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Lack of transparency on ball changes causes NPB grief

by Jason Coskrey

Nippon Professional Baseball did not err when it introduced a standardized baseball two seasons ago. The change was needed.

The league was also right to alter that ball after players noticed the game had changed too much. That was a problem, and NPB fixed it.

No, the mistake here was NPB’s secrecy about it all. As is often the case, the cover-up was worse than the crime.

A season rife with speculation over the increased number of home runs finally gave way on Wednesday, with NPB admitting it indeed made changes to the official ball.

Commissioner Ryozo Kato spoke about the issue, saying he, the head of the sport whose name is on each and every ball, was unaware of the changes, and that the league didn’t intend to mislead. He said NPB secretary general Kunio Shimoda authorized the slight alterations without his knowledge, adding that Shimoda acted within the parameters of his job.

But the commissioner didn’t ask any questions as home runs returned en masse after two seasons of plummeting power numbers?

The difference was noticeable to say the least. According to Nikkan Sports, the average number of homers per game from 2009-2012 was 1.78, 1.86, 1.09 and 1.02, respectively. This year it’s 1.50.

Others asked questions earlier in the year, and NPB said the ball had not been changed, reportedly also asking Mizuno, the manufacturer, to not stray from that claim, even in the face of mounting evidence.

■ Everyone: Sure are a lot more home runs this year.

■ NPB: The hitters have made adjustments. All of them. All at exactly the same time.

■ E: And that Tony Blanco, he’s on pace for about gazillion homers, and Wladimir Balentien is knocking balls clear out of stadiums. Sure this ball isn’t different?

■ NPB: The foreign hitters are playing at a very high level.

■ E: But opposite field shots are back, and even pitchers and banjo hitters are going deep.

■ NPB: Nothing to see here.

According to a Kyodo News report Wednesday, changes were enacted to bring the ball within rules that measure “liveliness.” That same report quoted Shimoda (the ostensible fall guy) as saying, “The change was made to bring the coefficient of restitution within the allowable range.”

Which is all to say NPB had a perfectly good reason for changing the ball.

So why cover it up?

Why not just make an announcement before the season?

By not being forthcoming, NPB damaged the trust it’s built with its players, managers, and fans. If officials won’t be honest about the things they get right, what about the stuff they do wrong?

The secrecy over the ball could also, however unintended, easily be seen as worse than simple misdirection.

Professional baseball is a business, and a results-driven one at that. The league knowingly altered the environment in which those results are generated, and then denied doing so.

Players were given fair and ample warning when the standardized ball was unveiled in 2010. This time they weren’t told until their union pressed the issue.

“Apparently we have seen more home runs, more .300 batters and ERAs have gotten worse,” Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles catcher and union chairman Motohiro Shima was quoted as saying by Kyodo News. “It affects players’ incentives, standards that were set when the ball began to be used. It has changed our working circumstances.”

At best, it’s a bad look for NPB.

Change was evident among pitchers (especially pitchers), hitters and fans, and didn’t make the game worse, but actually improved it.

To be fair, NPB shouldn’t need to reveal all of its secrets all of the time, but in this case, the league was derelict in its duty.

Perhaps NPB leaders simply didn’t want to admit their initial mistake, which would be a contemptible act of hubris.

Moving to the standardized ball in 2011 was a good decision, and there is no shame in getting something so hard to get right a little wrong. Especially when you quickly rectify the situation.

But somehow the game’s leaders managed to create a firestorm by bungling what should’ve been a public relations win, essentially snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory.

That’s certainly no home run.