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MiLB 2019 Preview: New Year, New Baseballs

No matter whether a player is in the Gulf Coast League or the National League, they will be playing with a Rawlings baseball. It’s the official baseball of both the major and minors leagues.

But those two balls are very different.

The major league ball has smaller seams and better quality leather. The minor league ball has larger seams and by accounts of numerous players, does not carry as far when hit. The tolerances for minor league balls are greater and the core components specifications are a little different. The two balls are actually made in two very different manufacturing facilities as well. The traditional minor league balls being built in China while the MLB balls are built in a Rawlings-owned and operated factory in Costa Rica.

But this year that will change. This season Triple-A baseball will use MLB balls. Major League Baseball made the request last summer to make the switch to bring uniformity to the highest level of the minors. The ball will carry the stamp of the Pacific Coast League (with the signature of PCL president Branch Rickey) or the International League (with the signature of IL president Randy Mobley) and it will carry Minor League Baseball’s logo. But other than that different stamp, it will be identical to the MLB ball.

“It makes sense. The guys closest to the big leagues, (the major leagues) want them using the same ball,” said Tim Brunswick, MiLB vice president of business and baseball operations.

That switch leads to an obvious question. Why is baseball not using the same ball throughout professional baseball so that every pro player is using the same equipment?

The simplest reason is cost. The Triple-A teams and MLB will share the increased cost of the switch–the MLB balls cost almost twice as much as the minor league balls running close to $100 a dozen compared to $50 a dozen for the minor league balls at wholesale (it costs nearly $200 if a fan wanted to purchase a dozen MLB balls, while a dozen MiLB balls costs $140 at retail).

The typical minor league team uses between 7,000 and 10,000 baseballs a season, so even just switching Triple-A baseball to MLB balls will increase the costs for baseball as a whole by roughly $1 million.

Cost is the overriding reason that the MLB ball isn’t being used throughout the minors and likely won’t anytime soon. Switching all of the minors would cost around $35,000 per full-season club and $17,500 per short-season club. So moving just full season teams to MLB balls could cost an estimated $4.2 million. Moving all minor league teams to MLB balls would cost more than $6 million in additional ball costs a year.

But there is another deterrent to switch all of the minor leagues to the MLB ball. The MLB ball is designed to the best baseball Rawlings can make. Rawlings reserves its best leather and other components for the MLB balls, which one of the reasons it costs nearly twice as much. Switching all the minors to the better ball would require Rawlings produce an additional 1.5 million MLB-caliber balls. Rawlings would need a significant amount of lead time to get to the point where they would be capable of producing anywhere close to that many.

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“We’ll eventually get there. But getting enough sewers, and we have to have the hide supply,” Rawlings chief marketing officer Mike Thompson said. “We have to figure out every piece of labor component. It’s a lot of baseballs. We’ll start with Triple-A. I can see, now this is me, not Minor League or Major League Baseball (saying this), but I can see Double-A following. I’m not sure they ever will want to run it (across all minor league levels).”

So it’s possible before long that the major league ball will move down to Double-A as well, but it’s unlikely we’ll see an MLB-caliber ball in the lower levels of the minors anytime soon.

The change will likely result in significantly increased offensive numbers in Triple-A. For years, pitchers and hitters have believed that the MLB baseball is more lively than the MiLB ball. In fact, rehabbing MLB pitchers have sometimes opted to use MiLB balls, even though they have the option of using MLB balls, because they feel like it gives them additional margin for error. The western half of the Pacific Coast League is already considered quite friendly to hitters, so the addition of a livelier baseball to a league that already had four teams post team ERAs above 5.00 last season should be interesting to watch.

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