A player from Nippon Pro Baseball’s Central League recently tweeted: “Even though I barely touched the ball, it carried into the stands. It reminded me of the era before the uniform ball was introduced.”
Shukan Post (Apr. 26) reports that balls are flying out of parks in Japan at a record pace — and implies that it could be due to the composition of the ball itself.
In 2011, a toitsu kyu, or uniform baseball, was introduced to NPB so as to to closer simulate that used in international competitions, such as the World Baseball Classic.
During that year, offensive production slumped. Yu Darvish, then of the Nippon Ham Fighters, had arguably his best season, posting a 18-6 record with a 1.44 ERA.
It is a different matter in 2013, with rumors of a “juiced” ball beginning to circulate. The toitsu kyu has been sent out of the park 42 times by Central League batters through April 9, while in the Pacific League the total came to 34 over the same period. For comparison, there were 103 home runs hit during the entire month of April in both leagues last year, which means round-trippers are up by a factor of two.
Sluggers for the Yomiuri Giants have been especially notable. Last season, they hit no home runs through their first 10 games, but this year have already belted 13 through nine contests. Should this pace continue, they will exceed the home-run record of 259 set in 2004.
What’s behind this prodigious production?
“When that uniform ball was introduced, many players sacrificed their batting form in an effort to hit the ball further,” says a hitting coach in the Central League. “However, if a bat hits the ball squarely, it will travel. For this year, players are finally mastering patience in learning to deliver solid hits.”
Katsumi Hirosawa, a star of the Yakult Swallows in the mid-1990s, disagrees. “It’s not about skills,” he says. “I think the ball itself has changed. As was seen with Takashi Toritani’s home run at Mazda Stadium on April 5 and Shuichi Murata’s two days later at Tokyo Dome, balls flying out to the opposite field are on the rise.”
Hirosawa believes that the elasticity of the spheres has changed. “Actually, I began to sense that balls were flying further in the summer of last year,” he says. “The sound of the ball in flight has definitely changed as well.”
Current players, too, share similar sentiments.
“The sound of the ball hitting the bat is different, and balls do travel longer distances than expected,” says Kazuhiro Hatakeyama of the Swallows.
Yuki Yanagita of the Softbank Hawks says, “You get a different sensation when chasing the ball (during fielding).”
Is this possible?
A sales representative of a sporting goods manufacturer says that, just as in Major League Baseball, a coefficient of elasticity is determined for balls that are used. “The average value of ten balls tested needs to be in the range standard of 0.4134 and 0.4374,” says the representative in referring to the ratio of a ball’s rebound and impact velocities. “The uniform ball is designed to be as close as possible to the lower value. However, it is impossible to maintain an extreme degree of uniformity.”
While the core of each ball is manufactured by a machine, the stitching is done manually, says the representative: “This creates fluctuations. Therefore, it cannot be denied that balls with elasticity values beyond the standardized range are in the market.”
When Shukan Post contacted sporting goods company Mizuno, which produces NPB’s balls, the public relations department said, “As far as design, manufacturing, and storage, we are supplying the same baseballs as last year.”
Former side-arm pitcher Hisashi Yamada, who won the Pacific League M.V.P. between 1976 and 1978 for the Hankyu Braves, is skeptical that the trend will continue.
“It’s well known that pitchers have an advantage over batters in the spring,” says the former hurler. “With the WBC, younger pitchers were utilized in place each team’s ace so batters had an advantage. I believe that when strong pitching from the aces returns, we will not see home runs at the current rate.” (K.N.)
Source: “Kotoshi no booru, yakeni tobu to omoimasen?” Shukan Post (Apr. 26, page 137)