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Why Do Catchers Change Balls?

When watching a baseball game on TV you may have noticed Major League catchers constantly going through baseball after baseball, but why is that? After seeing a catcher look at the ball and get rid of it, one might come to the conclusion that he’s not a fan of how the baseball looks so he requests a brand new ball. That is sometimes true, but it turns out that this scenario is not always the case.

A Rawlings baseball in the background with overlaying text that says "Why Do Catchers Change Balls?"

Catchers constantly change baseballs because it is a rule set by the MLB and enforced by umpires. If an umpire notices a ball is scuffed or has dirt on it, a brand new baseball must be introduced into the game. This rule is in place to ensure hitters are able to clearly see every pitch.

So the rule is in place to protect the hitter by allowing them to clearly see a pitch, but there was an unfortunate event that led to this rule being implemented.

Ray Chapman’s Death Led to a New Rule to Replace Dirty Baseballs

Ray Chapman was a shortstop, second baseman, and third baseman for the Cleveland Naps (later renamed the Cleveland Indians) who was unfortunately hit in the head by a pitch during a game on August 16, 1920.

This hit to the head led to Ray Chapman dying 12 hours later, which makes him the only player in MLB history to have died from an injury received during a game. Ray Chapman’s death led to Major League baseball implementing a new rule which required umpires to replace the baseball whenever it was dirty or scuffed.

The reason behind this rule was due to how baseball teams encouraged the treatment of baseballs during games. Prior to Chapman’s death, it was very common for pitchers to rough up the baseball by spitting on it, rubbing it with dirt, cutting it, etc. This common strategy led to the ball being discolored and misshapen, especially later in the game.

This treatment of baseballs gave pitchers a big advantage because they were able to throw pitches with abnormal spin. The rough treatment of baseballs is also said to have made it difficult for Chapman to see the pitch because of how discolored it was. Therefore, a new rule was implemented to help protect hitters – umpires must change out dirty baseballs.

In fact, section 3.01 of the official MLB rules still states “No player shall intentionally discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil, rosin, paraffin, licorice, sand-paper, emery-paper or other foreign substance.“.

And the penalty for violating this rule is “The umpire shall demand the ball and remove the offender from the game. In addition, the offender shall be suspended automatically for 10 games.

Three Scenarios for When Baseballs are Taken Out of Play

The MLB rulebook lists out three specific instances where umpires are required to change baseballs. Those three instances are:

  • The ball is hit out of play
  • The ball has become discolored or unfit for use
  • The pitcher requests a new ball

1) Baseballs are Replaced When the Ball is Hit Out of Play

Foul balls and home runs are always replaced, especially when the baseballs are hit into the stands.

The official ruling in the MLB rulebook states the umpire must replace a baseball when “a ball has been batted out of the playing field or into the spectator area” (Rule 4.01(e)(1)).

There are some spectators who will throw a home run ball back onto the field and in these scenarios, the baseball must still be replaced.

2) Baseballs are Replaced Whenever the Ball is Discolored or Unfit for Use

Due to the rule of needing to replace baseballs, catchers are frequently inspecting the ball and handing it to the umpire whenever the ball is dirty or discolored.

The official ruling in the MLB rulebook states the umpire will replace a baseball when “a ball has become discolored or unfit for further use” (Rule 4.01(e)(2)).

In general, when the ball is discolored for any reason it will be replaced. This means when a pitcher throws a breaking pitch into the dirt, you’ll see the catcher hand the ball back to the umpire and the umpire will replace the ball.

3) Baseballs are Replaced When Pitchers Request a New Ball

Sometimes pitchers are just not fans of the baseball they are given. Whenever they see something wrong with a baseball they are able to call time out and request a new baseball.

The specific rule in the MLB rulebook states the umpire will replace the baseball when “the pitcher requests such alternate ball” (Rule 4.01(e)(3)).

Because baseballs get replaced so frequently in the Major Leagues, there is a good chance the baseball the pitcher is holding is already a new baseball. This translates into pitchers not requesting new baseballs very often, but there are those occasions where a ball might be scuffed or misshapen and the pitcher will request an alternate ball.

Do Baseballs Get Reused?

After seeing catchers give the ball back to the umpire and the umpire discarding that baseball, many people wonder what happens to those baseballs. It seems like a waste to throw those baseballs away, so what happens to those discarded baseballs?

In the MLB, discarded baseballs don’t get reused at all. Discarded baseballs go through a process to get authenticated and sold in MLB shops as used memorabilia.

Mary Delach Leonard wrote a great article for St Louis Public Radio that explains the rigorous process used to authenticate the discarded baseballs.

In short, the home team is responsible for collecting and authenticating each discarded baseball. The bat boy will collect each discarded baseball and hand it to an authenticator, who is responsible for keeping track of each discarded baseball and documenting what was happening during that play.

Once the baseballs have been authenticated, they are packaged and labeled with some details around what was happening during the time the ball was in play. Once packaged and labeled, they are ready to be sold in MLB shops or sold online.

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Steve Nelson

I'm the owner of Baseball Training World. I live in Denver, Colorado and I enjoy playing baseball in an adult baseball team in the surrounding area. Read more about Steve Nelson.

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