CLEARWATER, Fla. — Zach Eflin has a bounce in his step as he heads into his first start of the spring Wednesday against the Minnesota Twins in Fort Myers.
The gentlemanly right-hander is full of optimism and for good reason. He seemed to find himself as a pitcher late last season, a discovery that started with his decision to pitch to his strength and feature the sinking fastball that got him to the majors. Physically, he added strength to his 6-foot-6 frame over the winter and arrived at camp healthy and ready to go at 230 pounds.
There’s one other reason that Eflin is upbeat. At 5 ounces, it’s a small reason, but for a man who makes his living gripping and throwing those 5 ounces it’s a big reason.
Eflin noticed it the first day he arrived in camp.
The baseball just felt better in his hand.
“I think it’s awesome,” he said. “To me, they feel a little softer and you can definitely notice the seams a little more. Last year, it was like throwing a cue ball.”
Baseballs flew out of ballparks a record 6,779 times last season, shattering the previous record of 6,105 set in 2017. Phillies pitchers were victimized a club record 258 times. Eflin gave up a team-high 28, one more than Aaron Nola.
All around the game last season, pitchers voiced concerns about a juiced ball. Major League Baseball denied ordering any changes to the ball and commissioned a scientific study, the results of which were announced at the winter meetings in December. The study found that the seams on the baseball were slightly lower in 2019. That created less drag and more carry on the ball. But the study also factored in the hitters’ role in the jump in homers. Specifically, the emphasis on launch angle and hitting balls in the air played a large part in the jump in homers.
Last season, pitchers jokingly referred to the ball used in the majors as a “Titleist.” In addition to claiming that the seams were smaller, pitchers claimed the ball was harder than it had been in previous years because the leather had been stretched so tightly over the ball. Major League Baseball, again, denied any intentional changes but did acknowledge that balls can vary from year to year because they are made from natural materials and are hand-stitched by human beings.
“The thing that was tough with last year’s balls was the mud they use to rub them wouldn’t stay on the baseball because it was so slick and hard,” Eflin said.
A Major League Baseball official said no changes have been made to the balls that teams are using this spring. Again, the lot can vary from year to year.
But Eflin is not the only happy pitcher in Phillies camp.
Zack Wheeler said he’s noticed that the seams feel slightly bigger.
The texture of the ball is what Eflin is most enthused about.
“It’s just a completely different feel,” he said. “With a softer ball, your finger meshes into the ball and fits in with it as opposed to if a ball was made out of concrete or like I said, a cue ball. Where you’re putting so much pressure trying to spin the ball, you’re pushing as hard as you can on the flat, hard surface, and that’s where you can get a blister.
“This ball, it’s like it has a little give to it so it doesn’t feel as 'pinchy.” I think it’s going to help prevent injuries.”
Jake Arrieta wasn’t sure if he had noticed a change in the balls, but if he comes across one with a softer feel, he surely won’t throw it out.
“Before last year, the ball was a little softer,” he said. “You could manipulate the leather on the ball just a little bit and create a nice grip. Last year, the leather was so tight it almost felt like plastic and they were hard to hold on to sometimes.
“We just need a little wiggle room on the leather. They were wound entirely too tight last year.”
It wasn’t just big-league pitchers who did not like the feel of the ball last year. The same ball was used in Triple A while a slightly different ball was used from the Double A level on down. The Double A ball had slightly larger seams and the leather was not stretched as tightly across the ball. Several pitchers in the Phillies system put up big numbers in Double A then struggled when they went to Triple A because the ball felt harder and slicker. Adjusting to the feel of the big-league ball is one of the reasons Phillies officials want top pitching prospect Spencer Howard to get some work in Triple A this season.
But if more pitchers feel what Eflin has been feeling this spring, maybe the adjustment won’t be that difficult.