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Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Will MLB’s new rules for muddying baseballs be the fix the process needs?

In what might be an impossible search for consistency in how the major league ball plays, baseball has sent out a new memo and video detailing the process by which clubhouse attendants should apply mud to the balls before games.

“We listened to best practices from all 30 clubs,” said a league source, “and heard feedback from players all season. The memo was in response to that feedback.”

The memo outlines how each attendant should apply the mud and then store the balls before game time. According to reporting from ESPN, plus confirmation from multiple sources, these guidelines are as follows:

  • All game balls must be stored in humidors for a minimum of 14 days before being taken through the muddying process.
  • Muddying must be done on game day.
  • Attendants must muddy the ball in a process outlined by video that should take 30 seconds per ball.
  • There should be an exact standard ratio of water to mud used for the muddying process.
  • All baseballs to be used in a specific game must be mudded within three hours of all other baseballs being used in that game.
  • Once the muddying process is completed, all balls should be placed back in the Rawlings boxes with dividers, and the boxes then placed in the humidor.
  • When taken out of the humidor for that day’s game, only eight dozen balls at a time should be placed in a ball bag. Additionally, the inside of the ball bags will be required to be cleaned thoroughly by wiping with a damp cloth and then with a dry cloth to make sure there is no excess residue, dust or moisture.
  • Each team will be provided a poster showing the acceptable range of appearance for a mudded baseball. (dark/light)

Past rubbing processes varied from team to team, which is exactly why baseball has spent the last couple of years listening to teams and trying to identify best practices. Teams used to have as much as five days leeway between muddying and game use, which was cut to two days, and then finally to 24 hours last September because of reports of dry, chalky balls.

“I feel it big time in Arizona, when it’s dry,” said Chris Bassitt of balls he called “dusty” back in 2016, when balls could be rubbed up before a series, and Arizona didn’t have a humidor. “I can’t get a grip on the ball there.”

Most of these rules are in place to ensure the ball doesn’t get too dry, but there’s also risk the other way: that the ball is too chalky because it has too much moisture.

“Previously teams would rub the balls and put them in the bag and put the bag in the humidor,” said a league source. “Now there’s less time with all these balls on top of each other in the bag. Fewer balls together and less time in the bag.”

Putting them back in the bag together was problematic for two reasons. For one, the bags would get dirty and add more mud and dirt to the balls at the bottom over the course of the game, leading to an inconsistency in color. That’s partially why the new rules require teams to clean the bag more often.

More importantly, perhaps, was the fact that the muddying process includes water — water that should then ideally evaporate some before game time. Not too much, because then you get a dusty ball. But if not enough water evaporates, you get a chalky ball for a different reason. A baseball blogger and researcher who writes under the pen name Hareeb al-Saq tried some experiments at home in which he mudded balls and then sealed them in a bag. He found, using a tool to measure the relative humidity in the bag, that sealing balls in bags didn’t allow for enough evaporation.

“It takes hours — dependent on various parameters — for that moisture to evaporate off, and 2022 protocol changes make it much more likely that the balls don’t get enough time to evaporate off, causing them to fall victim to that slipperiness,” he wrote in his conclusion. “In particular, balls can feel perfectly good and ready while they still have some excess surface moisture and then quickly go to hell if the remaining evaporation is prevented inside the security-sealed bag.”

Taking a mudded ball, and then sealing it in a nylon bag with other mudded balls, might not allow that essential amount of water to evaporate, leaving a slippery ball.

“I don’t know what Major League Baseball is playing with these baseballs, but that fully slipped out of my hand,” pitcher Michael Lorenzen recently told Jeff Fletcher at the Orange County Register. “These baseballs are slick.”

Despite the fact there are long league-wide trends (more pitching inside, more pitching up in the zone, more emphasis on stuff over command) leading to hit-by-pitches generally being up, and also the fact that hit-by-pitches this year are actually down from their peak, the league couldn’t afford to ignore the subjective experiences of the players. And al-Saq also found some evidence that throwing errors from catchers and third basemen are up to such a degree that there’s only about a one-to-two percent possibility they’re up by chance. There’s something to these complaints and it might have something to do with the mud, and how the balls were stored.

Some sympathy is probably due to baseball’s operations department in this process. The ball is handmade, and the muddying process is almost a hundred years old. There are 30 teams, each with their own little differences in how they mud the balls. The ideal amount of moisture on the ball is not only a subjective thing, it’s a difficult measurement to get right.

But there are also some concerns about the process by which MLB is producing these guidelines. Listening to teams and developing best practices based on those conversations is fine, but it has its limitations. For example, al-Saq found that putting balls in boxes, closing the lid and stacking them — as the current memo requires — still limits the amount of evaporation that can happen. There’s no doubt it’s better than putting them into a bag, but how much better will it be?

That remains to be seen, and it’s enough to raise questions as to whether the process should have been more guided by rigorous scientific testing.

“My main concern with MLB’s new protocols is that they haven’t provided evidence or justification for why they make a difference,” said Dr. Meredith Wills, who independently investigates MLB baseballs. “Standardizing is fine, but if none of the changes remedy an identifiable problem, they’re just protocol theater.”

Perhaps there should be a scientifically defined level of moisture and mud on the balls, and then some evidence of testing that shows that following these guidelines results in reaching that level. Then again, it’s a man-made ball used by many different people with different opinions about that ideal level of moisture, so short of a player-approved pre-tacked ball (which might not be all that close), there might not be an ideal solution.

Maybe listening to teams and iterating toward a collectively defined list of best processes is all that baseball can do. That does mean success will be defined subjectively, though, which means the debate about the process will almost certainly continue.

(Top photo of a ball being mudded for use in spring training: Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

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