Batting Practice Is Probably a Waste of Everyone’s Time

Batting practice is, on the whole, a waste of time. (via Andrew Moore)

Any dive into the numbers usually ends up being a fun fact about Mike Trout or Barry Bonds, so let me get that part out of the way. Bonds was a hitting machine, and from 2001 to 2004, he had four consecutive seasons with a wRC+ north of 200. Those are the only such seasons since the turn of the millennium.

Since the end of that stretch, however, the best qualified hitting season belongs to Bryce Harper, who in 2015 posted a wRC+ of 197. Whether he’ll ever get back to that level, I couldn’t tell you, but there’s no denying the truth of what happened. Harper channeled some of the best hitters in the history of the game.

And that season, Harper hardly ever took batting practice.

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That sounds ridiculous. Who could possibly be so good without ever practicing? It’s not so absurd. If anything, it’s batting practice itself that’s absurd. As designed, it’s an inefficient waste of everyone’s time.

This calls for a definition of terms. When I say “batting practice,” I’m not referring to all actual practice of batting. Batters need to swing, batters need to warm up, and there are things that need to be worked on sometimes. Guys might need to take flips. They might need to hit in the cages.

I’m focusing instead on the on-field batting practice, the version teams take for 45-50 minutes before most games. It’s the batting practice you picture when you think of the words. This practice has existed in some form since the end of the 19th century. It is, truly, an established baseball tradition. It shouldn’t be.

I’ll concede this puts me in an uncomfortable position. I told a friend of mine what I was writing about, and he asked, “How are you going to make your case with data?” Let me be up front with you: I’m not. I’d love to, but I’m not, and I’m not because I can’t. There are no data. There are no splits or leader boards. This is an argument based around words, and not numbers. But if you don’t trust me, maybe you’ll trust Fernando Perez.

Perez, an ex-big-leaguer, gave a presentation at the 2017 Saber Seminar, which included an aside about his misgivings with conventional batting practice. The following day, he expanded on his thoughts for the Effectively Wild podcast. It wasn’t until then that I’d really given batting practice any thought. It’s something baseball players do, and they do it because they’ve always done it. Listening to Perez, though, the case against it is obvious. The routine is crying out for improvement, but still, tradition persists.

What is the argument against the current form of on-field batting practice? In the case of 2015 Bryce Harper, he didn’t participate because it was tiring. In his own words, “I don’t think people understand how tiring it gets after four or five rounds. It’s tough.”

Before any sort of competition, the competitors need to get warm, but there’s no sense in over-warming, because it just reduces your ability to compete well in the first place. Why should a batter wear himself out hours before the actual game gets started? We’ve entered the era of sports teams emphasizing the importance of rest. A rested player can be a better player.

Joe Maddon agrees. As he said a couple years back, “I think it’s the most overrated thing that we do on a daily basis, is swing the bat way too often.” Maddon hasn’t banned batting practice entirely, but he’s worked to cut down on the frequency. Already, teams have tended not to hold batting practice when it’s raining, or when there’s an afternoon start. Maddon has given his teams some extra days off. Less, as they say, can be more.

Beyond that, there’s the entertainment aspect. Perhaps it’s just about finding fun wherever you can. Perhaps it’s an unavoidable consequence of human nature. But batting practice has a problem of going off the rails, at least as a teachable exercise. To quote Maddon again, “Too many times batting practice just develops into home run derby, and it really becomes useless and counter-productive.”

Batters are in there to bat, and there are fences out there to be conquered. Temptation can be hard to resist, and after all, what’s a better outcome than a home run? It’s easy for hitters to forget about the specific thing they might be trying to do. A home run always feels more satisfying than a low line drive the other way.

Which leads into the more general problem: Batting practice can create or reinforce bad habits. Bad habits like, say, trying to hit everything 500 feet. Bad habits like seeing everything as pullable, or bad habits like thinking everything is worth swinging at. In regular on-field batting practice, batters might try to show off, or they might otherwise concern themselves too much with the results.

Consider a swing on the field versus a swing in the cage. On the field, a batter is more likely to worry about where or how far the ball goes. In the cage, it’s all about only the swing and the contact. There’s a greater focus on the process.

More than anything else, however, batting practice is flawed because it doesn’t mirror anything. This is how some of those bad habits can germinate. The perfect batting-practice pitcher throws everything over the plate around 50-60 miles per hour. Some coaches do have a talent for consistently repeating their mechanics to make this possible. They’re rubber-armed, too, so they can do it day after day after day. But it doesn’t simulate any kind of real-life game situation. Batting in practice is nothing at all like batting in a game. The very essences of good hitting are removed.

To play in the major leagues, a player needs a strong swing, sure. A player needs to be able to hit a hittable pitch. But a player also needs to be able to identify a hittable pitch and lay off the unhittable pitches. Hitters need to identify pitch types, and they need to identify pitch locations.

For the most part, in batting practice, there exists one single pitch type, and the location is often telegraphed. And even though batting-practice pitches are thrown from closer to the plate than game pitches, batting-practice velocity is still nothing like a Chris Sale fastball. Hitting in batting practice prepares a batter only for hitting in batting practice.

This is Perez’s biggest problem with the routine. He’s not alone. In the words of Ryan Zimmerman, “Hitting a 60-mph pitch, whether it’s left-handed or right-handed, isn’t going to prepare you for a big league pitch.” Similarly, in the words of Eric Chavez, “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 is more blunt. As he said to The New York Times, “Batting practice? I hate batting practice.”

