It’s 7:45 in the morning, and Alex Gordon is hitting baseballs. One by one he’s taking them out of a bag, placing them on a batting tee, then hitting them against the back wall of a batting tunnel. Next, Gordon hits two rounds of hard underhand flips, thrown like a fast-pitch softball. After that he hits two more rounds of batting practice, thrown overhand from a greater distance. On this cold, January morning, Gordon will take 100 to 150 swings. He’ll then work on his throwing. Finally, he’ll visit his trainer for strength and cardio work. Gordon does this workout four times a week.
This is how you get better.
We’re in Kevin Seitzer’s hitting facility, Mac-N-Seitz, located in Martin City. When I pull into the parking lot, only two cars are there — Gordon’s and Seitzer’s. This leads to my first question: “What’s it mean when the hitting coach drives a Ford and the hitter drives a BMW?”
Seitzer laughs and says, “Everything.”
Standing 10 feet away while a major-league hitter whacks a baseball is impressive. Outside, the sound of a wood bat hitting a ball is pleasant. Inside, it sounds like a gunshot. The line drives scream off Gordon’s bat.
Normally, Seitzer throws to Gordon. Today, Seitzer stands off to the side while Rob Jackson, Mac-N-Seitz general manager and instructor, throws BP. Kevin sips a cup of coffee and talks quietly. The information comes in a torrent. I take as few notes as possible when talking to ballplayers — pulling out a notepad turns a conversation into an interview. Eventually, I give up. Too much information is coming at me, and I don’t want to miss anything. So I begin to take notes.
Seitzer likes what he sees. Gordon is muscular and can get too tight as he swings. When that happens, his shoulder leads the swing instead of his hands, the elbow comes up, the bat head drops and his swing goes uphill. Gordon stays loose and drives the ball.
If Gordon (or any other hitter) checks his swing, Seitzer watches to see if his shoulder came up (wrong) or his hands came forward (right).
Gordon compliments Jackson’s throwing and says it’s the best BP he’s ever had. It’s “firm” (ballplayer slang for hard, but not too hard). Throwing the ball in the same place over and over is harder than it looks. Gordon wants to know if Jackson can come on the road with the team. Seitzer points out that Jackson makes more money staying home than he would throwing Gordon batting practice.
Jackson is mixing in change-ups during the underhand flips. Gordon is waiting and driving them the other way. I say Gordon is “staying back” well. Seitzer corrects me: Gordon is “staying balanced.” Seitzer says “staying back” implies a hitter is keeping his weight on his back foot, which will make him late if he gets a fastball. “Staying balanced” implies a hitter has his weight distributed equally between his feet. Keeping the hands back allows the hitter to wait on off-speed pitches and still hit them effectively.
Gordon drives a pitch to the opposite field and says, “There it is.” Seitzer says precisely the same thing at precisely the same time. Gordon has just taken a perfect swing, and I can’t tell the difference.
Seitzer says hitters worry too much about getting beat on the inside portion of the plate. They try to be quick inside and then swing too soon on a pitch away. This leads to “rollover” (the point at which the hands “roll over” during the swing) ground balls. In order to hit a difficult pitch, hitters screw up their swing on a pitch they should handle. Seitzer says if Gordon does not swing at the inside pitch, his timing will be right on pitches out over the plate.
Some might wonder about the wisdom of Seitzer telling me that Gordon plans to let the inside pitch go by during the 2012 season. Even with that information, it’s hard for pitchers to paint pitch after pitch on the inside corner. The inner third of the plate is an area about seven inches wide. If Gordon has four plate appearances, pitchers have to hit a seven-inch wide target 12 times. Miss once, and Gordon should hit the ball hard somewhere. Miss several times, and Gordon should have a big night. Pitchers make mistakes. Be patient: Wait for a pitch out over the plate.
If Gordon sticks to this plan, Seitzer believes he’ll put up scary numbers.
If a hitter does decide to look inside, Seitzer believes he should pick a pitch. Don’t consistently try to hit the inside pitch; that’s too hard. Wait until you’re in a hitter’s count (like 2-0, 2-1, 3-0 or 3-1), then do it.
Last season, Seitzer wasn’t sure that Gordon would stick with the plan. He asked Gordon if he’d rather hit .230 with 20 home runs or .300 with 10 homers. Gordon said .300 with 10. Gordon hit .303 with 23 home runs.
Gordon was more consistent in the second half of 2011. Which means he’s getting more comfortable with this approach, which might mean a big year in 2012.
Seitzer says that Gordon wants to cut down on his strikeouts. Last season, Gordon led the team in strikeouts and strikeouts looking. Seitzer thinks Gordon was still looking for a particular pitch with two strikes and got caught off guard if he didn’t get the pitch he was looking for. Gordon thinks that was part of it, but he also thought he was too picky. “You can’t get mad at an umpire for calling you out on a close pitch…but I did.”
In 2012, Gordon plans to expand his zone once he has two strikes.
Seitzer says that Gordon always bought into the program and has always been coachable, but last season finally had the chance to make the transition from his old approach to a new one. Seitzer also thinks that the public’s perception of Gordon has often been incorrect. Baseball is a “cool” sport: Getting angry may help an NFL defensive end, but an angry baseball player is useless. A player like Gordon, who keeps his emotions under control, can be perceived as “not caring.” The public might perceive a player who rages and breaks bats as really “caring,” while teammates see the same player as selfish. Someone who distracts the team from the business at hand.
Gordon still has to do strength and cardio work. Tomorrow morning, he’ll get up in the dark and do it all again…and then again…and then again. Somewhere, Jeff Francoeur is doing the same thing. So is Eric Hosmer. So is Mike Moustakas. Getting better is hard work. And after a cold January morning workout, we all have a better idea of just how hard it is.
I recently read that reporters in the New York Yankees’ clubhouse are not supposed to talk to a player unless the player is standing or sitting in front of his locker. Here in Kansas City, the team’s hitting coach allowed a writer to attend his star player’s workout, then told the writer what pitches that player would attempt to hit during the coming season.
But Kevin Seitzer isn’t really giving anything away. Before a game, if you ask players how they’ll be pitched that night, they know. They know what runner can steal on what pitcher. They know who has trouble throwing strikes out of a slide step. They know when the other manager likes to bunt. The game isn’t always about secrecy, it’s often about execution: Hitters know how they’ll be pitched, but they don’t know if the pitcher will hit those spots.
During a baseball game, the Royals have a very good idea of what’s about to happen. And because they’re giving us access, now we do, too.