A Novel Idea in the Majors: Using Batting Practice to Get Better – Smart Media Magazine

A Novel Idea in the Majors: Using Batting Practice to Get Better

While meeting with the Houston Astros’ instructional league players in September 2013, the roving hitting instructor Jeff Albert asked the young prospects a series of questions.

Do you swing and miss in the game? Yes, they said.

When’s the last time you swung and missed in practice? Never.

How many strikes does a pitcher throw in a game? Fifty, 60 percent. How may strikes do we throw in practice? Ninety-five, 100 percent.

“Does this make sense?” Albert asked at the end. “Does this match up with what we’re doing?”

When the players agreed that their batting practice and games had little in common, Albert changed things up to replicate game situations: Coaches wheeled the L-screen closer to the plate, and pitching machines spewed high-velocity fastballs and breaking pitches — sometimes side by side — as well as from different angles.

The players started breaking so many bats in practice — which rarely happened in their previous iteration of B.P. — that the custodian stopped emptying the barrel of wooden shards. The changes implemented by Albert soon trickled up the system all the way to the Astros’ major league club.

“B.P. seemed like the hardest thing in the world,” said infielder Tyler Wolfe, who played in the Astros’ farm system in 2016 and 2017. “Before that, I thought the game was always pretty tough. Then we would take B.P. like that, and the game almost seemed easier after that.”

Much of this innovation is happening out of public view — in the minors or in the indoor batting cages at big-league ballparks — making an exact accounting of adopters an impossible task. The Astros have implemented competitive batting practice throughout their organization, and have been joined in varying degrees by at least the Blue Jays, Phillies and Reds. The Cardinals and Orioles are among the clubs exploring similar plans.

“If your results are too good in practice, the practice is probably too easy, and you’re not learning something new,” said Albert, who joined the Cardinals as hitting coach last winter. “You’re just performing something you’re already good at it. And there’s certain value for that, especially in the big leagues.

“But on the development side, when you need to improve a couple things, there probably needs to be a little bit more challenge and a little bit more failure in practice to learn from.”

Albert first explored the idea in conversations with Sig Mejdal in St. Louis in 2008 and 2009, when Albert was a Class A hitting coach and Mejdal was an analyst for the franchise. Jeff Luhnow was a Cardinals vice president overseeing scouting and development, but the timing wasn’t right for something radical.

But things realigned in 2013 when the three men were reunited in Houston with Luhnow overseeing all baseball operations and Mejdal a top adviser. (Luhnow declined to comment for this article.)

“Obviously, if you look at a traditional batting practice, that’s wonderful if, at seven o’clock, you’re going to have a home run derby,” said Mejdal, who joined the Orioles as assistant general manager last winter. “But you’re not. You’re going to have a pitcher who’s motivated to get you out, and that’s the opposite of the batting practice pitcher.”

But not everyone in baseball is ready to embrace the new methods. When Mejdal was on the coaching staff of the Astros’ Class A team, the Tri-City ValleyCats, in 2017, he and Albert were rolling a pitching machine onto the field for batting practice during a series on the road. A groundskeeper for the home team yelled out a profane remark questioning their manhood.

“It may seem like an insignificant or easy change, but it’s really ingrained and it is a significant change in culture,” Mejdal said.

And not all batters feel the need to give up their B.P. routines. The Reds’ star first baseman, Joey Votto, mixes in more challenging batting drills “every so often,” he said, but he cautioned against making it a daily ritual.

“One of the issues you run into with a really long season is, if you make it too competitive, you have a tendency to burn out,” he said.

J.D. Martinez of the Red Sox viewed batting practice as “symptomatic” rather than prescriptive.

“You go to the doctor, they don’t just give you antibiotics,” he said. “They check you out. It’s kind of the same thing: What’s wrong with you?”

Yankees infielder D.J. LeMahieu said he and most of his teammates might experiment with drills during early hitting in the cage but added, “Once B.P. starts, it’s building that confidence and getting ready for the game.”

Daniel Laby, an ophthalmologist who has consulted for the Red Sox, Dodgers, Cubs and Astros, published an essay, “The Visual Case Against Batting Practice,” two years ago. Traditional B.P. was so different from live game situations that even watching practice swings could be harmful for batters, he said.

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