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Reading Between The Seams: The Baseball, Justin Verlander, and Denial (Part 1 of 6)

A new series intended to preview the Astros starting pitching gets an important addendum in its initial installment.

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins
It is becoming increasingly clear that the baseball itself is different in the last couple of seasons, and it’s leading to a massive spike in home runs. So how can the Astros combat this, and what does it all mean?
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images
  1. Part 1: The Baseball, Justin Verlander, and Denial (3/2/18)
  2. Part 2: The Ghost Of Ground Chuck (3/5/18)
  3. Part 3: Lance Lets It All Eat (3/6/18)
  4. Part 4: Keuchelangelo’s Swan Song (3/7/18)
  5. Part 5: Hall Of Fame Hunger (3/8/18)
  6. Part 6: The Cole Train’s Tracks (3/9/18)

Recently (right after the Astros traded for Gerrit Cole back in January) I embarked upon a fun project I called The Four Horsemen that took a somewhat hyperbolic look at the top four members of the 2018 Houston rotation, just for entertainment value’s sake.

But the reality of how good this Astros team is? It’s no joke. Seriously.

Anthony Castrovince had this to say after the Gerrit Cole trade, and Jeff Sullivan wrote a really great piece at FanGraphs (I recently became a fully-fledged subscriber, and it is my humble opinion that you should too) that takes a pretty in-depth look at the Astros that features this graphic:

Image courtesy of
Jeff Sullivan, FanGraphs

There is one particular aspect of this graphic that I want to focus on in this series: the Starting Pitching and its status as the (projected) best starting staff in the game this coming season. Specifically, the aforementioned Four Horsemen...and Charlie Morton, who seems the odds-on favorite to land the fifth starter gig.

But before we really dive in to a series that examines each pitcher in-depth and how that pitcher can meet success this season with the Astros, there is an issue which has been at the forefront of the baseball consciousness over the last couple of years that is nearing a crossroads and bears mentioning as a bit of an extended preamble to the series:

The composition of the baseball itself.

For years now, since 2015 or so, there have been voices whispering, muttering, talking, ever-escalating cacophony of voices that began gathering steam on the periphery of mainstream baseball consciousness with brilliant, aware pundits like Jonah Keri (here is a link) and Ben Lindbergh with Mitchel Lichtman (here is a link) and Rob Arthur (here is a link) publishing seminal, must-read pieces on the topic, among others.

The issue came back to the forefront as the 2017 regular season (a record-setting season for overall home run output across the entire sport) drew to a close, and then balls continued flying out of the park at a record pace in the postseason. There was a fairly noteworthy piece from Tom Verducci at SI that looked at the fact that both teams were on record in the World Series that the baseball was clearly different - Lance McCullers went so far as to say that he could tell the difference between a 2017 regular season baseball and a 2017 World Series baseball with a blindfold on. It was postulated at the time that the baseballs in use were slicker than usual, and had much lower seams - aspects which greatly hindered the ability of pitchers to spin the ball, especially when attempting to throw sliders. Several elite pitchers (Yu Darvish, Ken Giles, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Kenley Jansen, etc.) had documented difficulty with the ball in the postseason, especially in the World Series.

It’s been called the “juiced ball” controversy, and it’s back in the news after one of the most prominent baseball analysis sites, FiveThirtyEight, has published yet another Rob Arthur piece (this time with the help of Tim Dix) that takes another look at the baseball after having performed further tests. Ben Lindbergh, one of the true luminaries on the subject, hosted Rob Arthur in a special edition of his renowned “Effectively Wild” podcast (which, if you’re into both baseball and podcasts, is an obvious must-listen and must-support) and spent roughly twenty minutes discussing the testing Arthur and Dix performed, as well as theories on what it means, how Major League Baseball and Rawlings have reacted (or, more accurately, not reacted...thought that’s starting to change, finally), and much more information.

The podcast episode can be (and should be!) listened to here in its entirety, but the first twenty-two or so minutes really pertains to this issue the most. This is an important spot to include the obligatory but well-deserved plug: please subscribe to Ben’s podcast and support it, financially. He’s one of the best in the business, and deserves support for all the incredible work he does.

Okay, enough proselytizing. Why is all of this Astros-specific news, you ask?

Well, because future Hall of Famer (and Astros Workhorse/Ace) Justin Verlander took to Twitter last night, seemingly in response to the publication of this most recent article, and tweeted a bit of a data-bombshell:

That thread in particular has some really great back and forth with some great baseball minds ranging from SABR legends like Tom Tango himself all the way to Brandon McCarthy, who dropped in to offer this humorous jab at Major League Baseball:

Verlander, for his part, followed up his revelation with a bit of a scathing jab at what he perceives (probably accurately) as a lie from the Office of the Commissioner:

There is a lot to unpack in those comments and the resultant thread, and perhaps the comments section below is the place to really dive deeper into it all, but the gist of Verlander’s charts is this: the baseball is being hit with essentially the same quality of contact, but it’s flying further. There was less drag on the baseball in 2017 than there was in 2014, and that is significant news no matter how one slices it.

What does it all mean for the Houston Astros starting staff?

Well, that’s a question we will endeavor to examine over the next five (business...not over the weekend) days. Tune in Monday for part two, when we will examine Charlie Morton’s repertoire and how he can best maximize his abilities to achieve the greatest possible success in 2018. Then tune in every day next week after that for the ongoing series. Please share these pieces with your friends and get the word out, and we’ll see you in the comments section!