep your starting DH in the game. If the starter is removed before the criteria is met, the team loses the DH.
Purpose: Forces teams to put more emphasis on starting pitching.
– Teams are permitted to make phone calls to look at replay monitors only five times before determining if they want to even issue a challenge.
Purpose: Speeding up the game by eliminating the 30 seconds or longer managers take before notifying umpires if they want to make a challenge.
– Hitters are allowed to make three challenges of ball-strike calls in a game, and if successful, retain your challenge.
Purpose: Stop the endless complaints by hitters over borderline ball-strike calls. If you feel like it’s blatant, challenge it.
“Let’s see what people think, but I like those rules, I really do,’’ Scherzer said.
Scherzer’s ideas, if nothing else, certainly are worth being given serious consideration.
Seeing is believing
Pete Rose remains a diehard Reds fan, but doesn’t blame the fans’ frustration for their disappearing offense this season, putting the blame on ownership for stripping the payroll.
“How do you expect to win when you get rid of [Nick] Castellanos, you get rid of [Jesse] Winker, and you get rid of [Eugenio] Suarez?’’ Rose said of their moves during the winter. “Those are their 3-4-5 hitters in the lineup, they’re gone, and they have no one to replace them.
“I mean, the Reds can’t score. They’ve got four guys in that lineup hitting under .150. How the [expletive] you going to win? Poor [manager David] Bell sits there and doesn’t know what to do because he’s got to play for one or two runs every night. And he’s got two rookies in the rotation.’’
The Reds entered Saturday with the worst record in baseball, 2-12, equaling their worst start in franchise history, and on a 10-game losing streak.
They have been outscored 63-20 during their losing streak, hitting .167 with a 6.93 ERA, failing to score more than two runs in seven consecutive games for the first time since 1982.
“It sucks,” Kyle Farmer told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “I know how the fans feel in Cincinnati. Obviously, we feel the same way.’’
Rose, the 17-time All-Star and three-time batting champion, also worries about Reds first baseman Joey Votto. Votto, 39, is hitting just .167 with a .474 OPS, and only one extra-base hit, no homers and two doubles.
“Joey Votto is a great hitter, but I watched him the other night, and he had four at-bats and four different stances,’’ Rose said. “When you’re up there to bat, and you start changing your stance from the first time up to the third time up to the fourth time up, you’re [bleeped]. You’re thinking too much about being in the batter’s box.
“They said he took many pitches with guys in scoring position, so this year he decided he wanted to change his stance to hit more home runs. Well, he’s not hitting more home runs and he’s hitting under .150.’’
The offseason’s best acquisition?
He will come to the mound often this season, but he won’t throw a single pitch.
He’ll step in the batter’s box at least once a game, but won’t take a single swing.
He’s not Max Scherzer, or Starling Marte, but, oh, what a difference new manager Buck Showalter is making with the Mets.
The Mets, 11-4 entering Saturday, were sitting in first place with their fourth-best start in franchise history.
And Showalter could be in line for his fourth Manager of the Year award.
Showalter, 65, has made an indelible difference wherever he has gone in his career. He was the manager who helped turn around the Yankee organization, watching it morph into a dynasty with four World Series titles in five years. He and GM Joe Garagiola were the architects of the expansion franchise in Arizona, with the Diamondbacks winning a World Series in only their fourth year of existence. He led the Texas Rangers to greatness, winning back-to-back American League pennants. He inherited a woeful Baltimore Orioles franchise and led them to three playoff berths in five years.
Now, he’s working his magic with the Mets.
“He’s very astute, very prepared,’’ Scherzer says, “thinking about every last thing. I think the biggest thing is that he wants you to be accountable for everything that goes on the field.
“He’s not a hard-ass. He’s just hard about being accountable. Be accountable for every decision, and if you do that, we’re good. We’re going to have fun.
“He’s actually a lot funnier than I thought.’’
It’s too early to know just how wide-reaching an impact Showalter will make with the Mets, but the D-backs made sure to acknowledge on the video board before their game Friday, allowing Showalter to reminisce.
This was a franchise he turned into an instant winner, developing everything from their spring-training complex, to Chase Field, to even helping design the clubhouses and dugouts. Yes, it was no mistake that the visiting bench is quite uncomfortable to sit, with the closest bathrooms upstairs in the clubhouse.
“It was fun,’’ Showalter says, “a lot of good memories.’’
The Diamondbacks became the most successful expansion franchise in history in the first five years, thanks in large part to their overwhelming success in the expansion draft. Showalter still has his notes from that original draft.
“Somebody could do a whole book on that,’’ he said. “Physically, mentally, it was tough. We met for six weeks straight, seven days a week before the draft. The biggest thing we got was talking to Florida and Colorado [from the 1992-93 expansion draft]. We kept talking and asking what would they do over again, and the common thing was, ‘Don’t fall in love with expansion draft players. They’re available for a reason. They’ve had two years to protect the right guys.’
“We had 35 picks, and turned over 28 of them. That was the best advice I got, don’t fall in love with those guys.’’
The team lost 97 games their inaugural season, won 100 games the next, and in the fourth year, won the 2001 World Series, ending the Yankees’ dynasty.
Everything must go … for charity
Diamondbacks reliever Ian Kennedy was warming up in the bullpen this past week at Nats Park when he heard some fan yell towards him:
“Hey, how’s your yard sale going?’’
