A very interesting piece on the subject of batting practice from the New York Times Bats blog is catching many eyes today. It seems many people inside the baseball world are not enamoured with the time-honored practice of smacking taters and shooting the breeze.
The key quotes come mostly from pitchers, who object to their role as lowly servants to the prolific sluggers who pepper the outfield with baseballs without a care in the world. Pitchers suffer such grave indignities as stiff backs from all the bending over and sore legs from all the standing around! Can you believe it? That’s like something out of the Nazis!
Hit the jump for a photographic example of these freedom fighters under the cruel boot of oppression. Warning: not for the faint of heart.
Have you ever seen such unsettling images in your life? Look at these poor souls, forced to talk to one another, forced to entertain one another with witty repartee and assorted banter. The horror! And what’s worse? They’re standing around in the sun in TEXAS?! Union grievance, here we come!
On a personal level, I’ve had the privilege of spending some time on the field this season, watching BP from up close for the very first time. The one connection the NYT article fails to make but jumped to my mind immediately is the similarities between batting practice for baseball players and the driving range for professional golfers.
Professional golfers hit thousands of golf balls a week, in full-fledged practice sessions in which they tweak their swings and develop purpose-built shots suitable for the conditions they will face in the coming weeks and months. They also pound balls before their tournament rounds, getting loose and rehearsing some of the swing mechanics refined mid-week.
Batting practice seems, to my untrained eye, to serve a similar purpose to a pre-round bucket of balls for touring pros. Most hitters start out by sending the half-speed offerings the other way, working on rounding their swing into form and getting their bodies ready. Eventually the players settle into a nice rhythm, crushing balls to their pull fields.
Not all players put on a big show in BP. Oddly, Jeff Mathis seems to put on a more of a laser show display than Jose Bautista in my limited experience. Brett Lawrie consistently turns in the best BPs among the Jays I get to watch, launching upper tank bombs with regularity. Meanwhile Colby Rasmus, for whatever reason, does not. When it comes to at bats that count, Rasmus has more than twice as many home runs as the young Canadian.
As the Times pieces notes, it means different things to different players. Guys like Rasmus clearly prefer getting their work in the cages under the watchful eye of their hitting coach. Other players provide a good mix of both worlds. When I interviewed former big league slugger Shawn Green last fall, we discussed his notorious batting tee ritual that helped him mentally prepare. We also discussed, as Green does in his book The Way of Baseball, a BP competition he and fellow left-handed Jays alumnus Carlos Delgado created during their time together in Toronto.
Green and Delgado made a game of hitting to the middle of the diamond with power, counting home runs they clouted only if they were struck to the left-hand side (from the batter’s perspective) of right-center field. Green credits this daily contest with aiding him in becoming a more complete hitter, one capable of hitting to either alley with power.
The benefits of batting practice are varied as are the costs. Some fear BP allows bad habits to fester and sink in as players focus on the result instead of the process. The costs for others are even higher, as the risk of pitcher injury in the outfield is not insignificant during batting practice. Balls are flying around in every possible direction, with players stretching and wandering and a sea of ball boys and coaches just waiting to take a stray liner off the noggin.
Will baseball ever drop BP as part of the daily grind a baseball player must endure? Probably not. As much as veteran pitchers will bellyache about shagging flies, the alternative is them sitting in front of their lockers with their iPads. Alluring as that might be, Jose Bautista’s money quote to close the piece pretty much sums up their relative lot in life: “Somebody has to pick up the balls.” Guess that’s you, Major League pitchers of the world.