Image credit: (Photo by Jill Weisleder/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
MESA, Ariz. — Before the Arizona Fall League began, players were informed over Zoom that the baseballs they’d be using would differ between the first and second halves of the season. Over the first three weeks, they’d use the standard-issue baseballs from the minor league regular season, rubbed with the same mud as always.
With the first half in the books, the league has switched over to a baseball that comes with sticky substances already applied. The change is part of an experiment—which began during the Final Stretch of the Triple-A season—to find a baseball which gives pitchers the kind of grip they desire without having to use foreign substances.
“We were all down for it because, I mean, these baseballs have been rubbed with the same rubbing mud from one river—the same guy using the same rub—forever,” Mesa reliever and A’s prospect Brock Whittlesey said. “And then it was like, ‘Oh, let’s try something new with the baseballs,’ and we’re all for some change in the baseball.”
The aim of this experiment, of course, is to find a midway point between a ball completely free of any surface to enhance a pitcher’s grip—and thus his command and control—and one that is not so thoroughly affected by other substances that pitchers can crank spin rates to extreme levels.
The sport cracked down this year on the use of foreign substances—specifically a grip-enhancer called Spider Tack—beginning on June 21. Pitchers had their hats, belts and gloves checked often after an inning (in one instance, a pitcher from Triple-A Durham was checked after an appearance in which he did not throw a pitch) by an umpire or umpires who meet them before they reach their dugout. If a player was found to be in violation, he would be suspended for 10 games.
The situation requires some nuance. The levels to which pitchers had been doctoring baseballs had reached the point where it was putting hitters at severe disadvantages. Disallowing any and all grip-enhancers, however, would greatly affect pitchers’ command and control, which could put hitters in harm’s way.
The league, then, is trying to thread the needle and find a solution which leaves everybody happy. The first step is the pre-tacked baseballs. The substance, pitchers say, is applied mostly on and around the seams of the baseball, which leaves them more white than red and gives the ball a drier feel than the balls they used in the first half of the season.
“I’d say the new prototype one is very close to what everybody likes,” Whittlesey said. “I think from what I’ve seen and heard everybody’s liking the new ones a little bit more.”
Others in the league say they’ve found issues with the consistency with which the sticky substance has been applied. There’s an incongruity from ball to ball, and a pitcher who gets a ball without the right amount may be at a disadvantage once he gets on the mound.
“At first, I thought just while playing catch it was pretty good, but we had some issues with it the last couple days in the game,” Salt River pitching coach Ken Knudson, who works in the Mets organization, said. “It seems to be how much was put on … We had a pitcher who’s primarily a breaking ball pitcher who said he couldn’t throw (his breaking ball with the new baseballs). So instead of throwing 50% breaking balls, he threw three out of 50 (pitches).
“So, it seems like it’s gone from being OK during catch play (but) during games a couple of times (the balls have been) really slippery and guys have struggled with them. I don’t know if it’s the difference in the weather or what are some of the issues with it, but I would say, generally speaking, it’s less than positive.”
The Arizona Fall League in recent years has been the testing ground for all kinds of rules experiments. From pitch clocks to automatic ball-strike systems to larger bases, the AFL is one of the places where the kinks get worked out before the changes are either scrapped or implemented at other levels of the minor leagues. The pre-tacked baseballs are no different. This is one of the first steps that is likely to go through a series of adjustments before it’s ready for prime time.
“They’re making the right steps to try to come up with a universal thing for guys to use, because nobody wants to go out there and have no grip on the ball,” Salt River righthander and D-backs prospect Slade Cecconi said. “Whether you’re a hitter or a pitcher, because then the hitter’s got no idea where it’s going and the pitcher’s got no idea where it’s going, so it’s definitely a step in the right direction. I like it and I’m excited to see what they come up with.”