No team in the International League has allowed more home runs this season than the Buffalo Bisons.
Conversely, no team has hit fewer homers than the Herd.
Six weeks into the season and struggling at both ends of the spectrum, it appears the Bisons are having a more difficult time than their Triple-A counterparts adjusting to playing with the same ball that’s used in the major leagues.
“It’s made it more realistic to how it’s going to be when you get to the big leagues,” Bisons pitching coach Doug Mathis said, “and it’s good because it shows you that you’ve got to make good pitches, even in Triple A.”
This season marks the first time the International and Pacific Coast leagues are playing with the same ball as Major League Baseball – one that’s produced in a Rawlings-owned and operated factory in Costa Rica and twice as expensive as the ball used throughout the rest of the minors, which is mass produced in China.
There are differences between the balls, other than the price. The major league balls have tighter stitches and smaller seams, which can affect a pitcher’s grip and the way batters perceive spin. The leather is of a different quality. The ball seems to be wound tighter. There appears to be less give. And the harder balls are flying farther and leaving the yard at an increased rate.
But the Bisons are nonetheless happy with the change, instituted to give prospects a more accurate representation of what they can expect in the majors.
“I’d rather use the big league balls,” pitcher Jacob Waguespack said. “I think it gives you a little bit more movement on your fastball and your cutter, and I think you have to get used to the laces, as far as your off-speed pitches. For the hitter, obviously, it’s a little better because the laces are smaller and the ball gets out of the park a lot faster now … so as a pitcher you’ve got to execute pitches and keep the ball down.
“It’s just one of those things you’ve got to adapt to. But I love it. Anything to get guys prepared to go to the big leagues, Major League Baseball should do it.”
Baseball America noted the offensive explosion in April, when Triple-A hitters were homering an average of once every 32 plate appearances. That’s a spike from last season, when players homered once every 43 plate appearances, and power numbers are likely to continue to climb as the weather warms.
Last season, Lehigh Valley led the International League with 145 home runs in 140 games.
This season, through last weekend, league-leading Gwinnett was already more than halfway to that total. The Stripers had hit 76 home runs in 43 games.
The Bisons had hit just 30 home runs, the fewest in the league, in 39 games. They’re one of only three IL teams that have hit fewer than 40.
But they’re still hitting homers at a slightly better clip than a year ago.
This year, through their most recent homestand, the Bisons had homered once every 46.96 plate appearances (30 homers in 1,409 plate appearances), which is last in the league.
Last year, they homered once every 48.12 plate appearances, and their 105 homers in 5,053 plate appearances were middle of the pack.
Through the beginning of this week, Gwinnett's Adam Duvall led the league with 15 home runs. He was tied with former teammate Austin Riley, who was called up to the Atlanta Braves last week after crushing a grand slam against Buffalo.
Duvall said he’s noticed umpires being more reluctant to dispose of scuffed balls this season, which he suspects is a result of their increased price. Major League balls cost approximately $100 per dozen, twice as much as the minor league balls. Since a typical minor league team can run through 7,000 to 10,000 baseballs in a season, the change represents an additional expense of approximately $35,000 each year, according to an estimated price breakdown by Baseball America.
“That’s probably why they reuse these balls,” Duvall said. “Like when pitchers spike balls, before the umpires were throwing them out. Now, I don’t know if they’ve told them to reuse them or what, but I have noticed that. During the game, if a pitcher spikes a ball, normally the umpire looks at it, it’s probably going to have a scuff on it and they get rid of it. But I’ve noticed recently that they’re looking at it and putting it back in their bags more often.”
Cavan Biggio, who led the Bisons with six homers at the start of the week, said the change was a long time coming and that he’d like to see Double A begin to use the MLB ball, as well.
“I noticed a difference when I first got to pro ball in my first spring training,” Biggio said, “and I got called up to the major league side to back up one of the games. I took batting practice. It was my first time hitting the big-league balls, and you can kind of notice the extra carry it gives on the ball. And so coming into this year, I think it’s exciting. I think that it was a long time overdue for them to do it.
“It’s kind of crazy to go from Triple A and the next day you’re in the big leagues and using a different ball.”
The offensive explosion has, of course, affected pitchers.
Last year, nine International League teams had a combined ERA of less than 4.00.
This year, only the Syracuse Mets own that distinction, with a 3.95 ERA at the start of the week.
Last season, the Columbus Clippers' 4.34 team ERA was the worst in the league.
This season, 12 of 14 teams have an ERA above that mark. Five teams, including the Bisons, have a team ERA above 5.00. Buffalo's 5.57 team ERA is fourth-worst, ahead of only Toledo (5.77), Rochester (5.91) and Charlotte (5.92).
“I think sometimes there’s more fear,” Bisons hitting coach Corey Hart said. “I think guys are throwing fastballs even less than they were a year ago – not looking at stats, just seeing it – the only hitter’s count really any more is like 3-0. That’s the only time that you have at least 90 percent chance to get a fastball. Everything else, all bets are off. It’s any pitch, any count nowadays.”
Buffalo had given up 64 homers through the start of this week, edging Charlotte (63) for most in the league. But that is worse than it appears, considering Charlotte had played two more games and pitched 32.2 more innings.
Buffalo's 39 games played through this past weekend were tied for the fewest in the league, and it's 323.0 innings pitched were fewest in the league.
Buffalo is allowing 1.8 homers per nine innings, double the rate from a year ago, when the Bisons allowed 0.9 homers per nine.
Charlotte is allowing 1.6. Toledo and Rochester are tied at 1.5. Only Indianapolis is allowing fewer than one home run (0.9) per nine innings.
Last season, only two teams allowed one home run per nine innings, then the highest rate in the league.
“The key is for these pitchers to keep the ball down and get ground balls instead of fly balls,” Bisons manager Bobby Meacham said, “and once they’re able to do that consistently … more times than not we’ll have a better chance to win.”
Among players with at least 30 innings pitched, only 10 pitchers have an ERA below 4.00.
Only three are below 3.00.
Pawtucket's Mike Shawaryn has a 2.87 ERA in a league-leading 47 innings pitched over eight starts.
“Every pitch matters,” PawSox pitching coach Kevin Walker said. “There’s no letting off the gas with any hitter anymore, because anybody can put it out of the park.”
Buffalo's Shawn Morimando has allowed a team-worst nine home runs, tied for third-most in the league. He had a 9.31 ERA and 1-3 record through seven starts and 29.0 innings pitched.
Waguespack has given up eight home runs but leads Buffalo with a 5.31 ERA. He owned a 2-5 record through eight starts and 42.1 innings pitched.
Sean Reid-Foley, who has allowed six home runs, owned a 7.54 ERA through 37 innings, third-worst among 37 qualified pitchers. He appeared in seven games for Toronto last season and began the season with the Blue Jays for one start.
“A lot of guys have never used them,” Reid-Foley said about the major league balls. “Especially if you don’t ever go over to big league camp in the spring, you’re kind of like, ‘Wow, it feels like I’m throwing like a lacrosse ball.’ But it also depends on how they’re rubbed up.
“And it also goes back to where are we throwing these pitches? If you throw a quality pitch, you get a quality result and vice versa.”
Plate appearances per home run
Since Triple-A teams this season began playing with the same baseballs used in the majors, the home run rate in the International League has spiked to a level more in line with that seen in the big leagues.
2019: 31.12 29.21
2018: 46.28 33.14
2017: 44.42 30.35