The pitch clock and new strike zone could have company among changes in Major League Baseball’s near future. There may be a new ball, too.
Worry not, traditionalists. It’s still round. It’s still between 5 and 5¼ ounces. It’s just going to be a whole lot stickier and a lot less muddy.
MLB has commissioned Rawlings, its official manufacturer, to produce a ball with natural tack on the leather in hopes of eliminating the need for pine tar, sunscreen and rosin, or any other foreign substances whose use in recent years has blurred the legal-illegal line, sources familiar with the project told Yahoo Sports. The balls also would not need a pregame polish of Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud, the New Jersey-harvested muck that for decades has taken the sheen off the pearls that come out of the box.
“We think we’re close now,” Mike Thompson, an executive vice president at Rawlings, told Yahoo Sports. “We’re just waiting for MLB to give us the go-ahead on when they want it.”
This will mark Version 2.0 of the enhanced-grip project. In early November, boxes of bright-white baseballs showed up across team complexes throughout the Phoenix area. The Arizona Fall League turned into a testing ground for the tacky balls, first during workouts and then for two days’ worth of games.
At first glance, the balls were disconcerting to some, more due to their hue than feel. Bright-white baseballs do not exist in organized baseball. Usually a clubhouse attendant ensures they’ve received a nice slathering of the rubbing mud to rid them of any factory slickness.
Not the test ball.
“You pick it up,” said Michael Kopech, the Chicago White Sox prospect who was the AFL’s best pitcher, “and you thought somebody forgot to do their job.”
Kopech soon realized the balls were experimental. His exposure was limited to workouts. Kopech didn’t pitch Nov. 8 or 9, when the balls were put into live AFL games so MLB could gather feedback on the issues it presented.
“Pitching with anything different than something you’re used to takes getting used to,” said Kansas City Royals prospect Josh Staumont, who started one of the tacky-ball games and whose fastball, like Kopech’s, has reached triple digits. “My job is to stand on a piece of dirt and throw something. And half of that job entails working with a certain type of ball. But it’s a game of adjustments, so maybe it’s something that will be more beneficial in the long term than the short. Nobody in baseball likes change, though.”
Staumont’s verdict: “I really didn’t notice a difference. But at the same time, it’s the last thing you’re trying to focus on. Personally, I don’t have much of an issue with it, so long as we’ve got enough time to get introduced to it.”
MLB’s desire to go forward with the new ball depends on Rawlings’ ability to manufacture one with a stickiness that lasts. The biggest complaint about the Fall League balls was that the extra grip, which Rawlings sprayed on to the leather that wraps the ball, wore off too quickly.
Now, Thompson said, Rawlings is trying multiple methods to figure out what suits MLB best.
“It requires a lot of R&D and time and testing to land where we want to be,” he said. “We’ve got several formulations that are being tanned into the leather, and there’s another process where we’re spraying it on the leather. We’re trying to see which gives us the best outcome.”
The league hopes the best outcome is the consistent enforcement of Rule 8.02, which is meant to outlaw pitchers from doctoring balls but has seen lax implementation barring all but the most egregious cases. Pine tar, once a must-have in every pitcher’s arsenal, has been usurped by the unlikely combination of BullFrog sunscreen and rosin that creates the glue-like substance at which so many pitchers habitually dab during a game. While an unspoken agreement has formed – pitchers believe the concoction helps prevent pitches from getting away and potentially hurting batters, an argument hitters tend to buy – MLB understands the trouble of suspending Michael Pineda for 10 games while others are plenty profligate in their use.
At earliest, the balls would show up in the major leagues in 2018, though that may be a bit optimistic as well. During a media appearance last week, commissioner Rob Manfred talked about making decisions with data – like pushing for the pitch clock or raised strike zone that the league could impose before the 2018 season should the union continue to push back against the changes – and two days’ worth of information isn’t enough.
Then, of course, there are the questions of unintended consequences. Will hitters see the ball better because it’s bright white? Will the ball’s enhanced grip affect not just pitchers but infielders or outfielders – and maybe for the worse?
These should be answered by another round of testing, And Rawlings is confident that model, whether it comes from a heavier-duty spray or a product rolled into the leather, will be game ready and could be the norm across baseball in a short amount of time, from the major leagues all the way down to first-year kid-pitch.
“It’ll live up to what they want when they want it,” Thompson said. “We’ll have a ball ready for them.”