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Balls and bats are lab rats in the effort to explain the proliferation of home runs


(Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Look up in the sky. It’s a bird, it’s a plane. … no, it’s not even Superman. It’s just another home run.

If you haven’t noticed, this has been the season of the home run in Major League Baseball. Projectiles off the bats of guys like Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger and Pete Alonso are leaving ballparks in astonishing numbers, seemingly shot out of cannons.

Look it up: The sport is on pace to smash over 6,700 dingers this season, which would be approximately 1,100 more than it did in 2018 and 600 more than its current record of 6,105 set in 2017.

Unless you believe pitching has become exponentially worse – and frankly, the Baltimore Orioles staff does suck – you probably subscribe to the theory hitters are getting bigger and stronger and their swings are now more geared to launching balls than spraying them.

Or you might be convinced there’s something strange going on with the baseballs. You are not alone.

“I’ve seen a lot of homers that shouldn’t be homers,” Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez said told ESPN.

Martinez believes the MLB has purposely toyed with the construction of baseballs to make them fly farther. And so does Houston ace Justin Verlander who recently said it was a “f—–g joke” that the game has been suddenly overrun by power shows.

Well, USA Today did a fascinating story the other day about a bunch of scientists from Washington State University who are approaching the issue of home run proliferation from a clinical standpoint.

Lloyd Smith is a professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at the university who is in charge of the study. Major League Baseball reached out to him two years ago in an effort to find out whether a juiced ball is responsible for what’s been going on.

“The smoking gun may very well have been found,’’ said Alan Nathan, chairman of a committee of scientists that includes Smith and was formed by MLB in August 2017. “As I told Lloyd, ‘You’re going to be a big hero for doing this.’ ”

The research is going so well that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred could be ready to reveal the results within a few weeks. Until then, no one from the lab is talking.

“I would like you not to say that we’ve solved the problem,’’ Smith told USA Today. “We’ll say that once Major League Baseball is satisfied with our results and willing to make a public statement.

“We’ve notified MLB of our progress and their answer has been, ‘That’s great, but we can’t get this wrong.’ So we need to test more balls. So far we are at about 80 dozen balls that we’re testing over different areas of the game to see if we’re right, how right we are and if everything adds up.’’

Manfred has consistently denied MLB has conspired to liven up the baseball. But you can understand why some doubt his words. Since the days of Babe Ruth, the homer has been baseball’s sexy play and proponents feel the more that are hit the more popular the game becomes.

The committee has come to one conclusion which it has shared with MLB: Baseballs are subject less to air resistance, which results in them flying farther. The problem is they don’t seem to know why that is.

Nathan and his 10-man staff have looked at everything, including the physics and engineering of bats and balls. About 1,000 baseballs have been tested. They’ve been weighed and measured, some disassembled, others fired out of air cannons.

According to Smith, the equipment designed to test the ball costs about $100,000. But it’s serving its purpose.

“This is the only place in the world where we can measure a ball’s lift and drag outside of play conditions,’’ said Smith. “I call this project my bad girlfriend. Week after week, she would get my hopes up. And every time she would break my heart.’’

Christian Yelich

(Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Smith said the group found nothing fundamentally different about how the ball is made – a rubber or cork center wrapped in wool yarn stitched together by two strips of cowhide.

Kathy Stephens, director of quality assurance for Rawlings, who has made the baseballs since 1977, talked to MLB officials about adding synthetic materials to them in an attempt to make the ball perform more consistently.

“Oh, yeah, they’re locked into history,’’ said Smith of MLB. “There are features of the major league ball that are characteristic of the way rubbers were produced probably 100 years ago that today are just ridiculous. But they do it the same way so they can say the ball is made the same way.’’

And yet, MLB is experiencing a credibility problem since it bought Rawlings in June 2018 for nearly $400 million. If it owns the company that makes the balls, why wouldn’t it want to have a say about how it flies?

“If any other $40 billion company bought out a $400 million company and the product changed dramatically, it’s not a guess as to what happened,” said Verlander last month. “We all know what happened. Manfred the first time he came in, what’d he say? He said we want more offense. All of a sudden he comes in, the balls are juiced? It’s not a coincidence. We’re not idiots.”

Smith said he hopes the public accepts the results of his testing. He knows there will be skepticism because the study was paid for by MLB.

“When I was invited (to participate), I asked MLB pointedly, I said, ‘Look, you might not like some of the things we find and I need to know what are my boundaries,” said Smith. What can I not do?’ And their answer was, ‘Nothing. Whatever you need, you tell us and we’ll make that happen.’ They did.”

When the time comes, all we can do is see how this flies with baseball fans.