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INFIELD CHATTER: When players have questions, Manfred lacks good answers

If you’re searching for an example of how to make a bad situation worse, I suggest starting with the way Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred made a fool of himself while the sporting world’s spotlight was focused on All-Star festivities in Cleveland.

Three of the best pitchers in the game — American League starter Justin Verlander and the National League’s Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer, winners of the last three Cy Young Awards, all went on record this week about the way baseballs travel differently in recent years, and Manfred completely botched his chance to control the narrative.

Verlander went the hardest, calling the current balls a “(expletive) joke” and saying he completely believes MLB tweaked ball construction in order to improve offense.

“Major League Baseball's turning this game into a joke,” Verlander said. “They own Rawlings, and you’ve got Manfred up here saying it might be the way they center the pill. They own the (expletive) company. If any other $40 billion company bought out a $400 million company and the product changed dramatically, it’s not a guess as to what happened.”

Given the chance, deGrom said he wouldn’t disagree. Scherzer had more of an offspeed approach, acknowledging several changes in balls over recent years but without pointing fingers and saying he wasn’t “gonna cry about it.”

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Manfred asserted “baseball has done nothing, given no direction for an alteration in the baseball.” While that statement arguably was needed to counter Velander’s theory, most people who have been paying attention to this story over the last few seasons have been aware of independent testing that proves minor differences in ball construction and detailed how those tweaks result in more long flyballs turning into homers.

In other words, the primary issue isn’t why the ball has changed, but the simple fact it has. Yet MLB’s primary response is a deflection strategy. At some point, someone in the league office has to acknowledge it lost the institutional control required to prevent this scenario.

Instead, we get quotes like this from Manfred: “The flaw in logic is that baseball wants more home runs. If you sat in owners' meetings and listen to people on how the game is played, that is not a sentiment among the owners for whom I work.”

Not only does that run counter to Manfred’s long-held position the game needs more offense to appeal to new generations of fans, and not only does it confuse people who heard him a day earlier on ESPN radio noting “our fan data suggests fans like home runs,” but the closing clause helps reinforce the sad reality that Manfred isn’t actually tasked with the best interests of all parties, but ultimately is a hired gun of the 30 owners who need a point person for their concentrated power.

“Changing the baseball is a mechanism by which you could manage the way the game is being played,” Manfred said, causing all fans who know how home runs have spiked since the middle of 2015 to slap their foreheads. “We haven't missed that idea. But if we were going to do it, we would do it in a way that was transparent to the media and the fans in advance.”

Manfred also has admitted there’s less drag on the current ball (which makes it fly longer distances) and said testing hasn’t proved why that’s the case. But someone in his position doesn’t get to play dumb.

The problem is obvious, several studies have revealed irregularities, and the one entity with the power to do something is standing around waiting for someone else to provide an answer.

On a macro level, I’m much more in Camp Scherzer than Team Verlander. As long as every game involves the same balls, then each team should be affected equally. You can’t rule out how recent focus on video training to enhance things like swing plane and launch angle might influence home-run rates, but neither is it smart to write off those developments as coming in response to a livelier ball.

But with specific regard to Manfred, the guy simply has to come up with stronger answers.

Everyone involved in MLB deserves better.

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