Bradford: Is MLB batting practice on its way out?

Rob Bradford
July 06, 2018 - 8:22 am

WEEI.com photo

Shifts. Equipment. Schedules. Rules. They are all in the cross-hairs when it comes to trying to identify the evolution of Major League Baseball.

But how about batting practice? You better believe it.

"Yes. I believe that," said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. 

The question posed to Cora was in regards to if batting practice was one of a few things baseball continues to do just because that's how it's always been done. Go out to the field in front of the fans, hit 50 mph straight balls, put on a show and everybody feels good about what is to take place a few hours later. There is your BP.

But, much like many things in the game these days, the endeavor is being looked at with a critical eye.

"BP isn’t anywhere close to the game," said Red Sox pitcher Brian Johnson, a player perceived as a good hitting pitcher who was hoping to use the process to rediscover his swing before interleague play. "I can get up there and take BP and look somewhat good, but then you get in the game and 92 looks like 100. It’s almost better off standing in the bullpen just to see it or getting a machine. In Miami I’m like, ‘I’m prepared,’ and then I got in the game and it was a lot harder than I remembered."

Johnson's plight is just one example of how players and coaches are realizing there might be a better way.

More and more hitters are not even bothering to go outside to take batting practice, with Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers serving as the latest example. Sometimes such a switch will be strongly suggested by the team, as was the case in Hanley Ramirez's first season with the Sox when he was using BP to see how far he could every ball over the left field. But, for the most part, this has become a realization that the practice is becoming a bit archaic.

"The weather is a factor. Staying off your feet is a factor. And the facilities are a factor. You have a cage inside," Cora said. "You can put up the batting machine inside. These guys, they prepare differently than us."

Make no mistake about it, there are still reasons to venture out on the field for batting practice, but it's usually not to see how many home runs a hitter can manage in front of his adoring fans. It's about getting the lay of the land, which was why Mookie Betts made a point of going out to take outside BP in 100-degree heat at Nationals Park prior to the Red Sox' series opener against the Nats.

"When you’re at your home field, you always know the background, you know the surroundings. It’s probably less important to hit. When you’re on the road, especially the first day in, I think it’s pretty important to see if the background is a little bit different and feel the surroundings so you’re not uncomfortable when you go to the plate," explained Red Sox bench coach Ron Roenicke.

But after that first day, Betts wasn't going outside, and neither were any of the other Red Sox. The hitting was getting done underneath the stands, which is where the whole batting practice thing is quickly finding a permanent home.

So, how can traditional batting practice be saved?

One suggestion that has been making the rounds is to duplicate the kind of batting practice they have in Japan. While it is intriguing to look at Japan's implementation of two batting practices cages at the same time, with players in constant motion (participating in workout stations around the field), this isn't really on MLB's radar. What is gaining some traction is the thought of having well-paid, full-time BP pitchers who throw with game-like velocity and breaking balls, like they employ in the Nippon Professional Baseball League.

"I do think one day it’s going to be a little bit different," said Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers. "It’s just so hard to get a pitcher to replicate what it’s like in a game. Pitchers only have so many bullets. Even if you hire somebody outside you’re going to have to hire a lot of guys. I think also they have to stay in shape. You don’t want somebody up there who doesn’t have control, then you have your position player really potentially struggling with it.

"Players are going to dictate it. If players want it, it will happen."

But even the idea of bringing things up to game speed in batting practice isn't going to be universally accepted.

"I throw a little firmer, maybe than most people and people don’t like it as much, so I’ve actually tried to back off," Roenicke said. "It’s more just the repetition of the swings and the confidence. If you go up in BP and a guy is throwing hard all the time and you’re scuffling, it’s not good for the confidence."

Then there is how technology and equipment are pushing the hitters inside.

Not only does every ballpark have facilities somewhere between the clubhouse and dugout that fits all the hitters' needs, but the newer venues' spaces are tailor-made to rely exclusively on preparing inside. And then there is the next-level thinking, which has already taken root by some teams in Japan: Virtual reality.

"I do agree that hitters will do anything to gain an advantage and move closer to the realistic things when it comes to game action," Hyers said. "I don’t know what that is. You know what this game is, a trend. Somebody has tried it and has success with it, it’s a copy-cat league."

That's a reality we're finding out one less batting practice at a time.

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