Pull the screens out, grab a guy who can toss it about 60 mph over the heart of the plate, and let it rip.
On-field batting practice is a time-honored tradition in Major League Baseball, taking place like clockwork before every game. The ritual dates all the way back to the late 19th century, but back in those early days, starting pitchers would actually throw BP. That practice died decades ago, and while modern hitters can expect to face mid-90s heat and filthy breaking balls when the bullets are live, in BP, they’re typically facing a middle-aged coach or staff member. BP pitches come straight as an arrow, yet a fraction as fast. While the throwers usually pitch well ahead of the rubber to try to make up for the massive discrepancy in velocity, there’s only so much you can do to dress up a 58 mph meatball.
And therein lies the problem. A recent article from The Athletic’s John Lott outlines why many MLB clubs are beginning to slowly cut down on this well-worn ritual. The Toronto Blue Jays are one team decreasing their amount of traditional pre-game BP, as the practice is now optional inside the organization. From Lott:
They are scaling back the traditional emphasis on outdoor batting practice. Their greater focus is on work in the indoor batting cage, where batters can hit off a tee, take their hacks at short-distance flips from a coach and face high-velocity pitching machines.
Guillermo Martinez, the team’s new hitting coach, along with Dave Hudgens, the team’s new bench coach, are spearheading the effort. Hudgens actually implemented a similar philosophy as the hitting coach for the Houston Astros over the past three seasons.
Chicago Cubs manager Joe Madden has been beating this drum for a while now. “I like getting ground balls. I like getting loose,” Maddon told MLB.com in 2015. “I like running if you have to. I like getting loose in a cage if it’s necessary. But too many times batting practice develops into a Home Run Derby, which really becomes useless or counterproductive…I think it’s the most overrated thing we do on a daily basis.”
Others believe advances in technology have simply eliminated the biggest advantage on-field BP offers over hitting inside a cage—namely, being able to actually see where the ball winds up. Tracking systems inside pro batting cages can calculate the exit velocity, spin, direction and angle of every batted ball, allowing a program to calculate and display exactly where that ball would wind up on the actual diamond. Additionally, modern pitching machines have become so intricate that they’re capable of closely mimicking the stuff of real-life aces.
During Bryce Harper’s 2015 season, in which he was named the unanimous NL MVP after batting .330 with 81 extra-base hits, he performed almost no on-field BP. Part of his reasoning was that it was simply too tiring—the energy of swinging on the field in front of all those eyes often got him unnecessarily charged up, and he frequently found himself swinging for the fences when he should’ve been working on refining other parts of his offense. It’s the equivalent of a basketball player mindlessly chucking up long threes over and over, yet more exhausting.
Players can practice with a purpose—whatever that purpose may be—much more easily in the cage. Toronto first baseman Justin Smoak told The Athletic that when he’s expecting to face a flamethrower, he’ll often crank up a pitching machine to 95 mph and move it up to 50 feet.
“In the cage, you can speed it up,” Smoak said. “It can be coming in there a hundred and something. You can also work from different distances. You can have it coming in at 95 at 60 feet, six inches, then you can move it to 50 feet and now it’s coming in there really good.”
Traditional batting practice also sees players on their feet for long stretches of time (it usually takes about 50 minutes for one team to take BP), as it’s generally expected you stand around and watch many of your teammates go through their rounds. On-field BP also tends to results in more overall swings than cage work. Over time, these little acts add up.
“Doing your work in the cage, you can be a little bit more disciplined and also stay off your feet a little bit. You play 162 games and 30-some games in spring training, and hopefully you get to the playoffs. At the end of the season guys are pretty beat. And if you’re hitting all the time on the field and on your feet all the time, eventually it can take something out of you,” Hudgens told The Athletic.
In 2014, the Seattle Mariners estimated that they went through 35,000 baseballs a year—equivalent to $245,000—just during batting practice. Many pitchers see little value in the exercise, as well, as they’re often required to shag balls during BP.
“We’re standing out there picking up the balls and getting stiff backs. I guess it’s nice to get outside in the sunshine, but it’s a waste of time for everybody,” former MLB pitcher and two-time All-Star Jason Isringhausen told The New York Times in 2012.
Still, don’t expect the ceremony of on-field BP to disappear entirely. Some players, like Jose Bautista, say they like the opportunity to see how the ball is flying through the weather conditions on a given day. Some like taking swings where they’ll be taking their hacks during the game. Some even like launching long balls for the fans.
But simply doing something because you’ve always done it is no longer a satisfactory answer in an increasingly data-driven game. While amateur teams may not have the same facilities and gizmos the pros do, the trend raises a point every baseball player and coach should ponder—what do I need to work on, and what’s the best way to actually work on it?
Photo Credit: Nick Wosika/Getty Images, Quinn Harris/Getty Images