New ‘Enhanced Grip’ Baseball Raising Concerns, Strikeouts in Double-A Southern League

Image credit: Marlins lefthander Dax Fulton (Cliff Welch/Getty Images)

Back in March, Major League Baseball sent a memo to club executives announcing the Double-A Southern League would use a prototype “enhanced grip” baseball for the first half of the season as part of experimental rules changes across the minor leagues.

MLB briefly experimented with pre-tacked baseballs at Triple-A in 2021 and Double-A in 2022, as well as in the Arizona Fall League, but none were used for long. This marked the first time a minor league would use one, pre-tacked ball for as a long as a half a season. The results of the experiment would have far-reaching implications for the future of what ball the game is played with.

One month into the Southern League season, the prototype ball has changed the way the game is being played. It’s just not in the way MLB hoped.

Strikeouts, walks and wild pitches are up significantly in the Southern League this season with the new enhanced grip baseballs, largely because of the extreme movement the balls are generating. Spin rates on four-seam fastballs have increased and the amount of carry on four-seamers has jumped significantly, making the ball simultaneously more difficult for pitchers to control and for hitters to make contact against.

“We’ve noticed that there has been more carry on the ball,” said Montgomery manager Morgan Ensberg in the Rays organization. “We will get some guys up to 26 inches of carry, which is pretty amazing. That’s a shocking number.”

Through the end of April, the number of walks per nine innings had increased 16%, strikeouts per nine had increased 10% and wild pitches per nine had increased 23% in the Southern League compared to April 2022. Compared to other Double-A leagues this season, the Southern League had the highest walk rate by a slight margin and the highest strikeout and wild pitch rates by wide margins. It also had the highest rate of hit batters.










April 2022








April 2023







Through April 30
Source: MLB Research

2023 BB/9 K/9 WP/9 HBP/9
Eastern League 4.62 9.61 0.60 0.61
Southern League 4.70 11.52 0.98 0.73
Texas League 4.45 10.39 0.73 0.66

Through April 30
Source: MLB Research

With the ball moving more, the Southern League batting average in April dropped 11 points, from .240 to .229, compared to April 2022.

“The ball has been pretty popular among pitchers,” said Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations. “Generally they’ve reported positive, that they like using it.

“The issue that we’ve seen so far is that our strikeout rate in the Southern League is elevated relative to the other Double-A leagues, and we think that it’s attributable largely to the use of that grippier ball.

“You’re trying to thread a needle here where you give pitchers better grip without making the ball much easier to spin, which is a tricky thing to do. We’re going to continue to work at it and see if we can find something that gives us the benefits without some of the downside.”

The enhanced grip baseballs are pre-tacked with a substance made by the materials science company Dow, formerly known as Dow Chemical. The ingredients and chemical makeup of the substance are proprietary.

The balls will be used in the Southern League through July 13. After that date, the league will return to using standard major league balls rubbed with mud from the Delaware River. MLB will compare the results from the two halves after the season.

Even to the touch, the enhanced grip baseball is noticeably different from a standard major league baseball.

“The whole thing is sticky,” Ensberg said. “When we had the regular muddied up balls, it didn’t feel like that at all. What was happening was pitchers would use rosin or sunscreen I suppose and their fingers would be sticky, versus the ball being sticky. It is noticeable that the entire ball is sticky.”

“When you feel the baseball, the texture and everything, it’s so completely different than what we’re accustomed to,” added Birmingham manager Lorenzo Bundy in the White Sox system. “It’s almost, like, a rough texture. It helps with the grip and I think it probably helps spinning the baseball.”

Indeed, spin rates are up in the Southern League this season. Of the 63 pitchers who have thrown at least 30 four-seam fastballs in the league, 51 have seen increases in their spin rates compared to last year, according to league pitch data acquired by Baseball America. Thirty-one of the 63 pitchers, or just under half, have seen an average increase of more than 100 rpms, a significant uptick.

The biggest difference in how the ball acts can be seen in how much more induced vertical break, or carry, pitchers are getting on their four-seam fastballs.

Of the 63 pitchers, 51 have also increased the amount of carry on their four-seam fastballs from last year, according to the league pitch data.

The amount of those increases is what is most notable. According to officials from three teams who spoke to BA on the condition of anonymity, a pitcher can reasonably add up to two inches of carry on his four-seam fastball by making physical changes such as altering his release point, arm path or grip. Adding between 2-4 inches is significant and rare. 

