If there was any lingering doubt about the cause of the unprecedented power surge across Major League Baseball, the highest level of the minor leagues is erasing it.
This season, the two Triple-A leagues switched to the same baseball used in the majors, rather than a cheaper ball used elsewhere in the minors. The results have been stunning. Triple-A teams are on pace to hit more than 2,000 additional home runs from last year—a ridiculous increase of about 60%.
In other words, the debate over why so many home runs are being hit is over. It’s not launch angle. It’s not increased pitcher velocity. It isn’t the bats. It’s the ball.
One man who should know is Cody Decker, a real-life Crash Davis who retired last month after hitting his 204th career home run in the minors. He calls the current ball “a joke.”
“The fact that the balls don’t say ‘Pro V1’ on them is laughable,” said Decker, referring to the popular Titleist golf ball. “I don’t think having these balls in Triple-A is helping anybody.”
Late last month, the Las Vegas Aviators, the Oakland Athletics’ Triple-A affiliate, launched a record 11 home runs in one game against the El Paso Chihuahuas, the San Diego Padres’ affiliate. The final score was 20-11.
“It was truly something to see,” said Aviators first baseman Seth Brown, who contributed one of the homers. “It seemed like every pitch that was thrown was hit out of the ballpark.”
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred acknowledges that the current baseballs have less air resistance and are more aerodynamic than the previous ones. He denies that they have changed at the direction of MLB, attributing the difference to quirks in the manufacturing process, which is done largely by hand.
The majors and minors have long used different balls. The MLB ball, which is manufactured in a factory in Costa Rica, has tighter specifications and uses slightly different materials than its minor-league counterpart, which is made in China and costs about half as much. Players say the MLB ball has lower seams. Both balls are produced by Rawlings, which has been owned by MLB since last year.
MLB and its teams thought there would be “player development benefits” to Triple-A using the big-league ball, according to a person familiar with the matter. Officials believed that the players closest to the majors should have the experience using the ball before being promoted.
The Triple-A homer boom is in some ways even more pronounced than the one in the majors. Triple-A is divided into two leagues: the International League, which extends as far west as Indianapolis and as far south as Lawrenceville, Ga., and the Pacific Coast League. The latter has long been known as a hitters’ paradise, in large part because it includes high-altitude cities like Reno, Nev., Albuquerque, N.M., and Las Vegas.
Adding the supercharged ball to the PCL has only increased an already friendly offensive environment. Kevin Cron of the Reno Aces, the younger brother of Minnesota Twins first baseman C.J. Cron, led the PCL in homers through Wednesday, with 31 in 231 at-bats. He hit 22 for the same team last season in 392 at-bats.
That said, the IL has been affected, too: Players there have already hit around 500 more homers than in all of 2018. Columbus Clippers manager Tony Mansolino said he has noticed a change.
“You feel like every night, somebody hits a ball that probably shouldn’t go as far as it is right now,” said Mansolino, whose team has been one of the most homer-happy teams in the league.
Despite the emphasis on hitting the ball in the air sweeping across the sport, the other minor-league levels—using the old minor-league ball—are actually seeing a home run decline in 2019. Double-A is on pace to see around a 9% decrease in total home runs this season. The South Atlantic and Midwest Leagues, both classified as Single-A, are on pace to see a 4 to 5% decrease.
Mansolino worries that the amount of home runs in Triple-A is diminishing opportunities for players to practice situational hitting and other skills needed in the majors, especially in October. Meanwhile, players and teams are concerned with how the change affects scouts’ ability to accurately assess the talent of Triple-A players. While executives are adjusting how they view the statistics in those leagues, Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said it’s not simple.
“We’ll know more as we get more data,” Luhnow said. “I look with a skeptical eye at big hitting numbers at Triple-A, and I look with a skeptical eye also at poor pitching numbers.”
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