Batting Practice to Game Time
Updated: Nov 10, 2018
There is one on every team. You know who I’m talking about. The kid who can absolutely destroy the ball in batting practice but walks back to the dugout time and time again in games. The coach gets frustrated because the player’s swing is “technically sound and looks good,” but something is obviously missing. As coaches, how can we prepare our players to perform in and out of the cage, and, most importantly, during game time? After some digging, it seems like we, as coaches, are the ones who are not getting our players ready to do damage in games by how we spend our time during batting practice.
A common batting practice consists of groups of hitters getting a few rounds in off of a coach throwing 45mph right down the middle. Why do so many coaches and teams still do this when pitching during games is double the speed and a mix of pitches? Most will argue that hitters need time to “get loose” or “find their swing” for the day, but the findings from skill acquisition studies and other areas around the world, such as Japan, have found more effective ways of preparing hitters for the demands of the game.
In an article titled “Coordinating movements to strike a swinging ball” by Tim Buszard, it was found that replicating game-like environments in practice brought positive outcomes with the cricket players in the study. One group was only given straight balls during practice, while the other group was given a mix of curving balls and straight balls. Not surprisingly, the group who had the straight and curve balls mixed in was the one who achieved better results. As Buszard concluded, “By creating an environment where performers are uncertain of the ball’s flight path, such as those encountered during competition, performers are more likely to develop movement patterns that allow for changes in specific kinematic parameters with changes in ball-flight. In other words, when planning practice, be specific, promote variability and embrace the importance of adaptability.” Imagine planning a batting practice that replicated the pitches, speeds, and movements that hitters would see in a game. Just what would that look like? Well, luckily for us, Japan is light years ahead of us and already has some solid answers.
Current Phillies manager, Gabe Kapler, played for a season with the Yomiuri Giants in 2005. During his time in Japan, Kapler was struck by the vast differences between batting practice in the United States vs. Japan. In an article that Kapler wrote for WEEI.com titled, “Our Turn to Learn: A Baseball Tradition Reconsidered” Kapler recounted the major variations: “I remember my first Japanese batting practice session as overwhelming and simultaneously exhilarating. Rather than our style, where a single turtle (a portable batting cage rolled in in an effort to save balls) is placed behind home plate, the Japanese have two of these devices side by side on the left and right of home plate. Each turtle has a catcher and two pitchers stand around 50 feet from the hitter, side by side, one left-handed and one right-handed.” Not only were the hitters seeing different arm angles, but the hitters and fielders were both getting more reps during batting practice.
In the article, Kapler goes on to illustrate how the 45mph right down the plate batting practice was nonexistent in Japan. Instead of having the coaches throw batting practice, many Japanese teams pay former professional pitches a healthy salary JUST TO THROW BATTING PRACTICE - not even to coach. Kapler explained, “The B.P. throwers are animals. They throw from about 50 feet and are letting it eat (throwing hard)! Also, hitters will have the throwers mix in sliders, changeups, curveballs — whatever you want. I really enjoy the way that they do B.P. because I feel it is much more game-like than what you get in the States.” This connects perfectly to Tim Buszard’s study previously mentioned; making practice more game-like and having the players be challenged and forced to make adjustments produces hitters who will be more likely to be prepared for the tasks during the actual game.
Legendary Coach Ron Polk is a major advocate for creating practices that move at game speed. In a recent article for the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, Polk said that it is necessary to “have your practices structured like you play in a game and practice at game speed.” Not only that, but Polk even has his hitters hit with their helmets on regardless of whether they are facing live pitching or hitting off a tee because that’s the way they hit the game.
With all that said, how do we help the player who is a cage bomb all-star start to hit in the games? Here are just a few suggestions to make batting practice as challenging and game-like as possible:
- Throw hard batting practice from different distances
- Mix in pitches without telling the hitters what is coming
- Have pitchers who are on their bullpen days throw simulated batting practice
- Shift your L-screens and release point to replicate righty and lefty arm angles
- Have a pitching machine “throw” BP to simulate the speed of the opposing pitcher