The Premier Baseball Social Network for Players, Coaches, Scouts, and Umpires
Baseball is a sport defined by routines and traditions, and there are few more entrenched than batting practice, a pregame ritual that is far older than most teams that engage in it. For two hours before almost every game, each team dutifully rolls out the batting cage and hits slowly pitched balls to outfields across North America.
But despite its almost sacred place in the game, there is one little secret about batting practice: many players think it is a colossal waste of time, a mind-numbing, flaw-producing, strategically empty exercise.
Eric Chavez of the Yankees is a veteran of 15 years of major league batting practice, but he thinks it has helped him about as much as staring at a wall for an hour.
“B.P. is part of baseball tradition,” Chavez said. “It’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.”
Bobby Valentine, the manager of the Boston Red Sox, thinks players get almost nothing out of traditional batting practice and would be better served working on specific drills in the indoor cages at each stadium.
“Batting practice?” he said. “I hate batting practice.”
Not that it has stopped him from overseeing it game after game. Traditions die hard in baseball, and this one is even older than the American League. There are published accounts of batting practice dating all the way back to the late 1880s.
So, no one is predicting an end to batting practice. But, hey, baseball was never going to use instant replay, either. Dreams can come true.
And no one is dreaming harder for the end of batting practice than the game’s pitchers, for if some in baseball see the value of batting practice as a bit of a myth, pitchers, who are required to pick up the scattered balls in the outfield, universally despise it.
“Those guys are just having fun, laughing and hitting home runs,” said Jason Isringhausen, the 16-year veteran relief pitcher of the Los Angeles Angels, “and 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.”
As with any enduring tradition, however misguided, the routine does have its durable devotees, players who have grown up doing it every day and who at least think they rely on it to hone their skills. Derek Jeter, the Yankees’ shortstop, believes that his adherence to batting practice has helped him amass more than 3,200 hits, and loathes the occasional days when it is washed out by rain.
“I think it’s vital,” he said. “I like to hit every day.”
And Albert Pujols, the most feared hitter of the last decade, still insists that batting practice can affect how he hits in a game. “Whatever you bring to B.P. is what’s going to show in the game,” he said.
But, really, are Jeter and Pujols just kidding themselves?
Many think that traditional outdoor batting practice is a routine that has little technical value and, in some cases, actually retards success by reinforcing bad habits. But like so much else in baseball, batting practice continues to be done because, well, that’s the way it has always been done.
“And the fans like it,” Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said. “It has some value because players are very routine-oriented. But I think guys can hit too much.”
In batting practice, a pitcher, usually a coach, stands behind an L-shaped screen placed about halfway between the mound and the plate. The goal is to throw straight, hittable pitches to the batter, pitches that bear little resemblance to the cutting, diving missiles they will face later in the game.
Chavez explains that hitting a ball high and far in batting practice may excite the handful of early-bird fans in attendance, but it can delude a player into thinking he has the right swing when he might not.
“You may hit a ball out, but you may hit it at the wrong angle because it’s a slower pitch,” he said. “Therefore, you can use a longer swing and pretty much do whatever you want with the ball. That won’t work against live pitching.”
The real work for hitters is done indoors, off tees and against high-velocity pitching machines. When the slugger Jason Giambi played for the Oakland Athletics, he would go weeks without taking batting practice when his swing was good for fear of developing bad habits. Instead, he would work in the indoor cages to hone his mechanics.
But outdoor batting practice? Giambi and others think it’s just baseball’s version of basketball’s layup lines — a mostly mindless, half-speed routine in which players take the easiest shot in the game with no defensive resistance. But layup lines last maybe five minutes, and teams do it simultaneously. Batting practice lasts 50 minutes for each team, and it involves infielders taking ground balls and outfielders chasing down fly balls.
“We’re the only sport in the world that has a full-scale practice before every game,” Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez said.
But lest you think he was saying that critically, Rodriguez asserts that he relishes every moment of batting practice.
Angels Manager Mike Scioscia says it is an important way for players to loosen up before a game, much like layup lines. But in this case, the pitchers are told to do the rebounding.
Shagging. It’s a dirty word in baseball.
Among the many things that divide the dual fraternities of pitchers and hitters, there are few sources of friction more contentious than batting practice, because of the shagging. Batting practice is designed and maintained for hitters. For one hour each day, pitchers are their servants.
Unless they are working in the bullpen, pitchers are expected to stand in the outfield and pick up the balls. It causes a simmering resentment, which can fester as the pitchers stand in groups of twos and threes, their arms folded, yammering about everything under the sun.
“Nothing good comes from boredom and baseball players,” Isringhausen said. “We stand there and talk about stuff that we shouldn’t be talking about. Heaven forbid they have microphones on pitchers shagging. It would just be bleep, bleep, bleep for an hour and a half. It’s gossip hour, looking in the stands, getting into mischief, throwing baseballs to people. That’s all it is.”
Asked what the value of batting practice is, Yankees relief pitcher Dave Robertson said, “Zero.”
Torii Hunter, the Angels’ veteran outfielder, said, “If a pitcher says it’s a waste of time, then yes, because all they do is stand around and gossip and talk about us.”
Many pitchers also complain that the standing around causes lower back and leg stiffness. Many teams permit pitchers to skip the drudgery of shagging in spring training. The Angels bring in local Arizona firefighters to do the job in the spring.
And for all the griping and the joking, shagging, like any physical activity, can suddenly turn dead serious.
On May 3, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, the career saves leader, tore a knee ligament while chasing a fly ball in batting practice. He has been out of action since then, and is expected to miss the rest of the season.
Then, there can be the just plain strange and unlikely, and all of it risked for what?
Girardi said that when he played for the Chicago Cubs, a teammate was struck by a batted ball in batting practice at Candlestick Park in San Francisco as he was running around the bases. When the trainer went out to attend to him, he was hit, too.
“We sent both of them to the hospital,” Girardi said.
Chipper Jones was hit by a ball off the bat of Ryan Klesko in the outfield during the 1997 playoffs, and Isringhausen said he was once hit in the back of the head while he was looking into the stands at Wrigley Field.
“I was O.K. because I got hit in the one spot of my body I could take it,” he said. “I turned around and said, ‘I think I just got hit in the head with a baseball,’ and everyone was laughing.”
But if batting practice carries so little value, why don’t skeptical managers like Valentine shorten it, or do away with it altogether? Oh, but what would players do, then?
“I don’t think I could break the routine,” he said. “Guys wouldn’t know what to do.”
Jose Bautista, the Toronto Blue Jays slugger, said he did not absolutely need batting practice, but he liked it. Bautista reflects a commonly held belief that it is important to get outside just to see the backdrop of the stadium and check the atmospheric conditions of the day, even if it means a group of bored pitchers will have to attend to his scattered hits.
“Somebody has to pick up the balls,” Bautista said.