HOUSTON -- Before the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros take the field for Game 5, there's an interesting report from Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci, with several pitchers and the pitching coaches from both teams claiming the balls being used in the World Series are slicker, making it more difficult to throw sliders.
Yu Darvish, who got hammered in his Game 3 start, said, "I had trouble with the ball throwing a slider. It was slicker."
Astros pitching coach Brent Strom told Verducci, "It's obvious. You can see it and you can feel it. It's not the same." Verducci also cited Cleveland Indians personnel telling him during the ALDS that the ball felt different.
Darvish struggled with his slider in Game 3, getting one swing-and-miss on six swings even though he had a miss rate of 34 percent with the pitch with the Dodgers in the regular season. But that's a small sample size: If he had two misses, his miss rate would have been 33 percent. Nobody has struggled more this postseason than Astros closer Ken Giles, a fastball/slider guy. During the season, he located his slider in the strike zone 48.9 percent of the time; in the postseason, just 27.4 percent. That has allowed hitters to sit on his fastball and punish it.
At the same time, it doesn't necessarily compute that pitchers are complaining about the baseball when the Dodgers are hitting .176 in the World Series and the Astros .226. Of course, the teams have combined for 15 home runs -- three of them off sliders.
Let's look at the overall data on all sliders (from ESPN Stats & Info):
Swing-and-miss rate: 39.3 percent
Earlier postseason rounds
Swing-and-miss rate: 34.7 percent
Swing-and-miss rate: 35.1 percent
There doesn't seem to be much evidence overall that pitchers are struggling with sliders, although a more comprehensive study would compare the postseason pitchers to how they fared in the regular season with their sliders.
We know Clayton Kershaw and Dallas Keuchel didn't struggle with their sliders in Game 1. Kershaw threw 35 sliders and got seven misses on 20 swings. Keuchel threw 19 sliders and got five misses on nine swings. It was also 100 degrees that day, while it was colder and indoors in Houston.
Brian Bannister, a former major leaguer who works for the Boston Red Sox as a vice president of pitching development, tweeted that the different weather conditions could definitely be a factor:
An indoor environment w/ air conditioning or different leather grain can all increase margin of error on sliders w/ more than 4" of sweep.— Brian Bannister (@RealBanny) October 29, 2017
Pitchers like Kluber, Sale, Darvish, & Peacock all throw sliders w/ additional horizontal movement & would be more affected than others.— Brian Bannister (@RealBanny) October 29, 2017
Astros pitcher Brad Peacock threw 3⅔ hitless innings of relief in Game 3. He threw 10 sliders, but the Dodgers swung at just two and missed both. While he was effective, only two of the 10 sliders he threw were located in the zone (compared to a regular-season rate of 45.6 percent).
If the issue is legitimate, it should make for an interesting Game 5 as far as how Kershaw and Keuchel adapt, if they're affected at all. The bigger issue is that MLB faced questions all season about the baseball and all the home runs, with the widely held belief that the balls had lower seams. That creates less air resistance, resulting in batted balls that travel further.
"Obviously, the balls are juiced," Keuchel said after the barrage of home runs in Game 2. "I think they're juiced 100 percent. But it is what it is."
So now baseball has another ball controversy on its hands. The entire game revolves around this little stitched piece of leather. You better get it right.