The scene: The stadium is flooded with music coming out of the speakers, the players at the playground are busy preparing the field, the home plate is embraced by a semi-oval cage. And while a coach pushes a cart full of balls a few meters in front of the launch pad and another one turns his arm dizzyingly ready to pull, a group of anxious players approach home with their clubs waiting to get ready to hit balls thrown at 95mph, inviting curves and deceptive sliders.
It is called the backyard batting cage, a good deed since the beginning of the invention of baseball. Before the competition, basketball players make heats, as tennis players dribble between them. But in no other sport, as in baseball, the pregame preparation is of importance, history, and charm of batting practice. And what makes it even more unique is the possibility that the fans have to take home a souvenir ball in the stands as a souvenir. In short, a show in the show. Batting practice is a routine that accompanies you throughout the season, up to the playoffs, with the only variation that in September, with the many players who are called by the minors, the bat turns of the holders also diminish to let their bodies rest by now battered by five long months of the hard championship. And so, like the ticking of the clock, it beats time, like almost all traditions, even batting practice has evolved over the years.
Once the batting practice took place only in the field, but it also happened that we had to give up because of the weather conditions, and then we were forced to enter the field without practice. Now, most of the work takes place off the field, away from the eyes of the fans. There are cages under the stands where players work on toss or beat with the ball machine, which are also much more advanced.
There is the video room where players are entertained to watch all the videos they need, they study the opposing pitcher, his speed, the curve, the change and what they prefer to throw in certain counts. There is the opportunity to go to the stadium first for supplementary exercises and occasionally it is possible to do a few turns of the bat even during the game, which certainly does not hurt.
What has not changed however is the usual routine in the BP sessions before the race. It starts at about 2 and a half hours before the meeting and lasts about 45/50 minutes for each team. Generally, 4/5 players per group make their turn starting with some dampers followed by 25/30 waved for each player. Some players bet for the home run, others work on the opposite pitch, others concentrate on throwing in a certain area while others run on each pitch.
There are players who get nervous if they don’t fight as expected, while others calmly manage their disappointment. There are players who need to interrupt the routine like there are others who have to run constantly, maybe hundreds of waved a day. In short, everyone has a habit.
In the majors, the BP is made with immaculate white balls, while in the minors they are often dark gray for too much use. The Mariners, for example, use 240 balls for each BP, and they put as many at the disposal of the opposing team (like all the other companies, for that matter), and when they re-enter the dugout the carts are certainly not full as they were at the beginning. The Mariners have estimated that in one season they use about 35,000 balls for the BP, in addition to 15,000 used for the races, for a total amount of 50,000 balls per year. At a cost of $84 per dozen, the total amount spent on the balls is $350,000, of which 245,000 for BP alone. Where do they end up? Many are beaten in the stands and many others are given away by the players to the fans (the “please” are wasted!). Those ruined instead, and it doesn’t take much, they reserve for cage work or are sent to the minors. One thing, however, is certain, whatever the destination, they must all be replaced.
However, as far as BP, in general, is concerned, there are also those who are even as opposed as Joe Madden in that he believes that too many players are only trying to send the ball over the net and others exceed the waved.
Madden believes that BP is overvalued and that it should be reduced by at least 25/30%. Madden is of the opinion that a large amount of video and defensive analysis available favors the pitcher more than the batter.
Madden believes that the batter must focus more on the vision of the ball, so he believes it is more important to use the numbered tennis balls rolled at 90 / 100mph (ca. 161 km/h). This exercise makes waving superfluous but makes it possible to see the ball, read the number and understand the location. Just seeing the ball can be as useful as waving it.
All the theories are good, the best is the one that makes you feel more at ease. Too often, excessive information can be more harmful than anything else.
Much importance is given to the mental aspect, perhaps more than the mechanical part. During the BP the players can get comfortable, but once the game starts it’s a different story.
There are hitting coaches who advise players, especially non-holders, to position themselves in the box during the pitcher’s training session, so they do not even have to turn the bat, it is sufficient to observe and get used to making an eye on any kind of launch. The key is to be able to identify the type of launch before deciding whether to turn the bat or not. If you close your eyes you can’t see the ball, and if you don’t see the ball you can’t hit it. There are too many types of launches, sinkers, cutters, transmissions, curves, sliders and splinters, so you need to read the ball. The joke is a reaction to the throw, the sooner you can read it, the more likely you are to hit it.
But as with all things, every theory has its weak point, and as far as baseball can continue, batting practice will always have its charm with its strengths and weaknesses. Just consider that Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron beat over 700 home runs without using all the advanced technologies!