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The new juiced ball has turned Triple-A baseball into a video game

Baseball
Triple-A is using the Major League Baseball for the first time this season, and it's had a major impact on home runs. (Kenzie Bales/Nevada Sports Net)

Tim Locastro admits he's not a home run hitter. But this year, things are a little different.

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound outfielder who has split time between the Reno Aces and Arizona Diamonbacks entered the season with 28 home runs in 568 minor-league games, an average of one dinger per 20 games, which pencils out to about seven over a full season. But in just 24 games with the Aces this year, Locastro has popped eight home runs, the second most in a season in his career following a 10-homer campaign in 2017 over 127 games.

Locastro certainly deserves credit for his production. But there's another element that's entered the fray this season. For the first time, Triple-A has ditched the standard minor-league balls of the past for the major-league ball, which is harder and slicker. Through the first two months of the season, the results have been mind-boggling. The new baseball has turned Triple-A contests into a video game.

“I haven’t noticed a difference when I’m swinging," Locastro said, "but I’ve definitely seen the numbers behind it and it’s pretty crazy and eye-opening.”

Here is a sampling of the numbers from the Pacific Coast League this season.

* The average PCL game this season has produced 2.80 homers per game, up from 1.88 per game last season, an increase of 48.9 percent.

* The PCL is on pace to see 3,136 home runs this season compared to 2,097 last season, an increase of 1,039 dingers.

* Ten of the 16 PCL teams are on pace to hit more than the 173 home runs that led the league last season.

* The El Paso Chihuahuas are on pace to hit 304 home runs, the most in the PCL since the Sacramento Solons hit 305 in 1974.

* PCL teams are hitting a homer every 24 at-bats this season compared to every 36 at-bats last year.

* The Reno Aces are on pace to hit 228 home runs, which would be the most in a PCL season since the Omaha Golden Spikes hit 231 in 1999. Still, the Aces rank only fifth in the PCL in homers, meaning five teams are pace to hit the most homers in a PCL season in the last 20 years.

* The average PCL game is producing 11.17 runs per game, up from 9.52 per game last season, an increase of 17.3 percent.

And these are just the year-over-year numbers. When you take a wider look at things, they're even more drastic. In 2015 (just five seasons ago), the average PCL game saw 1.60 homers per game compared to the 2.80 homers per game this season, an increase of 75 percent. And the numbers are likely to be more drastic once the weather warms up as the ball travels further in the heat than the cold.

“You notice it in spring training having not been in the big-leagues yet," Kevin Cron, the former Aces slugger just called up to the big leagues, said of the new baseball. "They’re definitely harder baseballs. There’s no way around it. They’re definitely harder. But at the same time you have to square it up. You’re not going to get any favors. The ball is harder, so it may go a little bit further, but if you hit it, you hit it and the rest will take care of itself.”

The new ball and hitter-friendly environment has created some memorable moments in the first two months of the Aces' season, including:

* The Aces had one game in which a player hit four homers (Yasmany Tomas) and another hit for a cycle (Matt Szczur), something that has happened only once in MLB history (in 1923 by the Yankees).

* The Aces had another game with two players each hitting three homers (Cron, Locastro), something that last happened in the big leagues in 2001 (by the Brewers).

* The Aces scored 25 runs in a game earlier this month, tying the PCL record with 10 homers (set in 1974) in that contest. It had 15 homers over a two-game span, breaking the previous PCL mark of 13.

* And it rallied from a 13-5 ninth-inning deficit to score a 14-13 win (the team trailed by 10 runs at one point). Since 1957, MLB teams are 0-1,945 in games in which it trailed by eight-plus runs heading into the ninth inning.

Those offensive fireworks have had an additional, and probably unintended, consequence.

“One thing it’s impacted is the time of game," Aces manager Chris Cron said. "We’ve played some long games. But I think it’s the right move because there’s a big difference between the big-league balls and minor-league balls. They’ve always been a little harder. You can tell just by feeling them. It takes a little while for people to get used to that, especially the pitchers. The ball is a little slicker. You can’t control it as much. When Major League Baseball got everybody on track of using this one ball, it’s good because it’s even for everybody."

That ball is only being used at the big-league and Triple-A levels this season, with Double-A, Class A and the rookie leagues using the standard minor-league ball. The home run numbers in those leagues are in line with previous seasons while Triple-A has seen an offensive explosion. While Kevin Cron admits the new ball has helped with the offensive numbers, he said a different approach by players is always a factor.

Baseball has increasingly moved toward the "three true outcomes" of homers, strikeouts and walks, which means less balls in plays. Both strikeouts and walks are up in the PCL this season, although not as drastically as homers. The five-year change is more pronounced. PCL games this season have featured an average of 17.16 strikeouts, up from 14.2 in 2015, an increase of 20.8 percent.

"Fans like homers and strikeouts," Kevin Cron said. "Pitchers are trying to strike you out and hitters are trying to do damage. For me, specifically, I wouldn’t say I’m up there trying to hit a home run. You’re up there trying to do damage. That type of terminology has really helped me. You’re trying to find a pitch to do damage with, not just a pitch you can get a hit with. That mentality is kind of spreading across baseball more and more. That might also be a product as well as the baseballs.”

The PCL has always been a hitter-friendly league thanks to its high-altitude stadiums and warm summers, but the introduction of the MLB ball has ratcheted the home run totals to historic levels this season. So do hitters feel even the most minor bit of sympathy for pitchers who have to deal with the new juiced baseball?

“I know how hard it is to hit, so it’s hard to have sympathy for a pitcher when you know how hard it is on the other side," said Kevin Cron, who had 21 homers in 44 games with the Aces before being called to the big leagues. "They do a good job and try to throw you off your timing. It doesn’t matter how hard the ball is, if they throw you off time they’ll have success. As a hitter, you’re just trying to counteract that and be on time as many times as you can and hopefully hit those harder balls a little harder.”

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