Frisco, Texas —— Back in late May, I was sitting with Seattle Mariners outfield prospect Braden Bishop in the visitor’s dugout at Dr. Pepper Ballpark. Bishop, then playing with the Arkansas Travelers of the Double-A Texas League, and I were catching up a few hours before that night’s game after having not seen each other since last year’s Arizona Fall League.
At some point, our conversation turned to hitting, where Bishop explained further adjustments he’d been making to his swing — no doubt an oft-discussed point of emphasis for the outfielder after his breakout season last summer. During that chat, though, another hitting topic came up, inspired by a tweet he and I had both recently seen cross our feeds:
I predict that by 2030, on-field BP will be a thing of the past. Teams will hire pitchers (much like an NFL practice squad) to throw off the mound to prepare hitters.
The question is, who will the first team to do it?
— Jason Ochart (@JasonOchart) May 30, 2018
Bishop didn’t feel like he was necessarily being best-served by the conventional rounds of forty-five foot batting practice that have become ritual about three hours before every game, and Ochart’s tweet became a jumping-off point for us to hypothesize about some of the what-ifs around building a better BP. For a guy already well-known for thinking outside the box to make swing changes, Bishop was beyond ready for change to come to the repetitive ritual that on-field batting practice has become — an exercise of which he’s a part probably at least 200 days a year, all things considered. Even for me, in the last four years covering minor league baseball, I can think of just four occasions I’ve seen organizations use live pitching in simulated games instead/ahead of batting practice: twice, it was rehabbing big league pitchers trying to get their work in early to avoid rain later in the evening (though neither time did it actually rain during the game), and twice in 2016, I recall the Colorado Rockies’ High-A Modesto Nuts trot out a couple lightly-used middle/long relievers to have them each face five or six hitters in a controlled “live” setting before regular batting practice began.
But aside from those specific situations, I have yet to see an organization trot out true ‘practice squad’ pitchers to go full-tilt and throw live each afternoon; Bishop hadn’t seen it, either. But the idea got us both thinking — and it, along with a tweet, gave me the idea to go around and ask a few hitting prospects from multiple organizations about whether they were being best served by batting practice as it currently stands, or if they expected (or wanted) a more game-like simulation. As you might expect, the responses are interesting — and somewhat varied.
Braden Bishop, OF, Seattle Mariners
“In my pregame routine in the cages, I typically do a couple rounds of underhand flips, and then I like to get it overhand. Maybe not so much a full pitch, but something that’s going to really get on me. I don’t like a flat toss from a few feet away. I really need to see something moving with plane, something with some life. I want to see something that’s really getting on me and coming downhill, because I feel like the faster I can train, the slower it’ll be when it comes time for the game. I can honestly feel it. Maybe not my body so much as my eyes, but when I see something that gets on me that quick, I know that I really have to react quickly to it. And then when it’s game time and the mound is another fifteen feet away, it really feels like I can see the ball forever before I make a decision. The times when I don’t get that hard front toss, in the game it feels like the guy is releasing it and it’s getting to the glove before I can ever figure out what I’m supposed to do.”
Jalen Miller, 2B, San Francisco Giants
“I don’t think it’d be a bad thing if we started to see live pitching. I actually really never thought about it. In BP now, occasionally we’ll have a rover come through and he’ll spin curveballs to us from fifty feet, just so we can see the spin, see the ball out of the hand. For me, that makes a difference, even something simple like that. So, yeah, I guess I could see it helping us if we had some ex-pitcher come out here and actually pitch to us, or something.”
“But at the same time, I’m a feel guy. If I feel good in BP, I can translate it over into the game. And I want to feel good in BP. That’s the goal. For me, it’s a confidence thing. I know I can have a bad BP and still have a good game that night, but I really, really want to have a good BP round, and feel good about it, and take that into the game. It’s muscle memory. That feel factor really helps me confidence-wise. Would I be losing that if I saw pitchers who were really trying to get me out in BP?”
Camden Duzenack, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks
“That’s actually a really interesting question to come my way, because I’m really trying to figure out what works best for me right now. That’s part of the reason why I’m here, that’s what the minor leagues are for. Honestly, there are some days where my swing doesn’t feel right, and I just want to take front toss, maybe a little bit of overhand, and I just want to get back to feeling good about myself and my swing, you know? Maybe I’m going through a slump or whatever, but it’s like I just need some front toss, something to get me back in the groove. Maybe I need to hit a couple bombs, and I can remind myself that I’m a good player, that I’m good at hitting. Sometimes you just need to see the ball leave the yard.”
“But then there’s other days where I know I really need to focus on my approach, and I really just need the coach to throw curveballs, and changeups, and sliders, really try to mess up my timing, so that I can see three to four at-bats here in the cage or on the field before I even get in the game. I want that starting pitcher, whoever I face in my first at-bat that night, I want it to feel like my fourth or fifth at-bat of the day already. There are days where I have the worst BP during the day, but because it prepared me the right way, I do really well in the game that night. And that’s why I think it’s not all about just feeling good. Feeling good, getting swings in, that’s fine, but even just seeing that breaking ball in BP, struggling with something like that, even that little bit can make all the difference in the world when you get under the lights and see it again from an opponent that night.”
“So my routine is still evolving a little bit. I’ve really thought about the things that made me successful at the plate in college, and some of that is working a bit in pro ball, I think, but there are other things in college that just don’t work here. I’m not at that point where I know quite yet. I’m still trying to pick and choose, and figure out what works for me on an everyday basis, even when knowing that each day is just a little bit different.”
Gio Brusa, OF, San Francisco Giants
“I think there’s a lot of research going on right now that supports this idea of making changes to batting practice, and honestly, I would agree. The most important part of hitting is timing, and I don’t really believe that batting practice as it is now gets you ready to face 90 or 95 mph stuff. That’s why I go to the bullpen as much as I possibly can, just to stand in and track pitches. But honestly, it’d be nice to be able to swing a little bit off it, too, even if I swing and miss. Who cares? You’re just getting ready for the game. And I think I’m mentally strong enough [to struggle with bad pre-game at-bats]. I know myself well enough. When I have a bad last swing, or something, I’ll get out of the cage and be done. I’ll make it a point to prove to myself that I don’t need that one good final swing to show that I’m ready. I put in the work. I don’t need to ‘end on a good one’ just to believe I’m ready.”
“I think those changes are coming sooner than you think. Baseball can move very slowly when it comes to accepting certain things, but the game is really changing right now in so many different ways. Look at all the hitting information that’s come out even in the last few years. Look at all the sabermetric stuff from the past decade. I think teams are now realizing there’s value in being as progressive and cutting-edge as they can be. And because of that, I think this idea that BP could change is much more near to us in the future than it is far away.”
Bryce Johnson, OF, San Francisco Giants
“If we had the arms, I would love to face live pitching every day. The other thing I really like, especially when we’re back at home, is the machine work. I know a lot of guys hate the machine, but I’m a little bit different. For me, as a lefty, it really forces me to get on time. I’m generally always a little late with my left-handed swing right now because it’s new, and I’m really trying to see the ball, but with the machine, you have to see it early and track it quickly, and really make a decision immediately. Hitting that before BP is something I really like to do. And we do that all the time when we’re back at home.”
“I don’t know if it will change [during his career]. I would love to see something like that happen, especially from a hitter’s standpoint in helping us get ready for the game, if we had the arms to do it. I think it would be awesome. Batting practice doesn’t really prepare us for some of these pitchers we see night in and night out, but if something like this happened, with real pitchers throwing us real pitches pre-game, I would definitely take advantage of that. I would use it every day.”
For more features like this on batting practice…
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