Some changes are coming to Major League Baseball in the form of an altered Spring Training schedule and a slightly different baseball. The latter may have the bigger impact on the season as a whole, as The Athletic’s Eno Sarris and Ken Rosenthal (subscription required) report that the league has sent a memo to teams outlining some changes made to the Rawlings baseballs that will be in use during the 2021 campaign.
The new ball will be reduced in weight by under one-tenth of an ounce, and will also be slightly less bouncy (as determined by the coefficient of restitution, or COR). While the end result of these changes won’t be entirely known until we see the baseball in action during the season, the changes seem to have been made in order to “increase consistency in the ball” and also deaden it to some extent. An independent lab cited in the league memo detailed a reduction by one or two feet of distance on fly balls hit beyond 375 feet, and an analyst who spoke with Sarris and Rosenthal believes “it’ll be like adding five feet of outfield walls to every wall in the big leagues.” The analyst believes an overall five percent reduction in home runs is possible, though it isn’t yet known how the newer ball will be affected by drag.
Home run totals have soared over the last few seasons, which has led to criticism in both fan and league circles that the sport is becoming too homer-heavy and strikeout-heavy at the expense of more traditional and action-oriented station-to-station baseball. If the new ball is indeed successful at reducing home runs, Sarris and Rosenthal write that there is some risk “that it will leave the game with all those swings and misses and fewer big flies,” but it should also be noted that pitchers will surely also have to make some adjustments to how they grip and throw a slightly lighter ball.
In a more clearer attempt to deaden the ball, five more teams will join the Diamondbacks, Mariners, Rockies, Red Sox, and Mets in storing baseballs in a humidor prior to the game. The addition of a humidor at Chase Field prior to the 2018 season led to a noteworthy dropoff in the Diamondbacks’ homer totals, and it is still too early to really gauge the impact for the Mets, Sox, and Mariners since their humidors were only in place for the anomalous 2020 season.
The changes to Spring Training will be more immediately visible, given how camps are set to open in a little over a week. The 15 teams in the Grapefruit League will be split into pods in western or eastern Florida, according to Rosenthal and The Athletic’s Matt Gelb (via Twitter). The plan is for the “East” teams to play 24 games against each other and then four intra-squad games, while teams on the “West” side of the equation would play a 28-game schedule against each other. This would seem to imply that the 15 teams will be split into three pods of five teams, which also makes geographical sense since only five Grapefruit League teams (the Marlins, Mets, Cardinals, Astros, and Nationals) are based in Eastern Florida.
It isn’t yet known if a similar strategy will be planned for the Cactus League. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale (Twitter links) reports that split-squad games are being eliminated, so the schedule will be reduced to some extent. The league and the players’ union are aiming to have health and safety protocols for Spring Training arranged by tomorrow, and more specifics could be revealed at that point. Since some tickets for previously-scheduled Grapefruit League games had already been sold, Rosenthal tweets that teams will individually handle those situations.