Rosenthal: With the ball again a hot topic, pre-tacked version can’t come soon enough

Rosenthal: With the ball again a hot topic, pre-tacked version can’t come soon enough

The ball. Every year it’s something with the freaking ball.

The current season is only three weeks old, and already the ball is the subject of two debates — whether it’s too dead and whether its surface is too inconsistent, creating frustration for pitchers with their grips, particularly in cold weather.

Nearly four years ago, Major League Baseball bought 25 percent of Rawlings, the company that manufactures the ball. You’d think by now, even with the interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the issues would be settled. You’d think the league would be using a ball with a ready-made sticky surface similar to the pre-tacked versions used in Japan and Korea. But no, we’re not there yet.

At this point, it might behoove the league to create a department focusing exclusively on the ball, overseen by a Lord of the Seams. Clearly, the league needs to better communicate with players — stop me if you’ve heard that one before — and offer full transparency on all ball-related issues.

I mean, I can’t imagine the Officer of the Commissioner enjoys seeing quotes like the ones that came out of the Mets’ clubhouse on Tuesday night.

“MLB has a very big problem with the baseballs,” Mets pitcher Chris Bassitt told reporters. “They’re bad. Everyone knows it. Every pitcher in the league knows it. They’re bad. They don’t care. MLB doesn’t give a damn about it. They don’t care. We’ve told them our problems with them. They don’t care.”

Added Mets catcher James McCann: “My take is it’s 2022. There’s enough technology out there to figure out the baseball. We want to talk about juiced balls, dead balls, slick balls, sticky balls. It’s 2022. We should have an answer.”

Bravo! Except for one thing. Not all pitchers agree the ball is a problem. Some believe the introduction this season of an official rosin bag is helping alleviate the grip concerns caused by the crackdown on illegal sticky substances that the league initiated last June. The 8-ounce Honduran Pine rosin bags manufactured by Pelican are subject to strict chain-of-custody protocols and are the responsibility of a specific clubhouse staff member at each major-league park.

“I like it. There is a noticeable tacky difference,” Phillies right-hander Kyle Gibson told The Athletic’s Matt Gelb. “I’m obviously the outlier, it sounds like. A couple of guys, I don’t think they like it. They feel like they have to have more moisture of something with it. But I’m amazed every time. I’ve had (pitching coach) Caleb (Cotham) sit there, like, ‘Hey, do the umpire hand check right now. Are they going to let me get away with this?’ You know?”

Two other veteran pitchers from teams in northern climates, speaking on condition of anonymity, also had no issue with the uniform rosin bag, with one calling it, “a fair compromise.” The Mets, however, are especially sensitive at the moment. Their hitters have been hit a major-league-high 19 times in just 20 games.


Phillies’ Kyle Gibson (Bill Streicher / USA Today Sports)

But is the problem the ball, the pitching of the Mets’ opponents or simply a small-sample size aberration? No other club has been hit more than 13 times. The league average is eight. And through Tuesday’s play, the hit-by-pitch rate over a comparable number of plate appearances was the lowest it has been since 2018, according to MLB.

Season HBP%

2022

1.14

2021

1.37

2022

1.32

2019

1.16

2018

1.1

The league, during collective bargaining with the players’ union, made multiple proposals regarding an automatic ejection for hitting a batter in the head or neck with a fastball, irrespective of intent, sources said. The union rejected the idea, which is similar to one used by the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). It is doubtful the players would ever agree to strict liability for pitches that might hit batters by accident, without intent.

As part of those conversations, the league also proposed a discussion of additional discipline for cumulative batters hit. More recently, league officials informally floated to some players the idea of a hit-by-pitch point system for pitchers, in addition to an automatic ejection for hitting a batter above the shoulder, sources said. The way the system would work, each hit-by-pitch would count for a certain amount of points against the pitcher depending upon pitch type and location. A slider off a hitter’s foot might be one point, a fastball in the ribs might be three. Once the pitcher passed a set threshold, he would be suspended.

The idea seems impractical on multiple levels, the type of response that often prompts players to complain that the league office is out of touch. Players recognize hit batsmen are part of the game. Hitters rarely complain about getting hit below the waist. Imagine how ridiculous the league would look if Max Scherzer was ejected in the seventh inning of a critical game in September because he hit a batter on the toe and reached his points threshold.

Not to worry; the point system does not seem to have traction. And really, it misses the point. The problem, as the HBP rates suggest, is not hit batsmen. The problem, in the view of some pitchers, is the ball. As Bassitt said, “(The balls) are all different. The first inning they’re decent, the third inning, they’re bad, the fourth inning, they’re OK, the fifth inning they’re bad. And we have different climates. Everything is different. There’s no common ground with the balls. There’s nothing the same outing to outing.”

Some pitchers say the inconsistency extends to umpires and the different standards they apply to pitchers who try to produce moisture on their hands so they can grip the ball in cold weather — by licking their fingers, for example. Which brings us back to the sticky stuff, and the gray area that exists between the league’s crackdown on illegal substances and the pitchers’ desire to control the ball in their hand.

Almost everyone involved in the sport believes a crackdown of some type was warranted. But as Mets manager Buck Showalter told reporters Wednesday, “The question is whether we as an industry have gone too far the other way.” If the league’s principal concern is the higher spin rates certain substances produce, one pitcher asks, why not establish baselines for all pitchers, allow them to use their concoctions of choice, then nail anyone whose spin jumps at an abnormally high rate?

Egads, that would be another conversation that misses the point. The pre-tacked ball would be the obvious, all-encompassing solution, providing pitchers with a consistent, uniform grip and eliminating the need for sticky substances once and for all. At least that would be the idea.

The league experimented with such a ball in select Triple-A games during the final days of the 2021 minor-league season and is using it in the Double-A Texas League this season. Major leaguers did not react well to a version of an enhanced grip ball the league tested in spring training camps in 2019. But to this point, one source said, the Texas League ball has been well-received.

MLB can’t adopt some form of it soon enough. We’re all sick of talking about the ball, aren’t we?

(Top photo of Chris Bassitt: Mary DeCicco / MLB Photos via Getty Images)


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