Sports Today: Are the baseballs juiced? Does it matter?

CINCINNATI, OH - MAY 06: Scooter Gennett #4 of the Cincinnati Reds hits his third home run of the game in the eighth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park on June 6, 2017 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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CINCINNATI, OH - MAY 06: Scooter Gennett #4 of the Cincinnati Reds hits his third home run of the game in the eighth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park on June 6, 2017 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

So it turns out the recent spike in home runs in major league baseball is most likely a result of juiced balls.

But that might not have happened on purpose.

That is the conclusion of a study published yesterday by FiveThirtyEight.com yesterday.

Previously, TheRinger.com compared a random sampling of baseballs from before the 2015 All-Star break and after, concluding the more recent balls were bouncier and thus more lively. They are also smaller and have lower seams, which affects how they fly through the air.

538 went a step farther, using pitch tracking data to determine the ball is experiencing less air resistance over the past two-plus season. That means it is flying farther.

The difference isn’t huge, but a small difference can have a major ripple effect.

After all, how many fly balls do you see die 5-10 feet short of the warning track? Now just give those balls a small boost and suddenly you have a lot more home runs.

This is all well and good, of course, but there’s a larger question hanging out there beyond why home runs are suddenly up again after offense experienced a decline:

Do fans care?

Players’ feelings matter, but there’s no game without fans.

Considering this matter inevitably takes me back to the steroid era. 

Back then, the explosion of home runs seemed to be quite popular in the stands but controversial in the press box.

Two questions were asked frequently: Were players cheating? Did it matter as long as fans were entertained?

Professional writers — I was not one of those then because I was still in high school— might have cared more than fans, but there were good reasons to ask a lot of about the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Three things to consider:

1. There are certainly some fans whose enjoyment of the game depends on a feeling everything is fair and the playing field is level for everyone. (Count me in this group.) There was a fear giving spectators the impression some people were cheating would turn them off.

2. The introduction of PEDs threw off the progression of the game and made comparing stats through the eras — an important pastime in baseball — more difficult. There was a fear Mark McGuire, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmiero, et al, were cheapening cherished numbers.

And third: PEDs are dangerous. They not only presented a fairness dilemma for those who saw using them as cheating but also made players choose if they wanted to risk their long-term health to keep up.

So now with a few years’ perspective, I think we can say No. 1 was probably an unfounded concern. More fans were turned on by the offensive explosion than driven away by a feeling something unfair was going on. If anything, steroids created new villains to root against, and everyone loves to have those.

The second thing did happen, as evidenced by the lack of reaction when Bonds passed Hank Aaron on the home run list, Alex Rodriguez joined the 600 club and others reached even the 500 mark. More recently, I felt like there wasn’t as much fanfare as one might expect for Albert Pujols (who I believe is generally regarded as being free of PED speculation) when he hit his 600th home run, and it’s easy to conclude that accomplishment wasn't cheapened by the cheaters who came before him.

(Along those same lines, did you remember Jim Thome hit more than 600 homers? I didn’t.)

The juiced ball and the juiced player situations diverge at No. 3. Nobody’s health is at risk if the ball is just wound tighter or whatever, so that’s a variable we need not consider.

If everyone is using the same ball, No. 1 isn’t really in play either.

That leaves us with No. 2, and I’m still conflicted a bit.

RELATED: Reds beat Brewers in home run derby

I was a young baseball fan when the steroid era started. During that time, it seemed to me home runs went from a special treat — a big surprise if one happened during a game I was watching — to fairly commonplace over the course of the 1990s.

I think something was lost there. Home runs aren’t as special as they once were.

But it’s been that way for a long time now.

The numbers really can’t be fixed.

Maybe juicing the ball can at least give this generation a better chance to knock some of the steroid guys off their pedestal.

I like offense just like anyone else. I also appreciate a good pitcher’s duel.

While I am concerned about the lack of action, as defined by the ball being put in play, pace of play is a much larger one. If we fix that by making pitchers work faster and preventing hitters from stepping out of the box for no reason, the rest is gravy as far as I’m concerned.

RELATED: MLB commissioner concerned about pace of play, planning potential changes

I hope the all-or-nothing (home run, walk or strikeout) trend halts at some point, but there’s no doubt most people are here to see power on display, whether that is being wielded by a bat or an arm.

At the end of the day, Scooter Gennett’s four-home run game was pretty cool, wasn’t it?

Maybe that’s all that matters…