In the Southern League, the 51 pitchers who have seen an increase are averaging more than two inches of additional carry this season. Sixteen pitchers—or more than a quarter of the total sample of 63—are averaging more than three inches of additional carry.

Angels righthander Coleman Crow is averaging seven more inches of carry compared to last year. Braves righthander Trey Riley is averaging an additional five. Marlins lefthander Dax Fulton, Reds righthander Jake Wong and Angels lefthander Kolton Ingram are all averaging at least four inches more.

Reds lefthander Andrew Abbott represents a particularly notable case of how much added carry pitchers are able to generate with the enhanced grip ball. 

Abbott averaged 17 inches of carry on his four-seam fastball while pitching for Chattanooga in the Southern League last season. With the new pre-tacked ball this season, he jumped to an average of 20 inches of carry in three starts before being promoted to Triple-A.

In his first start at Triple-A Louisville, where the standard major league ball is used, Abbott dropped back down to an average of 16 inches of carry.

In all, 10 out of the 63 qualifying pitchers in the Southern League are averaging more than 21 inches of carry on their four-seam fastballs this season. No pitcher in the major leagues is averaging more than 20.8, according to Baseball Savant.

“As hitters it’s almost ridiculous,” one Southern League position player wrote in a Twitter message to reporters last week. “We have pitchers with average stuff throwing it like it’s a plus pitch. Four-seam fastballs middle-middle aren’t getting touched because of the huge increase in (carry). As players we feel we don’t have much say, but this is messing with guys’ careers, especially being in Double-A.”

The cumulative effect of the ball has been counter to what MLB has tried to accomplish with the rest of its rules changes. At a time when the league office is trying to increase offense and action, the pre-tacked ball has correlated with an increase in walks, strikeouts and wild pitches in the Southern League while batting averages have dropped.

“That’s obviously not a desired outcome,” Sword said. “But this has been, for years now, an iterative process where we go try something, see how it works and then go back in the lab, tweak it, try again, and we’re going to keep at it.”

Aside from gameplay, the new ball has raised concerns about its effects on player evaluation and development.

In terms of player evaluation, teams are struggling to figure out how much a pitcher’s increased spin rates and/or carry are signs of real improvement as opposed to just a function of the ball.

“I think where the tough part is going to come is when we get back to the (normal ball), how to evaluate our guys,” Bundy said. “Especially with the metrics and the numbers on the spin rates, because it’s going to change. A lot of these numbers are a lot higher than what they were when we were using the other baseball. So now it comes down to, how do we evaluate our players for what we saw for however long we used this ball and what we see for the rest of the season.”

The larger concern is in player development. If a pitcher has a stint in the Southern League during the first half of this season, he will be forced to use a different ball at each of the top three levels of the minors. High-A uses the standard minor league ball, the Southern League in Double-A is using the pre-tacked, prototype ball and Triple-A uses the standard major league ball. 

Each ball has unique characteristics and is different to the touch.

“Some guys are gonna move pretty fast and move from A-ball to Double-A to Triple-A and all of the sudden, everywhere they go they’ve got a different type of baseball they have to get used to,” Bundy said. “I don’t know how fair that is to the young men that are trying to establish their careers and get to the big leagues.”

Sword acknowledged the effects of the prototype ball on player development, as well as the rules changes as a whole.

“The importance of development is another priority that we weigh when we make these decisions,” Sword said. “ … We try not to ask players and clubs to do anything that does not have a serious chance of one day being in the big leagues. We have a proven track record of taking what works to the big league level and we’re going to try to continue to do that. But we’re very sensitive to the effect on players and player development staff of all of these tests because everybody’s got a job to do, and we understand that.”

In the interim, managers, pitchers, hitters and player development officials are trying to navigate the ball and its effects on the Southern League. Beyond the ball itself, the lack of consistency and the way it was implemented has left some in the league frustrated.

“I understand there is an experimental part of it from MLB and this and that,” Bundy said. “But even when this season started, we didn’t have a whole lot of time to use those baseballs in spring training. It’s just been a constant adjustment of working with a different ball. I understand why we have to do it. Do I really like it? That would be a different conversation.”

J.J. Cooper and Geoff Pontes contributed research to this story.

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