Getting a grip on the future baseball

If you want to get a major-league pitcher talking, show him an unfamiliar baseball. The simple synecdoche at the heart of the whole sport has been a constant source of consternation and a recent subject of controversy. Get a guy talking and he’ll tell you about the inconsistencies in the current MLB crop — between balls, and from one side of the horseshoe seam to the other — and mud — which stadiums apply too much or too little of, the way it makes a ball feel dusty when dry — and how great the 2017 vintage was.

Unsurprisingly, they notice everything. Like the time they were inducing swings-and-misses with a particularly dark ball and then gave up a hit on one that seemed whiter than normal. Or how they were given what felt like a used batting practice ball at a high-leverage moment in a game. It all speaks to a level of distrust between players and Major League Baseball, which has had a controlling stake in Rawlings since 2018, and the increasingly accepted inevitability that the league will need to build a better ball.

They’re working on doing just that. As it has several times in the past few years, MLB is currently soliciting player feedback on prototypes of pre-tacked baseballs in development — part of a redoubled effort as a concession to the crackdown on illegal sticky stuff. But at least some players would tell you the perfect baseball already exists — it’s just in Japan.

“They need this ball over in America. It is amazing. It’s perfect,” Joe Ryan, a Minnesota Twins pitcher, said about a month ago of the baseball used at the Olympics, and since it’s so much easier to get pitchers to gripe about the balls than praise them, the sentiment stood out.

Of course, MLB isn’t about to start buying baseballs from anywhere other than Rawlings, so actually replacing the central object of the game with ones made by the Japanese-based SSK isn’t a realistic solution to the simmering dissatisfaction among pitchers. But if it’s really “perfect,” well, that’s a pretty good jumping off point. Ryan’s opinion was effusive.

What major leaguers think of the Olympic ball

We wanted to hear what other big-league hurlers make of the Olympic baseball. So I showed them some — actual, stamped with “TOKYO 2020” baseballs that I personally brought back from the Games — to get their take on how they compare to the current MLB balls, as well as the pre-tacked prototypes.

“The biggest thing for me that I feel when I feel a baseball is the leather on it. And the Olympic balls I felt, you can’t move the leather,” Philadelphia Phillies reliever Archie Bradley said recently.

Is that good or bad?

“It’s good,” he clarified. “Some of the baseballs now when we get them, I can grab it like this and I can press down my thumb. I can move the leather that’s on top of the ball. It’s a soft baseball.”

Bradley claimed that after MLB balls are put in play, they often feel dented, and complained that they’re too inconsistent in softness and seams. I could only offer him a small sample of SSK balls to compare, but he was impressed with the consistency and hardness.

“It feels pretty good in my hand,” he said. “I like ‘em.”

“Definitely more grip than our balls,” New York Mets starter Seth Lugo mused as he handled a clean SSK ball that had been removed from its plastic wrapper back in Japan.

“Seams are tighter, and a tick higher. Do they rub these up at all, with mud or anything?” he asked. Actually, they do, and so we gave him one of those — rubbed up with mud, but not game-used.

“OK,” he nodded approvingly, “laces are down a little bit. I can definitely feel a little grip to it, once I get it heated.”

Across the board, the pitchers who had seen the MLB prototypes preferred the SSK ball — for its superior grip and also for the consistency of seams and size and hardness (although, again, among a very small sample).

“These are way better,” Nationals pitcher Erick Fedde said of the SSK ball compared to the ones MLB is developing. “These are way better for sure. I would definitely recommend this. If I had a choice.”

Contrary to the outcry from pitchers when MLB first cracked down on sticky stuff, there hasn’t been a dramatic uptick in hit batters or wild pitches. But Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder was still sympathetic to his staff, saying it’s valid to be concerned about the grip, especially as the weather cools down. The SSK ball, though, seemed like a sufficient amount of tack.

“I definitely think it would help,” said San Francisco Giants pitcher Logan Webb, “for safety purposes.”

Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Joe Ryan delivers in the first inning of a baseball game against the Cleveland Indians, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Twins starter Joe Ryan pitched for Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics and raved about the SSK baseballs used at the Games. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Getting a grip on a future baseball

The genesis of the grip is a little surprising. Speaking postgame in Japan, Ryan had said the balls were “pre-tacked” — implying a sticky substance had been applied to the leather.

I’ve felt multiple iterations of SSK’s Olympic ball: right out of the plastic wrapper it comes in, rubbed up with mud as they would be before a game, and game-used. They’re not immediately sticky to the touch, but if you work them between your hands — as pitchers do on the mound — they develop a tackiness.

But they’re not, despite serving as an example of grip, pre-tacked. According to Masakazu Okabe, an executive at SSK who spoke with Yahoo Sports, it’s all in the leather, produced and tanned in Japan. The balls are then assembled by hand in Sri Lanka.

“When we’re tanning the leather,” he said, “we have a different recipe.”

He explained that it’s a reflection of the market they primarily serve — Japanese pitchers just prefer a little more grip, for “injury prevention.”

But now American pitchers seem to prefer the SSK balls, for their grip and consistency, too. Okabe chalks the latter up to their attention to detail, rigorous quality control, and the higher price point per ball that makes both of those things possible.

Okabe was “kind of surprised” to hear American pitchers’ glowing review of their grippy but not pre-tacked baseballs. With all the trouble MLB has had trying to produce a suitable sticky ball for years now — testing dates back to at least 2016 — I asked if SSK had heard from anyone at the league.

“No,” he said, “we haven’t.”

Although Lugo preferred the one that was rubbed up with mud — just as all MLB balls are, using mud from a special and secret location along a tributary of the Delaware — some people thought that the grip was better on the clean SSK balls. The mud is supposed to help with grip, but many pitchers have found that when the mud dries out, it becomes dusty and turns baseballs into something like cue balls covered in baby powder.

“Cue balls” or “pearls” are common analogies from frustrated players trying to convey inconsistencies that are invisible to most people but seem extreme to the finely-tuned fingers of a professional pitcher. The adage goes that baseball is a game of inches, but the ideal ball is a matter of centimeters on the seams or in the give of the leather. Some of that is psychological — the pitcher who was inducing outs with a dark ball and gave up a hit on one without any discernible mud admitted it could have been a coincidence — but having confidence in their singular tool is as important as the tool itself.

“When you get handed a baseball, you want it to feel like ‘yeah, that’s good,’” Snyder said, trying to explain the subtleties of knowing a ball is right when you can’t feel anything wrong.

This season, MLB tightened the timeframe in which the mud can be applied to the balls ahead of games — and could do so again before the postseason and colder weather — to prevent some of that dustiness. And since the SSK balls in our imperfect experiment were weeks removed from having been rubbed up, it’s not surprising that our experts found the mud-rubbed balls to be a little compromised.

“I like the one out of the wrapper,” Snyder said. “Those feel pretty good to me.”

“I feel like they have a pretty good grip. I like this one,” said Mets pitcher Rich Hill, indicating the clean ball, “rather than the rubbed up one.”

If it is something in the tanning process of the leather that’s giving the SSK balls their enhanced grip, that would be an advantage over even the pre-tacked prototypes MLB is experimenting with. Players were shown several versions with different levels of tack, but even the stickiest prototypes didn’t have as much grip as the SSK balls, according to several people who saw them. And there was another concern with the prototypes.

“It seemed like there was a spray,” said Lugo, “and the stick comes off on your fingers. Like this, my fingers aren’t sticky after touching it. That’s the issue I had with those.”

None of the pitchers or personnel said they’re happy with the current major league baseball. Their gripes ranged from reasonable to conspiracy theory, but ultimately, they want something to change.

“We have to find something, we have to find something,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “I know MLB is working really hard.”

A single pitch can, and often does, determine the outcome of a game. If pitchers — or hitters, for that matter — are left feeling that it could have played out differently with a different ball, that’s a problem.

Not everyone was sure the SSK ball was the solution. Both Hill and Phillies pitcher Zach Eflin said they liked the laces — which are a little small and tighter — but less so the overall feel. But even if the SSK ball isn’t perfect, “It’s better when we have today,” Eflin said. “That’s for sure.”