Baseballs are flying in the major leagues this season. Due to a few irregularities on the outer surface of the ball, everything hit in the air is carrying much farther, all else being equal, than at any point in the game’s history. Home runs are up 15% from 2018 and hitters are on pace to shatter the league’s record for dingers in a season.
As many of you also know, Triple-A teams are playing with the same ball. Previously, all minor league teams used a different, less expensive model, one with a flight pattern that more closely resembles the pre-2015 major league pelota. This year, while all other levels still play with the cheaper model, Triple-A teams are using the big league ball. As you’d expect, the home run rates from Double-A on down look very similar to how they did last year. As you’d also expect, the Triple-A home run rate has exploded:
|Pacific Coast League||1.0||1.5|
|Florida State League||0.6||0.6|
|South Atlantic League||0.7||0.7|
Much has been written about the ball this year: why it’s different, how different it is, how it’s playing in Triple-A, how the league is addressing the controversy, whether or not this is any good for the sport. There seems to be a gap in there though: How are teams themselves responding to the upheaval generated by the ball?
In some sense, the response has been relatively muted. As the year has gone on, we’ve seen individual players like Justin Verlander and retired pitcher Brandon McCarthy express frustration. Other pitchers have clearly noticed, and some of them have been snarky on Twitter, but hurlers have by and large gritted their teeth and kept their heads down.
Similarly, if any teams have expressed concern to the league, they’ve done so very quietly. There’s no outward evidence of any support or derision toward the ball, and front offices have appeared mostly to have noticed and tried to adjust on the fly. In one early-season conversation with a baseball operations analyst, I asked if he or anyone with the team was doing any testing on the ball; he said no, and that he was just waiting for the next Rob Arthur article like everybody else.
In part, that may be because the ball hasn’t redirected the game’s trajectory much. Generally speaking, the trends exacerbated by the 2019 ball — more homers, fewer stolen base attempts, and so on — are just an extension of where the game was already heading. While this year’s ball is extreme, we’ve seen several alterations to the ball’s drag since 2015, most of which have boosted home run totals. Additionally, teams have been trying to get their personnel to hit more balls in the air for years now. The new ball may reward that approach more now than in previous seasons, but it hasn’t significantly altered how hitters go about their work.
More interesting is how teams are coping at the Triple-A level, where we’re seeing a much more dramatic change in gameplay. Jeff Manto, Baltimore’s Coordinator of Minor League Hitting, has noticed that batters are responding to the obvious incentives right now: “The hitters know what’s going on. They all see the ball flying and they want to be part of it. The approach right now is to let it fly.”
That’s resulted in a lot of very similar looking swings. “It’s hard to get guys to be pure mechanical hitters right now,” says Manto. “It’s a high risk, high reward swing, and guys are going for it. There’s certainly no more two-strike swing anymore.” For Manto, his concern is not so much that hitters are trying to put the ball in the air more often. Rather, it’s that the swing equips hitters to only do one thing — and future ball adjustments may leave them unprepared for a more normal home run environment. “The ability to hit every type of pitch and pitcher, that’s what makes a great hitter. At some point the ball’s going to come back to normal.”
In one sense, the ball has actually been helpful for teams. One executive I spoke with said it’s now easier to project a player’s raw power. “You would see players get called up from the minors and show much more power in the major leagues,” he said. “Batting practice is (one) way to evaluate a player’s raw power and I would have to mentally add 10-15 feet to a ball’s distance prior to the switch to the major league ball.”
One surprise was that pushback on the ball was basically a partisan issue. “I’m a pitching coach so you can imagine how I feel about today’s baseball,” said one minor league coach who preferred not to elaborate from there. While most of those I spoke with guessed that the ball would eventually return to a more traditional flight pattern, the hitters didn’t seem to be in any hurry: “You know, as a hitter, I love seeing the ball fly out of the ballpark,” said Manto, who played nine years in the big leagues as an infielder.
Clubs are also responding by handling Triple-A a bit differently as a developmental level. Some organizations already make limited use of Triple-A as a proving ground, preferring to use that team as a taxi squad for the big league club and a home for quad-A type prospects. But a few teams seem to be leery of letting their struggling pitchers take too many lumps.
This is especially significant for teams with affiliates in the Pacific Coast League, where half the circuit either plays at altitude, in a bandbox, or both. The Mariners, for example, sent struggling starters Justus Sheffield and Nabil Crismatt back to Double-A instead of letting them get whacked around in Tacoma, and have promoted a couple of pitchers directly from Arkansas to the big league club this season. The Nationals also regularly shuttle arms from Double-A to the majors, though the logistical hurdles of having their Triple-A team 3,000 miles away in Fresno has influenced that pattern as well.
Still, you can expect this trend to accelerate in future seasons. A National League analyst said that he expects any major shifts in how teams use their Triple-A affiliates to become more apparent next season. “This year, guys got their assignments before we knew something was different with the ball,” he explained. “It’s hard to send a guy back to Double-A just for that, but next year, you might see more arms jump from Double-A to the majors.”
For this analyst, the ball has made it tougher to evaluate the level. “You get guys where there are no major changes in their peripherals, and they’re doubling their home run totals. How do you evaluate that?”
Others just wanted a bit more predictability. “The biggest thing I would prefer would be to avoid large fluctuations in changes to how the ball acts,” said an American League executive who preferred to speak off the record. He also wanted to see more transparency going forward: “If changes are going to be made, make the public aware of any changes of time. So if we go down the route of ‘deadening’ the ball at some point, give teams and the public knowledge of that well in advance.”
Of course, predictability doesn’t mean a return to the past. Asked about what kind of ball he’d like to see in play, the aforementioned executive was sanguine: “I don’t have a major preference. I don’t mind the three true outcomes type shift. I personally think strikeouts and homers are some of the most entertaining plays in baseball.”
Whatever everyone’s opinion on the new ball, a few things are clear: it’s a topic of discussion, and it is changing how analysts and executives operate. It’s also not a discussion that’s losing momentum. As I was wrapping up this article, I got a text from a source I had spoken with earlier in the day:
“We’re literally talking about the difficulties evaluating Triple-A hitters right now.”