Asian pitchers must adjust to Classic balls

Cowhide covering presents challenge to hurlers in Group A

Japan's Shunsuke Watanabe finds the ball being used in the WBC too slick for his liking. (Itsuo Inouye/AP)

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TOKYO -- Staging a tournament like the World Baseball Classic presents more issues than meet the eye.

Although roster pullouts and Cuba's quest for official permission to play on U.S. soil have grabbed the headlines, the pitchers in Group A have had other worries, like adjusting to a different baseball.

What's in a ball? A lot, especially when it is made of different materials than one is used to, and there is just a month to get a feel for the quirks.

It doesn't take much more than a surface examination to see the main differences between the Rawlings WBC ball and the balls used in Asia. Cowhide, Rawlings' covering of choice since 1974, presents a challenge to pitchers who are accustomed to the horsehide balls used in Japan and elsewhere in Asia.

Although a layman may not notice the difference at first glance, a side-by-side comparison of the balls is telling. The texture is different, the size appears different and even the seams aren't the same.

It's been more than a month since Asia's four WBC teams received their shipments of balls for the WBC. Although not everyone is pleased with having to adjust to the different ball -- especially in the middle of what would be Spring Training -- they are trying to make the best of it.

"It is so obvious," said Chiba Lotte Marines pitcher Shunsuke Watanabe. "The Japanese ball is not slick, and the MLB ball is. I don't like the MLB ball."

Some pitchers have used the more "slippery" cowhide to their advantage.

"It is a lot better for my breaking ball," Yakult Swallows closer Hirotoshi Ishii told Japanese reporters.

Hanshin Tigers right-hander Kyuji Fujikawa also prefers the WBC ball, but he and Ishii are in the minority not only in Japan but throughout Group A. Korean and Taiwanese pitchers both have had trouble adjusting, citing similar concerns to their Japanese counterparts, as have the Chinese, but Korea's collection of Major League pitchers means only half its staff has had to adjust.

Unlike Japan, China and Chinese Taipei, Korea's pitching depth is seasoned with experience from across the Pacific. Korea is expected to use Major Leaguers Chan Ho Park, Jae-Wong Seo and Sun-Woo Kim as its starters for the WBC games in Tokyo on March 3-5, and has three other hurlers, among them Byung-Hyun Kim, who are currently playing in the Majors.

The Rangers' Akinori Otsuka is Japan's only MLB pitcher, and Taipei -- unless the Yankees' Chien-Ming Wang opts to play -- has only a couple Major League prospects who have handled a cowhide ball.

China has no one with Major League experience, but manager Jim Lefebvre said his pitchers have adjusted well to the higher seams.

"They had to learn to get on top of it, but once they did, they found it's got a little more juice," he said. "They're OK now.

"It's no excuse as far as the balls go. They made sure we got them in time, so every team has had the chance."

Although he and other pitchers are adjusting to the changes, Watanabe would like to see Rawlings go back to horsehide.

"I think we should put the good parts of the ball into one," Watanabe said. "The seams for the Pacific League have been changed for this year to be like the MLB ball, but what about the leather? I think the Japanese leather is better."

Stephen Ellsesser is a reporter for The Japan Times and a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.