Image credit: (Photo by Zach Lucy/Four Seam)
The Triple-A leagues will continue to use the major league baseball in 2021, while Double-A and below will use the less-lively minor league ball.
But the news MLB is attempting to reduce the liveliness of the ball for 2021 could lead to some interesting side effects in Triple-A. Assuming MLB’s attempts to deaden the ball are effective, we’re in for a wild time in Triple-A.
We at Baseball America have been writing about the differences between the minor league ball and the major league ball for several years. MLB pitchers would sometimes decline to use the MLB ball in minor league rehab assignments because they knew the minor league ball didn’t fly as far.
In 2019, when Triple-A began using major league balls instead of minor league balls, it set off an offensive explosion.
From 2001-2018, the most home runs any Triple-A team hit in a season was 200 (Fresno, 2017). In 2019, 15 of the 30 Triple-A teams hit 200 or more home runs. El Paso hit 258. Tulsa led all non-Triple-A teams with 169 home runs.
Here’s where 2021 could get a little odd.
The coronavirus pandemic led to the minor league season being suspended in late March, just before the season was set to begin. That meant minor league teams had already purchased their allotment of baseballs for 2020 (the cost of baseballs is shared between the minor league team and the MLB club it is affiliated with). With no season, those balls went unused.
Some MLB teams asked the minor league clubs to ship them the baseballs. In many cases, those ended up being the baseballs used at alternate training sites in 2020.
But other teams were not asked to ship back their baseballs. They have been sitting in closets at minor league ballparks waiting for baseball to return.
As a reasonable cost-saving measure, MLB and the minor league teams’ plan is to use up any stock of 2020 baseballs first. Once that ball supply is exhausted, they will shift to using 2021 balls. In Double-A and below, all that means is some baseballs will have the old stamps on them and some will have the new stamps.
But the MLB ball’s construction has changed, which means the Triple-A ball made for 2021 will be different than one made for 2020.
Some teams may have months of 2020 baseballs ready to use. Others need to order baseballs right away. Rawlings can be expected to have remaining 2020 stock as well—no games meant no teams had to re-up for more balls during the season.
But eventually, Rawlings will be shipping 2021 balls, which means pitchers and hitters in Triple-A will know with one glance who is in for a good day. If they see Pacific Coast League president Branch Rickey, International League president Randy Mobley or ex-Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner’s signature on a baseball, signifying it’s a 2020 ball, it’s going to be a fun day for hitters. If it’s a 2021 ball, then pitchers will have a reason to smile.