In Triple A this year, it’s a whole new ballgame. A longtime scout noted earlier that Michael Chavis hit a ball further at McCoy Stadium than any he’d ever seen hit in Pawtucket.
The blast wasn’t just a product of the prodigious power of the Red Sox rookie, however. It also reflected a change in the ball being used this year in the International and Pacific Coast Leagues, one that was manufactured by the same process as the big league ball.
The new ball has resulted in a shocking offensive surge. During the cold-weather start of the season, offense typically is down to start the year — a fact reinforced by the fact that of the eight full-season minor league levels in Double A and below, seven have seen lower homer rates to this point in 2019 than they had in 2018.
That pattern makes the numbers coming from Triple A – and, in particular, the International League – shocking. Runs in the International League are up 24.8 percent per game, while the rate of homers per plate appearances is up from roughly one every 46 plate appearances in 2018 to one for every 31 plate appearances this year — an increase of almost 50 percent despite the cold spring.
“‘Drastic’ is the word you have to use,” said International League president Randy Mobley. “In my opinion, it’s changed the game, the International League in particular.”
“When you say is it a completely unrecognizable game, to me, it almost is,” said PawSox play-by-play announcer Josh Maurer. “Not to say that it’s a different sport, but it’s not apples-to-apples from a previous year.”
Smoltz a landmark
John Smoltz’s tenure with the Red Sox was brief, yet in a way, its legacy is being felt 10 years later in the decision to change the Triple-A ball.
In 2009, the Red Sox signed Smoltz at a time when he was recovering from labrum surgery with the expectation that he’d return to the big leagues after a lengthy rehab assignment in the minors. Early that June, he arrived in Pawtucket – but the future Hall of Famer established a condition before he took the mound.
He would not pitch using the International League ball. He’d arrived in Pawtucket with a few dozen big league balls, and he insisted he had to use them in his game.
Smoltz believed the difference in the International League ball and one used in the big leagues was meaningful. Insofar as he was preparing to pitch in big league games, he wanted to replicate as many big league conditions as possible.
“He wasn’t going to pitch unless he could use the major league baseball, which was an issue,” recalled Mobley. “It really brought this whole issue to the forefront.”
As a result of the stance of Smoltz, Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball implemented a rule that big league pitchers on rehab assignments could use big league balls, which would be swapped into the game when such pitchers were on the mound. Yet the point raised by Smoltz pointed to a broader issue. If a big leaguer wanted to prepare for his craft by using a big league ball, why wouldn’t teams want all of their minor leaguers to do the same thing?
This year, MLB decided to do just that — at least for its Triple-A players. Whereas the Rawlings balls in the big leagues had been manufactured in Costa Rica while those throughout the minors were manufactured in China, before this season, MLB decided that the two Triple-A leagues, the International League and Pacific Coast League, would start using the same Costa Rica-manufactured balls as the big leagues. The only difference is that the Triple-A balls are stamped with the name of their leagues and commissioners, as opposed to the big league variant, which features Rob Manfred’s signature as well as the MLB logo in addition to the league’s title.
Defining the difference
Players and minor league officials describe the minor league ball as less tightly wound than its big league counterpart. Its seams are higher. The higher quality of leather on the big league ball feels smoother than the minor league one. Some hitters believe that the big league ball is brighter and thus easier to see.
All of those distinctions have been boons to hitters as Triple A has transitioned to the big league ball this year. The ball is easier to see in order to barrel, and it flies further. Maurer noted that fielders are backpedaling as they catch nearly every flyball. The ball is flying farther than they’ve learned to expect.
Of course, there’s benefit to that on a couple of fronts. First, it means that minor league players, and especially pitchers, are getting a chance to develop using the same ball that they’ll use in big league games, getting a feel for the seams and texture of the big league ball.
Moreover, the increased ball flight confronts pitchers with the reality that they’ll face at the big league level. Flyballs are dangerous in the big leagues, and now that danger is felt by pitchers working in the highest level of the minors. They’re getting an early lesson in the value of getting swings-and-misses or groundballs; there’s no longer a massive disparity between the value of certain flyball-prone pitch types (the classic circle-change and cutter or a running two-seam fastball without depth) in Triple A and the big leagues.
“The pitchers have all come in and said, ‘It’s about time. We get to practice with the thing we’re going to have to use to earn a living,’” said Brian Bannister, Red Sox VP of pitching development. “At the same time, as they’re seeing the ball fly a little further, they’re saying, ‘Wait a second…’ You pitch a little differently because the feedback is different.”
Evaluations, too, may be better. There were crafty Triple-A pitchers who succeeded on the basis of command rather than stuff, in part because they limited the damage caused by contact in a way that might be unrealistic in the big leagues. No longer.
PawSox righthander Mike Shawaryn has adapted his mix to minimize homer-vulnerable contact. He’s relied more heavily on a two-seamer (with depth), helping him to elevate his groundball rate from 34.0 percent last year in Pawtucket to 48.6 percent this year, with his homer rate going from 1.5 to 1.1 per nine innings. He’s adjusting in a way that bodes well for his future big league success.
Meanwhile, players whose stock in the minors was suppressed by long flyball outs can be gauged somewhat more accurately now. A player like Travis Shaw, who hit just five homers in 77 Triple-A games in 2015 before exploding for 13 longballs in 65 big league games after a midyear callup that season, is now less likely to experience such an unexpected power explosion at the game’s highest level.
Having the same ball in the minors – especially the top level of the minors – as the big leagues seems so obvious as to raise the question of why it hadn’t happened decades earlier. Simply put, minor league baseball used cheaper balls.
The average cost of a dozen big league balls, according to a Minor League Baseball spokesman, is $102.50; a dozen of the balls used this year in Double A and below is $49.15. an average Triple-A team, the same spokesman said, might use about 900 dozen balls in a season – meaning an annual cost difference of approximately $48,000 for one team’s baseballs.
(The PawSox used 102 dozen gameballs in 10 April games. While the Red Sox assume two-thirds of the cost of balls used in Triple A and the PawSox pick up the remaining one-third, the projected price differential of roughly $12,000 for the Triple-A club is a meaningful one for a minor league franchise.)
Now, Triple-A and big league organizations are shelling out for the better ball — but it appears that pitchers are paying the biggest price. But if that helps them to better prepare for the big leagues, it’s a short-term cost that may be paid off when they arrive at the game’s highest level.