CLEVELAND — Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander, a former MVP and Cy Young Award winner, stoked an ongoing firestorm with his comments that Major League Baseball purposely manipulated the baseballs in order to increase home runs.
Those comments came at the beginning of the week in Cleveland with the baseball world’s full attention focused on one place leading into Tuesday night’s MLB All-Star game at Progressive Field.
Partially because of that, both MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark were peppered with questions about the baseballs when each held separate question and answer sessions with the Baseball Writers Association of America.
“I’m not going to respond specifically to those comments,” Manfred said Tuesday of Verlander’s comments. “I’m going to stand by what I’ve said. “I think what we need to be on the baseball issue is transparent and forward-looking in terms of managing the baseball.
“I’m more than happy to get input, as a matter of fact I’ve had input from numerous starting pitchers on what they feel about the baseball. That’s something that we take into account. I’m happy to have that input, but I’m not going to go back and forth publicly with an individual player.”
The Royals pitching staff went into the All-Star break having allowed 121 home runs, the sixth-lowest total of any American League staff (tied for 14th-fewest in MLB).
Meanwhile, three teams — the Philadelphia Phillies, Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles — have allowed 150 or more homers this season.
Manfred bristled at a question that included the assertion that the baseball has gotten harder.
“There is no evidence from the scientists that the baseball is harder,” Manfred said. “The basic characteristics of the baseball as measured by the independent scientists that we asked to do the study, provides no support for that. What there is support for is that the drag on the baseballs is less. As we get less drag, it goes farther.”
MLB teams went into the break averaging 1.37 home runs per game, a significant increase over the single-season record of 1.26 (2017).
“We have engaged the other side over the last few years because we’ve seen some changes and our guys have sent us baseballs and have offered commentary as to what they have experienced,” Clark said. “The game has changed. The ball is different. The why, we haven’t gotten the why yet. Nobody has seems have represented the why yet, but there’s been an acknowledgment that it’s different. That difference, in part, is yielding different results on the field.”
Both sides there’s more conversation and more study that needs to take place on the issue.
The baseballs were just one issue that Manfred and Clark addressed.
Some of the concerns the MLBPA has with the current collective bargaining agreement, as outlined by Clark included: “re-establishing” a competitive environment, “restoring” meaningful free agency, getting players paid closer to their value as they’re producing it (as opposed to after), assuring that the best players are on the field at all times, improving the dynamic for entry-level players, do a better job of marketing the game in a more beneficial way.
Manfred said he and one of his top lieutenants flew down to Florida in spring training 2018 prepared to sit down with Clark to discuss any concerns he had about the operation of the current agreement, which was struck in 2016.
“It is unprecedented, and it started not because Tony came to us, it started because we came to him,” Manfred said of the willingness to have mid-term bargaining talks between the sides. “We have had one preliminary meeting with Tony on our offer of mid-term bargaining. What I told in that meeting is, ‘We made a deal and we can live with it. If you want to change the deal now, it’s incumbent upon you to tell us what proposals you have to address your players concerns.’
“When he comes forward with those proposals, we’ll be more than happy to engage and try to make some accommodation. That hasn’t happened yet.”
On the topic of MLB free agency getting to the point where it can captivate in a manner similar to the NBA, where star players are major figures and moves make headlines as soon as the offseason officially starts:
“I would really like our players have the ability to not walk down the street without being recognized,” Clark said. “I think it’s not just beneficial to the player, but it’s beneficial to the industry to have our guys recognized in that fashion even though they’re not 7 feet, even though they’re not 6-10.”
Manfred on MLB free agency not having the same appeal and impact as NBA free agency: “If we all went to the winter meetings in San Diego and we had a non-stop run of press conferences in San Diego where all our major free agent signed in that week, that would be good for the game. I one hundred percent agree with that, and that would be a positive. The NBA has a system that is very different than ours. We are more than prepared to discuss with the players association that system or any other system.”
The unstated allusion Manfred made in that comment was that the NBA has a salary cap and maximum lengths and dollar amounts on contracts, which baseball currently doesn’t.
Manfred said he didn’t foresee any change of heart on the new rules set to be implemented next season. Those rules include a stipulation that all pitchers who enter a game must pitch to at least three batters or the end of the half inning, the active roster will go from 25 to 26 through Aug. 31, rosters will expand to just 28 players in September instead of 40, and clubs must carry 28 players after Sept. 1.
“Obviously, that’s an owner decision, but I think we need to keep after the pace issue,” Manfred said of the minimum batter rule. “I think the 26/28 next year will help us, but of the deal with the MLBPA is we have the right to do that. I’m kind of inclined to encourage the owners to exercise that right.”