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Peter Abraham | On Baseball

Is a better baseball the best solution for MLB’s sticky situation? Hirokazu Sawamura thinks it might be

Hirokazu Sawamura doesn't think the checking of pitchers is necessary, and an improved baseball - like those used in Japan and South Korea - is a better solution.
Hirokazu Sawamura doesn't think the checking of pitchers is necessary, and an improved baseball - like those used in Japan and South Korea - is a better solution.Julio Aguilar/Getty

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Red Sox righthander Hirokazu Sawamura said he felt “like a criminal” on Tuesday night after the umpires checked his cap and glove for illegal substances during a taut game against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“I understand there’s a problem now in baseball,” Sawamura said Wednesday during a 10-minute conversation aided by his interpreter, Yutaro Yamaguchi. “But it doesn’t seem necessary to make the umpires check every pitcher.”

In his mind there’s a much easier way to clean up the game.

Make a better baseball.

In Japan and South Korea, players use Mizuno baseballs manufactured with a tacky cover. There’s no reason to use pine tar, sunscreen, or even rosin to get a better grip.

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“The ball that comes out of the box is ready to use,” Sawamura said. “The MLB ball is slick. That has been the case for a long time. Even in Japan, we knew this was an issue.”

Sawamura said he’s been able to throw the MLB baseball, made by Rawlings, without resorting to any substances. But he is apparently an outlier given MLB’s public crackdown.

Sawamura recently showed some teammates a few Japanese baseballs he had.

“Everybody liked them,” he said. “I can’t say for sure this would be the best solution. But it’s worth a try.”

Major League Baseball has taken steps down the path to improving the ball. Players were given experimental baseballs during spring training 2019 that had a tacky cover. They weren’t popular, especially with hitters, and teams were hesitant to use them in workouts.

MLB is working with Rawlings to get it right. But that process could take several years and require both hitters and pitchers buying in.

Tom Hallion, left, makes Tampa Bay pitcher Diego Castillo change his cap during the ninth inning of Wednesday's game.
Tom Hallion, left, makes Tampa Bay pitcher Diego Castillo change his cap during the ninth inning of Wednesday's game.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

“Players here have been using the same baseball for a long, long time,” Sawamura said. “It will be different for them and the pressure on their arms. They’ll need time to get used to it. It might take a while to adapt.”

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Given how baseball has experimented with rules changes in the minors, a new ball might get the same sort of trial run before being used in the majors.

“From what I’ve gathered MLB has worked really hard to try and find the perfect ball that has some tackiness to it,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “They haven’t quite found it yet.

“I would be confident, with all the hoopla this has caused, that they’re going to work really hard by 2022 to have something in place where it’s appeasing to both sides, the hitter and the pitcher.”

It does seem odd that with all the technical advances in the game over the last five years, the baseball itself remains stuck in the past.

Garrett Richards could use something new. He couldn’t get through two innings on Wednesday, giving up five runs in an 8-2 loss against the Rays.

In three starts since MLB made its plans public, Richards has allowed 15 runs on 21 hits over 11 innings.

As he adapts to a new ball and a new league after nine seasons in Japan, Sawamura is succeeding. He has a 2.79 earned run average in 27 appearances with the Red Sox, striking out 37 in 29 innings.

He has gradually earned the trust of manager Alex Cora and more high-leverage opportunities.

“I’m enjoying everything about it, especially that we are in first place,” Sawamura said. “Sometimes I have a bad outing, but I understand this is the major leagues.

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“My velocity has been going up. I am trying to attack the strike zone. I don’t have any fear in doing that. I have a lot of respect for the Japanese players who came here before now that I have experienced it myself.”

Hirokazu Sawamura has a 2.79 earned run average in 27 appearances with the Red Sox this season.
Hirokazu Sawamura has a 2.79 earned run average in 27 appearances with the Red Sox this season.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Sawamura also has learned his way around Boston. Shinichiro Uchikubo, one of the team’s massage therapists, recommended a Japanese restaurant in Cambridge that he frequents.

“In Japan, baseball was my job,” Sawamura said. “Here I am trying to enjoy the moment. I’m having more fun.”


Peter Abraham can be reached at peter.abraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.