Kennedy looked at him, and said, “Dude, you have no idea.’’
It’s an estate sale from his Overland Park, Kansas home where virtually everything in the house is for sale, with all proceeds going to “Consider the Lily,’’ a non-profit based in the Philippines that helps rescue girls from exploitation.
The proceeds from the first day of the sale: $52,000.
“The yard sale is going quite nicely, actually,’’ Kennedy said, laughing.
Kennedy, who’s selling his home and moving to San Juan Capistrano, is donating everything from baseball memorabilia to home furniture to patio furniture.
The hope is that the donation will help the charity’s recently constructed second group home.
“They are doing some incredible stuff there,’’ said Kennedy, who has been involved with the charity for the past eight years, and has done camps in the Philippines. “It’s just a great organization.’’
Around the basepaths
– The Baseball Hall of Fame, for the third time in 12 years, is changing its Era Committee elections.
The four Era Committees will be consolidated into the Contemporary Baseball Era since 1980 and the Classic Baseball Era before 1980. The Contemporary ballot will be split in two, one for ex-players and one for managers, executives, and umpires. Each ballot will have eight candidates to be considered by 16 voters.
The committees will meet every three years, with contemporary players being considered this December, and contemporary managers, umpires, and executives voted on in 2023.
– Dave Stewart, the former GM and four-time 20-game, was appointed by the Nashville Star to lead its diverse equity ownership initiative in hopes of becoming only the second minority-owned baseball franchise in baseball history.
“The time has come,’’ Stewart said, “for Black ownership in Major League Baseball.’’
There has never been a majority Black-owned team in MLB history.
Stewart, by the way, will have his Oakland A’s jersey, No. 34, retired Sept. 11 in their game against the Chicago White Sox with former A’s manager Tony La Russa in attendance.
– Patrick Corbin, who signed a six-year, $140 million contract three years ago, and helped the Washington Nationals win the 2019 World Series title, has been a shell of himself since.
He has made 46 starts since 2020, and has gone just 11-26 with a major-league worst 5.81 ERA, with a gruesome WHIP of 1.554.
Corbin, who was booed off the mound in his last start, has been even worse this season, going 0-3 with a 11.20 ERA and 2.561 WHIP.
And, even much worse for the Nats, they still owe Corbin $83 million over the next three years.
– Kudos to Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo for speaking up with teams complaining about leaving unvaccinated players behind entering Canada this season.
The Blue Jays have absolutely no sympathy for those teams.
“Rules are rules and that’s why we couldn’t play in Toronto for two years,’’ Montoyo said. “Nobody cared about us when we were in Dunedin.’’
– Chicago White Sox All-Star shortstop Tim Anderson received a one-game suspension for flipping off the fans during the White Sox’s 11-1 loss to Cleveland last week, and although he appealed the suspension, acknowledged and apologizes for his actions.
“There are a lot of people who really look up to me,” Anderson said. “I take full accountability of what I did. But it’s something that I have to learn from and grow from. I understand that the game can be tough sometimes. You can get frustrated sometimes and people can say certain things that get you out of character, but for the most part, there are a lot of kids out there watching.
“I have to be a bigger person in that situation and just suck it up, whatever is being said.”
– Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts sings high praises for the Rays’ Wander Franco, who’s in his first full season.
“He’s like Ozzie Smith with the glove, Barry Bonds with the bat.’’
– It’s hard to believe there hasn’t been a mid-season managerial firing since 2018, so with the expanded playoffs this year, patience may not be so high.
– Terrific new book on Rickey Henderson by Howard Bryant, but the most touching was the dedication inside the cover:
For Pedro Gomez.
Gomez, the beloved late ESPN reporter, and Howard covered the Oakland A’s together 30 years ago where a lifelong friendship was born.
– Remember when the Yankees widely celebrated their acquisition of Texas Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo at the trade deadline?
Well, nine months later, and the Yankees sure would love to have a mulligan.
Gallo has been awful since the trade, batting .153 with 13 homers and 22 RBI, striking out 106 times in 229 at-bats since joining the team.
This year, it has gotten much worse.
He is hitting .122 with a .234 OBP and .645 OPS.
He didn’t even have an extra-base hit in his first 41 at-bats, with 18 strikeouts to start the year.
– Raise your hand if you had the Guardians sitting with the best offensive production in the American League.
If the Guardians can just keep a semblance of this offense to go with their stellar pitching, they could be baseball’s biggest surprise.
– Former Dodgers All-Star closer Kenley Jansen, now with Atlanta, facing former Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman, now with the Dodgers: “It was weird as hell, man. I faced that guy so many times in a Braves uniform, and now it’s vice versa. It’s crazy, man. It’s crazy how the game is now.’’
– Certainly, rookie manager Mark Kotsay knew what he was getting into when he accepted the Oakland Athletis job, but instead of lamenting all of the departures and woeful attendance, he has used it as a rallying cry for the team to be just one-half game out of first place in the AL West entering Saturday.
“The A’s way is to grind it out,” Kotsay said. “It’s not to focus on what we don’t have, but what we do have. And what we have is each other. We have a unit here that believes in each other. …
“We’re not caught up in the outside amenities, per se, and the fact we may not have the largest crowds, but that doesn’t bother us. We’re going to go out and play baseball, be together, and have fun doing it.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB baseballs different again? Players want answers on open secret