Major League Baseball will introduce a pre-tacked baseball at certain Triple-A games for the minor-league season’s final week and a half, reports Kyle Glaser of Baseball America. The new ball won’t be in effect at all games at the minors’ top level, as MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Morgan Sword tells Glaser there’s not yet enough supply to support a wide rollout.
It’s a bit surprising to see the experimental ball introduced at such a late stage of the season. The pre-tacked ball being tested in games did seem to be an inevitability at some point, however. Last month, Hannah Keyser of Yahoo! Sports reported that MLB had sent a prototype of a pre-tacked ball to certain big-league players for feedback.
That experimentation comes on the heels of the league’s crackdown on pitchers’ usage of foreign substances. That was motivated primarily by a desire to police the most egregious offenders, pitchers who had used extremely sticky substances to improve the quality of their raw stuff. However, MLB announced it would legislate out all non-rosin sticky stuff — even substances more generally considered acceptable, such as a sunscreen/rosin combination — to make enforcement more feasible for umpires. The league expressed an openness at the time to potential pre-tacked baseballs that would improve pitchers’ grips without meaningfully, artificially enhancing pitch movement. Three months later, it has found a product it deems suitable for in-game evaluation.
The pre-tacked baseball — which involves more than the traditional process of rubbing down the ball with mud — will be a change to the affiliated ranks. It’s not a new concept, however. Certain foreign leagues such as Japan’s NPB and South Korea’s KBO have used pre-tacked balls for years, and a few players from the U.S. National Team have gone on record in support of the pre-tacked balls used in this summer’s Tokyo Olympics. (KBO and NPB rules call for slightly different specifications regarding the ball than do MLB regulations, so MLB’s pre-tacked prototype will not be the exact same as those foreign leagues’ balls). MLB itself experimented with a pre-tacked baseball in spring training 2019 but scrapped the project after receiving negative feedback.
With fewer than two weeks remaining in the Triple-A season and the pre-tacked ball not yet going into effect at all those games, there won’t be much time for the league to collect data this year. Still, the introduction of the new ball into competitive affiliated games at all is notable, and it’s safe to presume MLB will continue to solicit player feedback and monitor the results in future seasons before considering introducing it at the big-league level.
Potential modification of the ball is only one of a few changes with which MLB has experimented in the minor leagues. MLB introduced rules changes at various levels entering the season. The bases were expanded slightly at Triple-A; defensive shifting was limited at Double-A. An electronic strike zone, limits on pickoffs and a 15-second pitch clock were put into place at different levels of the low minors.
Most of those measures will remain under evaluation, as Glaser separately reports that MLB plans to test those rules in this year’s Arizona Fall League. While MLB purposefully distributed those rules changes throughout various levels of the minors to evaluate their impact in isolation, combining them in the AFL is designed to gauge whether there will be any holistic effects. Glaser’s post on the Fall League changes is worth a read in full for those interested, as is this article by Jayson Stark of the Athletic from last week about the pitch clock’s influence on play in the Low-A West league this season.