Our turn to learn: A baseball tradition reconsidered

August 07, 2013 - 2:42 am

As I strolled up to the plate at the Tokyo Dome, on a random date early in my only Japanese (partial) season of 2005, a thought bubble appeared above my head: '€œHow in the world did I get here?'€ I had begun to feel like a character in a comic strip as I surveyed the stands and heard the drums banging in unison. A chant had begun to fill the stadium, '€œKA-PU-AH, KA-PU-AH.'€ The fans seemed to find it immaterial that I was off to the worst start of my career and they couldn'€™t sense the level of embarrassment that permeated my body in the moment; they simple wanted to see me '€˜Ganbatte'€™ (do your best!). The Japanese fans never booed their own players. The experience got better and . . . stranger. I stepped in the batter'€™s box and stared down my Japanese counterpart. I allowed the moment to sink in. I represented the only Western face in sight. In a flash -- and before I was ready -- the pitch was on its way. A sinker at about 90 mph stayed up in the zone and in the middle of the plate just enough. It was likely the only pitch, speed and location that I had any chance to put a good swing on instinctively at the time and I smoked a high line drive into the left-center field seats. The cheering sections in the stadium halted their calculated, rhythmic approach and went bananas in unison. As I rounded third base, the experience climaxed in comedy. Jumping up and down behind home plate were two young women in pigtails and Yomiuri Giants colors holding giant stuffed animals. I crossed the plate and the women thrust the furry toys into my arms. My second thought bubble arrived. '€œPlease, God, don'€™t ever let Trot Nixon get ahold of a video of this!'€ It'€™s Japanese tradition (or it was at the time) to receive two gifts after a significant play: one for the player, and the other for the player to deliver to a random fan in the stands, a ritual that I followed with a mixed sense of amusement and absurdity. It was natural at the time for me to feel a certain level of bias towards our American baseball tradition, and I did. Yet that sense did not extend to the entirety of my experience playing in Japan, particularly as it related to the process that positioned me to hit the home run that day (rather than the aftermath of my 360-foot tour of the bases). Years down the road, I feel it'€™s worth examining an area of Japanese baseball that is practiced more efficiently and, in all likelihood, more effectively than our approach. I owed my smidgen of success that day to a batting practice session that had me working on, of all things, sinkers. Coaches lobbing humped balls to the plate from a distance of 40 feet -- the prevailing convention in batting practice in the U.S. -- is hardly a game simulation. Generally speaking, hitters get very little out of this exercise that they couldn'€™t accumulate on their own in the cage with a tee or short toss in a shorter period of time. In a 162-game season that approaches 200 if you include spring training and potential postseason games, we need to be as economical as possible with our precious minutes. We can'€™t afford to be wasting essential vitality on exercises without reward. Eric Chavez spoke to the NY Times for a piece entitled '€œCherished Tradition or a Colossal Waste of Time?'€ '€œB.P. is part of baseball tradition,'€ Chavez said. '€œIt'€™s fun for the fans; you try to hit a couple of balls in the stands. But in terms of work, what are you working on? It'€™s a 30-mile-per-hour pitch.'€ I'€™ll expose myself a bit by saying I loved every minute of batting practice. I loved the controllable element of it. I knew I was getting a juicy, fat pitch and I was strong enough to put the ball in the seats at will on most days. Yeah, I'€™d get as much out of it as possible by envisioning scenarios like moving a runner from second to third base or scoring a guy from third base with less than two outs. But was I actually getting better? I think the answer is yes, but only marginally so, and I know there is a better way. I remember my first Japanese batting practice session as overwhelming and simultaneously exhilarating. Rather than our style, where a single turtle (a portable batting cage rolled in in an effort to save balls) is placed behind home plate, the Japanese have two of these devices side by side on the left and right of home plate. Each turtle has a catcher and two pitchers stand around 50 feet from the hitter, side by side, one left-handed and one right-handed. The session was like a dance, similar to the rhythmic drums that became familiar in the stands during games. As one pitcher released the ball, the hitter on the other side made contact. '€œCRACK, pause, CRACK,'€ echoed throughout the park. The fielders were blessed with consistent opportunities to take live balls off the bat, arguably the most valuable element of American B.P. Defenders need ground and fly balls at game speed as well, which are nearly impossible to simulate with a coach-hit ball smacked by a fungo bat. As you can imagine, swings are more plentiful and time is saved with the Japanese system. Casey McGehee, currently playing for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, reminded me, '€œThe B.P. throwers are animals. They throw from about 50 feet and are letting it eat (throwing hard)! Also, hitters will have the throwers mix in sliders, changeups, curveballs -- whatever you want. I really enjoy the way that they do B.P. because I feel it is much more game-like than what you get in the States.'€ Batting practice pitchers in Japan are often former professional pitchers. I was shocked to find out, as Casey mentioned, that not only could I request middle-middle sinkers (like I did the day of my rare, stuffed-animal-yielding homer) and hanging breaking balls in BP, but I could request a located off-speed pitch, and the guy throwing had the ability to deliver on the request. It all made more sense when I found out that these men are sometimes paid in excess of the equivalent of $100,000 a year to take good care of the hitters'€™ needs as they prepare themselves for battle. They don'€™t have additional responsibilities, like our coaches do, and they can focus on being great at presenting as close to game situation practice as possible. They are highly incentivized to excel. If they'€™re unable to satisfy the needs of the hitter, they might find themselves in another line of work. Ryan Spilborghs, an MLB vet and currently an outfielder with the Saitama Seibu Lions, suggested that the designated throwers '€œpitch more through a natural windup than the typical short arm throw of a U.S.-style B.P.'€ Spilly was pointing out how valuable it is to have a realistic timing mechanism as opposed to the quick hitch style of our coaches'€™ B.P. At the same time, he noted that there are merits to the lower-key approach familiar in U.S. ballparks. '€œThere are days you need to just feel your hands fire,'€ Spilborghs told me. '€œIt may be a mindless 40 mph lob in the States, but sometimes you need that more than battling during B.P.'€ I submit that the scenario that he'€™s describing is the right time to drag a coach to the cage and call it confidence practice rather than batting practice. Because baseball players and their personalities are highly variable, it would be impossible to remove traditional batting practice altogether, which might be my lean if we were unable to get the old dogs to adopt the new tricks. Players often confuse routine with productivity and have strong, unfounded associations with batting practice. '€œI think it'€™s vital,'€ Derek Jeter told the Times. '€œI like to hit every day.'€ Derek'€™s too good a player for his sentiment to be taken lightly. But sometimes we don'€™t know how much we'€™d like an alternate, potentially superior way before we accept the idea and give it a try. I often use technology as a parallel for the adoption of new baseball techniques. We get attached to our iPhone 5 until the 6 is released and then we can'€™t imagine going back. I asked one of my all-time favorite teammates, the Phillies'€™ Michael Young, about B.P., and he told me, '€œI think B.P. is valuable, but I also feel like days in the cage should be more common. There'€™s nothing like the game environment, but it'€™s also good to get off your feet, especially this time of year. '€œ Two things jumped out at me regarding Mikey'€™s response. First, getting off one'€™s feet would be easier if batting practice was shorter (which by nature, Japan'€™s version would be) by 50 percent or even 25 percent. And second, his desire for a form of practice that more closely replicates game speed illuminates why he'€™d love a bite of what Japan is serving up. There are barriers to the successful implementation of the Japanese B.P. method, albeit not insurmountable. '€œIt'€™s all about the money,'€ Bobby Valentine, a veteran of managing in both cultures, told me. '€œOwners want managers to throw B.P. here (in the U.S.). Two cages mean twice as many B.P. pitchers needed.'€ I'€™m sure owners care about every dollar, but they also care about winning baseball games. And in today'€™s game, where a dollar figure is associated with every fraction of a win, I'€™m confident there is a progressive owner out there willing to make a calculated investment with strong player development implications. As with all important changes in baseball, it'€™s going to take a courageous, thick-skinned front office or influential field staff member to do the legwork necessary to introduce the Japanese B.P. system. I believe it will be done eventually because the downside (ruffling some feathers, investing a few bucks) is so limited and the upside so great (what if the result was one win a year?). It will become, if it'€™s not already, indisputable that the Japanese form of batting practice is indeed best. The home run celebrations? Maybe not. Gabe Kapler spent parts of 12 years in the major leagues from 1998-2010, playing for the Tigers (1998-99), Rangers (2000-02), Rockies (2002-03), Red Sox (2003-06 '€“ with a brief interlude in Japan), Brewers (2008) and Rays (2009-10). He also spent a year managing the Red Sox'€™ Single-A affiliate in Greenville. Follow him on twitter @gabekapler.