Opinion: It Matters To Sports Betting Markets If Different MLB Baseballs Are In Play

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MLB baseballs

A little more than a year ago, investigative journalist Bradford William Davis wrote an article for Insider detailing that Major League Baseball (MLB) had been using two different baseballs during the 2021 season.

This year, Davis followed up the story with another investigation, finding (with the help of award-winning astrophysicist Dr. Meredith Wills) that there were likely three different balls in play during the 2022 season. As fans of The Simpsons may have guessed, according to the Insider article, MLB’s response was dismissive and questioned the underlying research of the award-winning astrophysicist.

If MLB baseballs elicit different responses when hit, there are potential integrity questions related to the gambling market that are worth discussing. If multiple balls are being used, it raises real questions about the fairness of the information fueling betting markets.

While it does not appear that MLB is an equity owner of a gambling company, since reportedly divesting its stake in DraftKings several years ago, baseball is partnered at the league and team level with various gambling-related entities, and is an originator of official league data.

They’ve got big baseballs

The investigative report from Davis found that, seemingly contrary to a preseason assertion from MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred that the league would be using a single ball during the 2022 season, there were multiple balls in play during the 2022 season.

The reported plan had been to deaden the balls during the 2022 season. Prior suggestions that not all balls were created equal came about after the All-Star break in 2015, with observable differences in the ball showing up at various points through 2019.

In 2021, a new ball was to be introduced that was supposed to reduce the “more homer-prone” balls manufactured the previous year. According to Zach Crizer of Yahoo, however, supply chain and production issues associated with COVID-19 resulted in the inability to manufacture enough of the deadened balls, so some previously manufactured balls were put into play during the 2021 season.

Did MLB baseballs change last year?

Last season was to be different. 2022 was supposed to have a single ball, a deadened ball. Uniform MLB baseballs even out expectations; hitters, pitchers, fans, and bettors know what they are dealing with when there is a single ball in use.

It is worth noting that even though the Davis story and Dr. Wills’ investigation found different balls, they all fell within the range of 5 to 5.5 ounces, which is within league specifications. The investigative study found three balls, including older balls, from the “juiced era,” dead balls, and balls they dubbed “Goldilocks balls,” which had a weight between the other balls.

Interestingly, the study only found Goldilocks balls at New York Yankees games and other significant events, including the postseason. Coincidentally or not, Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge was chasing the American League single-season home run mark in 2022.

Equipment matters

The different balls represent a potential integrity issue. While hopefully no one outside of MLB, and perhaps even the league office, knows with certainty whether certain games received more homer-friendly balls or deadened balls, there are substantial questions about the competitive fairness of different games having different equipment.

While there are certainly questions about the fairness and integrity of the underlying baseball games and the impact on the standings, at least it appears all players in the game are playing under the same conditions, as there is no evidence that there would be any way for individual players to be fed a specific ball.

However, when it comes to the betting markets that rely on a set understanding of the conditions of the game to set and adjust lines, an unexpected departure from specified conditions (even if they are within a specified range) raises meaningful questions about fairness to bettors and bookmakers alike, and whether those standards are reasonable.

What MLB baseball flap means

What this all comes down to is fair access to information. MLB, amongst other leagues, has emphasized the importance of official league data from their perspective as necessary to the integrity of betting markets.

In various states, these efforts have paid off for the leagues. While all the balls may fall within MLB’s standards, perhaps it is time to take a closer look at those standards, as at least one study suggests that balls within the specifications can perform in significantly different ways.

Everyone should be held to the same standards. In this respect, betting markets should be treated more similarly to financial markets. Financial markets require adequate disclosures at regular intervals. While MLB disputes the accuracy of the results of Dr. Wills’ study, it does not diminish the idea that the sports leagues should start being treated like other market participants in the sports betting arena.

Ultimately, this instance (or non-instance if you choose to accept MLB’s arguments) should serve as a starting point for discussions about improving market integrity moving forward. It will be in the best interests of everyone to see the regulated market thrive and not further asymmetries that create value in inside or confidential information.