Back in his earlier playing days with Oakland, Jason Giambi frequently would skip the regular on-field practice, especially if he was on a hot streak. More and more players these days seem to be eschewing traditional batting practice for the same general reasons. Players, of course, don’t want to get tired, but they also don’t want to screw themselves up. It’s not just that hitting slow pitches might not help. It can even actively hurt.

This goes right back to the creation and reinforcement of bad habits. An over-aggressive hitter won’t learn to be more selective in batting practice. Such a hitter is encouraged to swing away. It’s also much easier to drive a batting-practice pitch than a game-speed pitch. And if a hitter’s swing has an extra hitch or two, batting practice can be far too forgiving. Batters can get away with not having their game timing down, because a batter with a long swing still can get around on something inside. Those hitches won’t get exposed, creating positive reinforcement where the team would prefer a hitter instead get negative feedback.

There are positives to the way that things are. Certain players swear by traditional batting practice. Albert Pujols, for example, has stuck to the same routine ever since he debuted in the majors. And as Perez tells it, batting practice can be something of a relief for players who don’t get to play very much. It’s something to look forward to, an opportunity to get in a good number of hacks.

One can imagine batting practice might be a mood-lifter, if a slumping player can go hit some screaming line drives. And there are still other, more subtle benefits. If a team is playing in a new park, the players can see how balls respond to the dirt and the grass. They can just look around the ballpark to see where, say, pitch counts and velocities might be tracked. And as Jose Bautista pointed out, batting practice can be useful because batters can see how the playing conditions are affecting batted balls. What are the temperature and wind doing to balls in the gaps? The conditions could inform a player’s game-time approach.

Batting practice isn’t completely and utterly pointless. Even if it’s just getting warm, players can take something out of it. It just seems to be so very suboptimal, for lack of better word. It’s hard to imagine this is the best way players could warm up. It’s hard to imagine this is the most efficient way players could prepare. On-field batting practice is a near-daily routine, which for each team stretches close to an hour. Teams don’t appear to be making the most of those minutes, and for many teams, the very practice itself might be essentially unexamined.

There are other, faster ways for players to warm up. There are other exercises that would appear to be more helpful, or at least more realistic. High-velocity pitching machines have existed for decades, and while a standard pitching machine might not exactly mirror a real pitcher’s delivery, what comes out can at least mirror a real pitcher’s pitches.

In this case, I’m not even just speaking generally. Here’s video of a pitching machine throwing Carlos Carrasco’s change-up. Pitching machines can eliminate batting practice’s biggest problem, the one where it doesn’t prepare a hitter for anything. Machines can throw real pitches, in randomized sequences and randomized locations, much like actual baseball pitchers.

Obviously, it’s not as if the pitching machine was just invented. Every team uses them. But that’s where the real practice gets done. That’s where bad habits aren’t reinforced, in the indoor cages close to the clubhouse. Machines can test problems inside or problems away. You can have batters stand in without bats, simply making a mental swing/no-swing decision. Machines can be used to warm up, and machines can be used to prepare. It’s hard to know why there’s even other practice to begin with.

Not all work can be done at full speed. If a player is coming back from injury, he might want to slow things down. Or if a player is working on a certain mechanical tweak, he might have to ease into it as he attempts to rewire his muscle memory. It’s not like every single swing should be taken against pitches programmed for 85-95 miles per hour. But the slower form of practice seems like it should be the exception, not the rule. A version of baseball created from scratch today presumably wouldn’t ask teams to participate in ordinary on-field batting practice for more than a combined hour and a half.

We can’t go through this without acknowledging the market forces at play. Home teams are at least partially incentivized to hold traditional batting practice, because it’s a draw. While no regular-season batting-practice session draws a sellout crowd, it functions as pre-game entertainment. Fans show up, they watch the batted balls, they retrieve the batted balls, and they buy from concessions, since they’re already there.

Batting practice might not help bring a lot of fans to the ballpark, but it might bring the fans already going to the ballpark to the ballpark earlier. From the fan perspective, batting practice is a net positive. It’s seldom the highlight of the day’s experience, but there’s little downside for the spectator, short of getting hit on the head. Fans presumably wouldn’t want batting practice to disappear.

On the other hand, fans also presumably could get used to a change. They’re all actually there for the game. And if a team badly wanted to preserve the on-field session, it could bring a machine out to the mound. It could hold a traditional batting practice, but with real speeds and sequences. A team might be unwilling to hold such a session in plain view of the opponent, but it’s at least a possibility. Pitching machines are advanced, and they’re relatively inexpensive, and it’s a lot easier to ask a machine to throw a couple hundred high-speed pitches than it is to ask the same of a human.

There’s nothing here that necessarily needs to be solved. For all intents and purposes, baseball has existed with regular batting practice forever, and it’s not making great players bad or good players injured. Batting practice isn’t the biggest problem the game faces today. Furthermore, at least anecdotally, there’s also a certain amount of player momentum away from taking the traditional hacks. Batters know where the real work gets done. They know how many swings they’re able to take.

Yet conventional batting practice persists, an exercise that for the most part seems to be taken for granted. It’s an exercise that takes a long time, simulates nothing, and might do more to cement bad habits than it does to let players warm up. Before most games, for close to two hours, teams stand on the field and swing hard at meatballs. Whatever positives might be accomplished, it can’t be the best way to accomplish them.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.