A source recently confirmed to the Associated Press that MLB is making a subtle change to the baseball by slightly deadening it for the 2021 season.
In 2019, the last full MLB season, teams set the record for average amount of home runs per game at 1.39. The source who leaked the info noted that limiting the frequency of home runs is the main goal, though overall balls in play may be impacted as well.
A ball with less bounce and a quicker descent gives pitchers quite the edge. This bit of news should benefit most hurlers, but some Milwaukee Brewers could see an even bigger boost to their 2021 performance.
Here are Brewers’ pitchers with the most the gain from a deadened baseball.
Suter sits between 75-86 MPH on average, meaning he’s always at risk for some hard, deep contact. Thus far he has proven to be adept at hitting his spots and fooling hitters enough to enjoy quite a bit of success the past two seasons: 50 IP, 2.16 ERA (211 ERA+), 0.92 WHIP.
Now the question is, can he continue his great run in a larger sample size after hitters adjust to what he is doing? Suter has gotten ground balls on over 50% of his balls in play the last two seasons, part of the reason for his recent success.
But in 2020, his batting average of balls in play (BABIP) jumped up to .321 after a crazy “lucky” .188 BABIP in 2019 and a .281 BABIP in 2018. Suter also saw his home run per fly ball percentage (HR/FB) reach a career high last season (19%) — not an ideal trend.
Should Suter’s luck stay on the wrong end, a less bouncy ball could help to limit the hits and homers from rising, especially if hitters make the adjustment to Suter’s mound style.
First of all, Black needs to get (and stay) healthy. The 31-year-old fireballer has only thrown 42.1 innings in MLB. In Black’s last two seasons (just 16 frames), he has allowed 2.4 HR/9. Part of his issue could be thanks to his 98.2 MPH average fastball velocity that stays up in the zone.
Since 2018, Black has given up fly balls on 51.1% of balls in play, while the MLB average for fly ball percentage (FB%) sits under 36% the last few years. Given the high rate of fly balls he allows, Black’s 17.4% FB/HR lends itself to a sizable number of dingers - and in 2019, with a ball that was jumping - his HR/FB was 22.7%.
Black could certainly use some help on the carry of those long flies this season. Chances are he isn’t going to give up fewer fly balls, so he needs something to prevent even more of them from finding the seats.
The good news for Houser is that 54.3% of the balls he allows into play are grounders. The bad news is that his HR/FB was at 18.4% in 2019 and up to 24.2% in 2020. Over the past two seasons, the MLB average HR/FB is about 15% - well below Houser.
One interesting aspect to Houser’s struggles lies in the average distance of the home runs he allows. Houser’s average home run ball allowed in 2020 traveled 392 feet - ranking it as the 18th shortest average among the 101 qualified pitchers. In 2019, the distance was only slightly longer at 394 feet.
In theory, a handful of those fly balls barely cleared the fence. If a higher percentage of drives starting dying a bit sooner, Lorenzo Cain and company likely catch many of them. That could be a major game changer for Houser’s numbers.
Additionally, Houser’s BABIP rose to .325 in 2020, which certainly hurt him against lefties (.346 BABIP vs. left-handers in his career). Perhaps a muted ball off a lefty’s bat is slowed enough to let Gold Glover Kolten Wong make a play. You never know if a small adjustment pays big dividends.
You likely know about Burnes’ insane home run issues in 2019, giving up 3.1 HR/9, or 17 HR in 49 innings. His HR/FB was an incredible 38.6% that season, almost hard to believe. Was that the “real” Burnes?
Last season, in 10.2 more innings, Burnes gave up only 2 home runs with a 4.7% HR/FB. Such a drastic change in results is hard to figure, but likely means he is somewhere in-between when it comes to the long balls — evidenced by his 19.5% HR/FB over that past three years.
Burnes’ high velocity (96.2 MPH on the fastball) and propensity to find too much of the plate at times put him in danger of those extended homer stretches. Considering his dominance in the short season (2.11 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 13.3 K/9, 216 ERA+), imagine his impact across an additional 20+ starts with limited gopher balls.
A deadened ball would lessen Burnes’ greatest weakness, giving him the confidence to pitch aggressively and attack hitters minus the fear of the homer.
Raise your hand if you saw this one coming. An astonishing 73% of the runs Hader has given up in his career have come via the long ball. Basically, if Hader doesn’t give up a homer, the opposition is likely not scoring. That trend would turn an already-dominant hurler into an almost invaluable asset.
His 1.78 and 1.42 HR/9 the past two seasons respectively were the biggest reasons for Hader’s perceived, occasional struggles. Especially in 2019, Hader’s 15 homers allowed were key contributors to his 7 blown saves and 5 losses.
Part of the issue stems from Hader’s high FB%, sitting at 52.6% since 2018 (reminder: MLB average below 36% over that time). So while it’s not that often a ball is put in play off Hader with his 15.3 career K/9 rate, it’s a ball in the air more often than not. That has definitely meant trouble in recent seasons.
Hader’s 17.8% HR/FB isn’t the worst, but it hurts more than others due to the percentage of fly balls he gives up. So a ball that doesn’t travel through the air as well becomes less dangerous from connection to resting place. It would be of great comfort to know that if Hader misses his spot, it doesn’t guarantee a one-way ticket out of the park.
We could legitimately be looking a historic 2021 campaign for Hader if he does his normal thing with a ball that doesn’t take off like a rocket. A full season of Hader and Devin Williams at the back end of that bullpen sounds like a ton of fun.
So while Brewers’ hitters may not enjoy a deadened ball — and certainly every pitcher could take advantage of the change — this group of hurlers have the most to gain in 2021 if MLB follows through with its plan.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Savant, FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference