Batting practice: Swings and misses

It's late afternoon, and as you glance again at the clock and wonder whether the workday will ever end, your favorite players are where you want to be -- at the ballpark beginning a daily ritual almost as comforting to them as the sound of Vin Scully's voice is to you. Scully has been calling Dodgers' games for 65 years; this ritual goes back much, much further than that, back almost to baseball's beginnings.

The scene: As music fills the air, the grounds crew wheels a large, netted cage to the plate. A coach pushes a cart filled with baseballs from the dugout to a low platform in front of the pitcher's mound. Another coach twists his arm like a windmill as he prepares to throw. Antsy hitters tuck their bats under their arms and pull on their gloves as they approach home for the routine that will prepare them to face 95 mph fastballs, biting curves and nasty sliders.

It's time for batting practice, a pregame convention ballplayers have been doing practically since Old Hoss Radbourn was a young pony. It is as familiar as stirrup socks, with the additional bonus that BP viewing is still available to those of us who can get out of work and to the stadium early enough. (Well, part of it is. More on that later).

Basketball players have shootarounds. Tennis players have warm-ups. But no sport's pre-competition drills compare to the importance, history and beauty of baseball's batting practice. And with the chance to catch home run balls in the bleachers, BP is infinitely more entertaining than watching football players stretch and do jumping jacks. You don't find fans chasing footballs outside Soldier Field like they chase baseballs outside Wrigley Field.

Batting practice is reliably consistent from the start of the season through the playoffs, with only the slightest change as we roll deeper into September and call-ups add to the number of players taking part or veteran players scale back slightly on the number of swings they take to rest their bodies.

"You only have so many bullets in those hands," Seattle manager and former Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon said. "It's just that time of year where we cut it down two or three minutes per group."

Which isn't to say this baseball constant hasn't changed. Like many timeless traditions, batting practice has evolved over the decades.

"I can't put a timeline on it, but it has changed significantly," Hall of Famer and 3,000 Hit Club member Paul Molitor said. "Batting practice was primarily done on the field when I started. In Milwaukee, I don't know how many days we didn't have it. If it rained or they covered the field, you couldn't go in the cage -- you just had to come on the field and play."

Now, much of BP is done off the field. There are batting cages out of the fans' eyesight where players work on flip drills or hit against pitching machines. There are better, more varied, iterations of those pitching machines. There are extensive video libraries -- available in the video room or on their smart phones -- that allow players to review whatever they want: an opposing pitcher's fastballs, curveballs and changeups, their pitches in certain counts, the hitter's swings against specific pitches on any count in any previous at-bat. There is early BP and extra BP and occasionally even in-game BP. There are, simply, more swings taken, and there is more time and more thought put into those swings (which some say isn't always a good thing).

What hasn't changed much over the years, though, is the essential routine of pregame BP's main sessions. It begins roughly two and a half hours before game time and lasts 45 to 50 minutes per team. Usually, four groups of players take several rounds of swings, beginning with a few bunts followed by 25 to 30 total cuts for each hitter.

Some players swing for the fences. Some work on hitting the other way. Some do both. Some spray balls to all fields. Some wait patiently for a pitch in a specific part of the strike zone. Some swing at anything and everything. Some are at an utter loss if their BP routine is disrupted. Some can let it go without a care.

"I remember once Cecil Cooper didn't take BP for a month -- he just felt he was in a good place and didn't need to do anything," Molitor said. "The other extreme was when you played the Yankees: There was Don Mattingly, who took 250 swings in a cage almost on a daily basis."

"Some guys need to swing and swing. Other guys have one swing and say 'I'm good' and just walk out of the cage," 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen said. "Everyone knows guys who hit until they're sweating. Everybody is different. It's a comfort thing."

As Raul Ibanez said, batting practice "is what you make of it."

The great and comforting thing about it? It's always there for the making -- for them and for us.

IN "BULL DURHAM," CRASH tells his teammates on the bus that in the majors, "You hit white baseballs for batting practice" rather than blemished, soiled old balls in the low minors. This is true. And big league teams go through a lot of them -- I mean, a lot.

Each day, the Mariners place 240 new baseballs into the big basket that coaches wheel onto the field for BP. They also fill up another basket for the visiting team. (All home teams do that so the visiting teams don't need to pack their own.) When those baskets are wheeled off the field after BP, they hold far fewer baseballs.

The Mariners estimate they go through 35,000 baseballs in batting practice over the course of a season. Yes, 35,000. Throw in the baseballs used in the games, and they figure they go through 50,000 baseballs a year. The balls cost $84 a dozen (and the price is likely to rise to $91 a dozen next year), so that's $350,000 in baseballs, including about $245,000 for batting practice alone.

Where do all the baseballs go? Many go over the fence, of course, either hit by batters or tossed by players to fans in the stands begging for them. ("'Please' goes a long way," Seattle reliever Tom Wilhelmsen said of how to get a player to flip one to you.) Others are scuffed-up enough (and it doesn't take much scuffing) that they are dispatched for cage work or to minor league affiliates. Wherever they go, those baseballs all have to be replaced, every day.

Thirty-five thousand batting practice baseballs. No, I don't know how many cows that is.

One major change in batting practice over the decades is the availability of hitting cages in the newer, larger stadiums. In the old days, a separate batting cage wasn't always available, particularly for the visiting players, who sometimes had to simply hit into a net, if there was anything to hit into at all.

"It's much better now than it was before," said Ibanez, who made his major league debut in 1996. "Now, pretty much every ballpark has a cage in it. The ones that don't have one for the visitors are few and far between." (Wrigley Field has a shared cage under the bleachers in center field.)

Extra cages mean it's easier for players to work on other hitting drills off the field. There is front toss (in which a ball is tossed softly to a batter from just a few feet away) and side toss (same thing, but the ball is tossed from the side) and hitting off a tee or off a machine. Front toss, side toss, soft toss, whatever -- this caught on as a BP routine in the early to mid-1990s.

"Even back then, Lee Elia was flipping in the cage to every player from about 2 or 2:30 to our 4 o'clock stretch," Ibanez said. "I would say the difference is you can go in during the game and hit now. I don't think you saw that as much back then."

McCutchen said he spends about five to 10 minutes every day in the cage working on flip drills and hitting balls off a tee.

"It doesn't take long," he said. "Get in, get the feeling, get out."

Baseball is a game of routine, and getting that feel is a big part of BP, but there are other goals. Asked what he tries to accomplish with batting practice, Mariners DH/outfielder Corey Hart shrugged and said, half-seriously, "Hit home runs."

Perhaps that (plus his injuries) is why Hart is hitting .202 with six home runs this season. Batting practice home runs are entertaining to see -- Mike Trout said he loved to watch former Angels teammate Mike Trumbo hit long bombs to all fields -- but that isn't what hitting coaches say batters should stress in BP.

"Batting practice has become, at times, home run shows and a 'gig me' period. It's not," Oakland hitting coach Chili Davis said. "It's a time to create and foster good habits. The guys who do it and do it right are the ones who are more successful. You watch Miguel Cabrera in BP. He can hit the ball as far as anyone. But in batting practice, he's all about hitting to right-center field, right-center field, right-center field. He might have one round where he goes in there and tries to feel his extension, but not with the intention of hitting the ball in the seats. He's trying to square the ball up."

More evidence this is the correct approach: Trout and Robinson Cano also said they focus on hitting the ball to the opposite field.

"I'm just hitting the ball to right-center," Trout said. "Maybe I'll pull the ball a bit to left-center sometimes, but pretty much, I stay hands inside the ball."

"I always try left field only," the left-handed-hitting Cano said. "After that, I try to hit line drives."

Davis said there were players who treated BP as home run shows when he was a young player as well, but he preferred watching two-time MVP Dale Murphy hit hard grounders and line drives.

"Try telling a kid to hit hard groundballs today," Davis said. "'Hard groundballs? Those are outs.' No, this is batting practice. There aren't any outs in batting practice. It's a practice habit. You preach discipline of taking the same habits in the batting cage -- where there is no yellow line and no home run fence -- into BP."

Maybe having Davis as a coach is the reason only one team has scored more runs than Oakland over the past two years. And maybe having Cabrera around is the reason Detroit is that one team.

MARINERS THIRD BASE COACH RICH Donnelly has been throwing batting practice for 46 years -- well, not continuously for 46 years, but pretty much every day each season since he started in pro ball. Now 68, he normally throws one 15-minute session each day, down from the hour he once threw regularly. He figures he throws eight to 10 pitches a minute, or 120-to-150 pitches a session, or close to 25,000 pitches a season (including spring training). Donnelly said someone he met recently calculated the coach had thrown 1.2 million pitches in his career.

No, there is no pitch limit for coaches tossing BP.

"When I started managing, you threw to the pitchers," he said. "You threw to the extras. You threw to the guys who weren't on the team who were there. Then you threw to the starting lineup. I threw an hour a day. But I was 25. Right now, I could throw a half-hour on a hot day. But some guys can throw an hour."

Granted, coaches aren't firing the ball up there at Aroldis Chapman velocity. Most throw about 60 to 62 mph, but it seems faster to the hitter because the coaches are throwing from well in front of the mound.

"When I first started, we threw from a foot in front of the rubber. If I did that now, I would never make it to home plate," Donnelly said. "Each year over the past 46 years, that sucker has moved closer and closer and closer. Which is wonderful. Because if you move back, you can't get the velocity. If you throw 62 from there, it's like 85 to the hitter."

The key to throwing batting practice, Donnelly said, is to throw strikes so batters can hit them. He said he has a gift for throwing strikes, such a gift that he gets mad when a batter hits a foul ball because he assumes that means he threw the ball in the wrong spot. He is so good at throwing the ball where batters want it that he has thrown in five All-Star Home Run Derbies, including 1994, when he threw to every hitter in the multi-hour competition.

"I throw all strikes," Donnelly said. "If I went to a carnival, I would come home with a truckload of stuffed animals."

For all the evolution in batting practice, here is one BP change that baseball needs: The hitting times should be reversed for the home and away teams.

It's been the tradition for as long as anyone can remember: The home team bats first, from around 4:30 to 5:20 for night games. The visiting team then takes over.

There are a couple of major flaws with this arrangement. Baseball players spend far too much of the season away from home as it is, so when they are playing at home, why not let them stay there an hour longer each day by holding their batting practice after the visiting team's? When they're on the road, ballplayers rarely have much to do other than go to the ballpark early, so why not let them hit first?

Ibanez sees the logic in that change, but doesn't want to see it implemented.

"I think it's advantageous for the home team to hit first," he said. "Then you have more time between batting practice and the game. Sometimes on the road, you can get a little rushed. Sometimes you're done taking batting practice at 6:15 and you have to be back on the field getting ready at 6:45. So you feel a little rushed. I like the way it is. I think it has more to do with the preparatory phase of the game. You can go take BP as the home team, then go have your meetings, eat, rest up, shower, change and go out and play."

That makes some sense, but do players really need to shower before a game? The obvious counterargument is teams play half their games at home and half on the road, so flopping the times wouldn't alter the number of times the players feel rushed or relaxed.

More importantly, flopping times would allow hometown fans to see their own players hit. As it stands, fans generally aren't allowed into the stadium until the home team is just finishing up batting practice, so they never get to see their favorite players bat.

Occasionally, over the decades, people in baseball have made attempts to change this. So far, no luck.

"There have been discussions about that, but I think it was nixed," McClendon said. "It almost makes sense to change so your fans can see the home team hit. We're coming off the field from batting practice when the gates open. So I think there is something to that. But some things are hard to change."

Particularly in baseball. But this idea is a win-win that makes too much sense for even baseball to not do it.

Of course, seeing the home team hit might not hold much appeal in San Diego.

IS ALL THE ADDITIONAL time players spend on BP and working in the cage as beneficial as it is expected to be? Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, who led the way in utilizing defensive shifts, said no.

"What we're doing differently is we're not taking as much of [BP]," Maddon said of his Rays. "I'm not a big believer in it. I think it's very overrated. Because No. 1, I think too many guys go out there just trying to hit homers. No. 2, they swing way too much in the day.

"I think there's a point of diminishing returns that sets in, arm-weariness-wise, by hitting too much. I think it's an overrated concept. I'm not saying it's unnecessary, and it's good like 70 percent of the time, maybe 75 percent of the time. But the other 25 percent is not necessary. It's a ritual."

Maddon also said the advances in video, metrics and defensive analysis mostly favor the pitcher and work against the hitter. He said batters need to keep their minds clear and their eyes open, which allows them to react more quickly to the ball. He said visualization techniques, such as spotting the numbers written on a tennis ball thrown at 90 to 100 mph, are more important than practice swings.

"You don't even have to swing at it," Maddon said. "Just look at it to train your eye to see it and pick it up sooner. To me, that's not trained enough while the swing is trained way too much. Just seeing the ball can be as important as swinging at it.

"You can have all most wonderful theory, the most erudite, simplistic theory thrown at you, and it's not going to help you a bit unless you feel it as a hitter."

Maddon, in fact, suggested aroma therapy -- say, wearing his father's favorite cologne -- can be just as helpful for a batter.

"That, to me, can be much more beneficial than 25 extra swings," he said.

Molitor, now a coach with the Twins, agreed too much information can sometimes be overwhelming for a hitter.

"We can try to prepare guys and help them gain confidence through practice," he said. "But when they get out there, it's a whole different dynamic. The mental side is as important or more important than the mechanics."

Davis recommends that hitters, particularly those who don't play every day, stand in during pitchers' bullpen sessions. They won't swing the bat. They don't need a bat. But they need to see the ball thrown in a game-like situation.

"The key is to see what's coming at you and make that decision to swing or not swing," he said. "Go down to a bullpen when you've got three or four guys throwing, and track the pitches. If you close your eyes, you're not seeing it. If you're not seeing it, you're not going to hit it. Because there are too many pitches. Sinkers, cutters, changeups, curves, sliders, splitters -- you've got to track the ball. You've got to read the ball as quickly as possible to react."

McClendon began his pro playing career in 1980. He, too, thinks there is a little excess of BP these days.

"When I played, we didn't have soft toss," he said. "We looked at film, we took batting practice and we played the game. Today's players, it can almost be a crutch, all the cage work. It can sometimes be overkill. It's like anything else in life -- you can overdo it. Sometimes, you just need to take a step back. I get all the technology stuff. But what I tell my players is Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron didn't have all that stuff. They took good old-fashioned BP and went out and played the game."

Just as players will do for as long the game continues. Batting practice is a constant, a comfort and our national game's own wonderful pastime.