What’s your image of batting practice? One guy hitting while a lot of guys stand around talking in the outfield — right? Not if it’s done correctly. The Royals have their outfielders play the ball just as they would in a game and keep the pitchers on the warning track, out of the way. (Apparently, the Royals are one of the few teams that do it this way.) Doug Sisson told me no matter what you do with a fungo, it just can’t duplicate a ball off a hitter’s bat.
Each Royals outfielder is required to play the ball live off the bat for at least one hitting group — three to four players — and that adds up to about 15 minutes. (Try sprinting around full-speed, chasing baseballs, for 15 minutes and you’ll find out how tiring it can be.)
Alex Gordon does three hitting groups for 45 minutes. I guess you win Gold Gloves the same way you get to Carnegie Hall — practice, practice, practice. So next time you get to see the Royals take batting practice, watch the outfielders. You might figure out how Alex Gordon won a Gold Glove.
And he’s not the only one
Mitch Maier also does three hitting groups, but does 15 minutes in each field. When people say Mitch can play all three fields, now you know what they mean. Mitch has actually practiced in all three fields. Sisson called Maier “the most prepared extra outfielder in baseball.”
More on spring training stats
Baseball is like an onion — it’ll make you cry. (Wait, wrong onion simile…let’s start over.) Baseball is like an onion — there are a lot of layers. And here’s another layer to the “what do spring training stats really mean?” onion: those stats mean more if you’re trying to make the club, less if you’re an established veteran. In other words, Bruce Chen has more statistical leeway than Blake Wood.
And here’s another layer: spring training stats matter less early on, more in the last week. Even the established veterans need to start pulling it together now — real competition is just around the corner. Earlier, Chris Getz said the pitchers were working on their pitches, not pitching to a hitter’s weakness — but as the days dwindle, that changes. Yesterday, Bruce Chen added his over-the-top-arm-angle fastball to his mix of pitches because he said he was tired of pitching the way he had been and it was time to show he’s ready to lead his teammates into battle. Add that fastball and suddenly Chen looks like a different pitcher.
Now make it even more complicated: stats mean more early in a game, less in later innings. When all the starters are playing, it’s a major-leaguer against major-leaguer. Later in the game, after starters begin to come out, it might be major-leaguer against minor-leaguer. So spring stats change meaning as spring training progresses. The major-leaguers might play two or three innings early on, seven innings toward the end.
None of this is simple — there is more to this game than the numbers. Understanding what’s behind the numbers can be complicated. Ask one question and it leads to three others. And I was right the first time — baseball will make you cry.
Chen and Holland
I asked Bruce about his process for getting ready and he said the first time he pitched, it was only for two innings. Chen just worked on keeping the ball down and building arm strength. With each outing, Bruce did a little more. Chen said he was preparing to pitch 200+ innings this summer, and that requires a slow buildup. He wants to reach top form on opening day, not before. Bruce also said if he wasn’t secure in his standing, if he was trying to make the team, he’d start the process sooner. Guys trying to make the team have to be ready right away. They can’t afford too many bad spring training outings.
I slid a couple lockers to my right and asked Greg Holland the same thing; what was his process for getting ready? And is it different for a reliever?
Holland said last year he mainly worked on fastball command and was mostly a two-pitch pitcher (fastball/slider). This season, more secure in his status, he worked more on his off-speed pitches. Greg wants to be able to throw them for strikes early in the count. This spring, if Holland got two quick outs, he sometimes went to his off-speed stuff, just to make sure he got a chance to throw it in a game. Last season, Greg might not have done that.
They might get ready in slightly different ways, but both Holland and Chen agreed: if you’re trying to make the club, you start earlier and come in with your best stuff on the first day. If you’re pretty sure you’ve made the club, you can start later and try to peak around opening day.
So when you look at those spring training stats, keep some of this in mind. It’ll keep you from freaking out over a Bruce Chen 15.00 ERA. If Bruce still has an ERA of 15.00 come May, be my guest, go ahead and freak out.
A very cool experience
Tuesday night the Royals had four games going at once on their backfields. Seen from above, the fields form a cloverleaf; all the backstops are in the middle. It was quite a scene: Triple A, Double A, High and Low A all playing at the same time. The bullpen between the fields allowed eight pitchers to warm up at the same time. Hundreds of fans, ballplayers and team officials wandered between the four fields.
A sprinkling of big-leaguers — there to get some work in — added to the atmosphere. Texas Rangers reliever Joe Nathan walked by. Neftali Feliz was also scheduled to pitch. Danny Duffy was taking on Colby Lewis in the Triple A game. I stood behind the backstop and watched Duffy take his final warm-up throws and a golf cart pulled up next to me; Greg Maddux was behind the wheel.
We watched Jarrod Dyson take an at-bat in the Triple A game. Someone yelled that Wil Myers was coming to the plate in the Double A game, so we walked a few feet and saw that. We walked a few more feet back to the Triple A game and Johnny Giavotella was at the plate. Look over here and you see Christian Colon, look the other direction and there’s Clint Robinson.
If you ever get the chance to do this…do this. Visit a spring training complex when all the minor-league teams are playing. It was like being at a high school baseball tournament — with the best high school players in the world. Being that close to pitches delivered by a professional will give you a new appreciation of how difficult hitting is.
We’d already been to Maryvale to watch the Royals beat the Brewers that day. I was hungry, cold and not that keen on swinging by the Royals complex to see the Duffy outing, but I’ve got to say it was one of the coolest baseball experiences I’ve ever had.