Analysis: MLB Losing Trust From Betting Community Over Mystery Ball

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MLB betting

Sports betting is never far away from Major League Baseball (MLB) these days. Sportsbooks advertise at numerous major league parks, hosts betting articles, and announcers throw out sponsored props throughout games.

Indeed, MLB has a host of “authorized gaming partners,” with US sportsbooks paying handsomely for the right to use official league data and team logos, among other items.

However, MLB continues to hamstring its core betting product because of uncertainty around the baseball itself.

New balls, please

MLB reportedly has been fiddling with the balls for years.

In 2019, the ‘juiced’ ball suddenly started flying out of ballparks. In 2021, two balls were in play: one juiced, one not. The league later blamed Covid-related manufacturing issues in its Rawlings plant in Costa Rica.

This year, MLB planned to go back to a single deadened ball, per a memo sent to clubs this winter.

Double trouble

However, players are convinced that has been bungled too.

“Honestly, I can tell you right now there are two different baseballs still,’’ Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Ian Kennedy told USA Today Sports. “I’m not an idiot. I’ve been in baseball my whole life. At the beginning of the year, we were using just one ball, it took the mud better, it was more porous, a rougher feel. The other one is more noticeably different because it’s so smooth. I noticed when they started mixing in the old ones last year. … It’s the same thing this year.”

Consequently, the result has been far from an ideal experience for bettors and sportsbooks.

Impact on MLB betting

SuperBook VP Jay Kornegay noted “unders” were hitting at a high rate in April. But there was no real influx of sharp money, simply because bettors had no idea what was going on either.

“I believe the sharps were trying to figure it out as well,” Kornegay said.

Circa sportsbook manager Christopher Bennett agrees it has been “challenging” to book MLB totals this year.

“I noticed early on that players were making good contact and the result was a harmless fly ball,” Bennett said. “I was concerned about taking money on under, especially overnight before the morning market movement.

There was definitely a shift a month ago in batted ball outcomes and I’m not sure it’s entirely due to the weather getting warmer. MLB is doing things with the baseball and not telling the public about it.”

For bettor, far worse

If bookmakers are finding it hard, at least they have some protection in the form of the vigorish. For bettors, paying -110 into a chaotic market is a recipe for disaster.

As VSIN handicapper Adam Burke put it:

“Baseball is high-variance enough without the ball changing in some way over the course of the season. It feels like there are multiple seasons within a season now and the reliability of the data is a moving target.

“As a stats-based handicapper, it makes you question what’s real and what’s not. I’ve had a real crisis of confidence and conviction since offense came back because it makes every game feel like a crapshoot. You get into this mindset that you’re flipping coins and the vig is just there laughing at you.”

‘Fun’ with humidors in MLB betting

Burke is still ahead on his posted plays this season but the lack of certainty makes losing streaks that much harder to take. Is it a bad run or throwing money away playing an uneven game?

To add to the fun, baseball also installed humidors in 20 ballparks this year, meaning baseballs are stored in uniform conditions across the league.  A source close to MLB responded to LSR questions by saying the humidors were exacerbating conditions, thus explaining some of the dramatic changes in scoring this year.

In April, for instance, balls were kept in more humid conditions than normal, essentially making them heavier and harder to hit out. In a humid month like August, the balls will be kept drier than normal and might travel farther than usual in the warm summer air.

Muddy waters

To add yet another layer of complexity, MLB in June asked teams to adhere to a uniform “muddying technique” for baseballs. Muddying is the process of removing gloss from new baseballs to give pitchers a better grip.

MLB hopes the standardized handling and storage will improve the consistency of the baseballs, ESPN reported. The implication, of course, is that players were noticing baseballs stored and prepared in different ways, rather than different balls themselves.

MLB betting integrity in doubt

The constant change means MLB has lost trust from bettors, players and analysts alike.

New York Mets players and coaches suggested MLB was using juiced balls to liven up prime-time games. Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said in May the ball was “magically starting to carry a bit more” after criticism about the lack of scoring in April. 

Baseball site BallPark Pal has been tracking the expected home run rate all season and noted a dramatic offense-friendly shift around May 14, even after accounting for weather.

MLB losing benefit of the doubt?

Maybe it was a deliberate switch in baseballs or maybe it was noise, but MLB lost the benefit of the doubt for many.

“You want to assume baseball knows what they are doing, or are doing what they say they’re doing,” said baseball writer Eno Sarris, on a recent TheAthletic podcast about the ball. “But both of those things are demonstrably not true in the last few years.

“They told us there was one ball last year. Then ‘sorry, it’s two balls.’ So their stated goals and what actually happens don’t line up. So when you see a large change in May, three things are possible: it’s noise, or they changed the ball, or they changed the humidor setting. All these things are possible. So it’s hard for me to follow along.”

A dozen betting partners

The perception problem created by these variations becomes exacerbated by the close ties between MLB and its numerous sportsbook partners.

Sportsbooks paying MLB include:

Self-inflicted problems

Ultimately, the mysterious baseball has made it (even more) difficult to bet the sport. The changes likely come from a lack of coherent planning  rather than any kind of deliberate leaning on the scales. But by messing with the ball, MLB has thrown into question its integrity.

During the integrity fee debate in legal US sports betting’s infancy, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in 2018:

“We will never delegate responsibility for those integrity issues to state regulators, whatever their expertise in the gambling area may be. We have our own expertise and no one is more motivated than the commissioner’s office of baseball to make sure that there is no threat to the integrity of our sport.”

Fast-forward four years, and it seems the biggest integrity threat to baseball is the ball itself.