With the year winding to a close, Baseball Prospectus is revisiting some of our favorite articles of the year. This was originally published on May 20, 2016.
Watch any minor league pre-game batting practice, and you’ll see a familiar scene. Hitters rotate in and out of the cage in groups of four or five. They each take five to six rounds of BP, smacking meatballs lobbed by coaches throwing on flat ground 45-50 feet from the plate. Hitters dedicate a round or three to bunting and situational work. When they aren’t at the plate, most take extra grounders or flies at their defensive home, while the rest rock-pile with the pitchers. Current top 40 hits blare from the loudspeaker; the youngest and most sunburned coach may or may not request more volume.
Batting practice certainly has its place. The swings help keep hitters loose, and the activity gets everybody warmed up for games. But batting practice is also the only consistent time that minor league hitters can practice their craft outside of games, and unfortunately, it’s not conducive to helping young hitters improve the weak points in their game.
First, a player generally only gets three to five at-bats per night, just 15 or 20 pitches to improve. These at-bats are spread out over the course of a few hours, a time frame ill-suited to helping players get the rapid fire repetition necessary to reinforce mental or physical adjustments, and for receiving crucial feedback quickly. Additionally, the heat of competition—where hitters battle talented pitchers in front of a crowd of people who are not determining success or failure by whether the batter learns something, but by whether he reaches base—is also suboptimal for helping minor leaguers prioritize their long-term development.
Still, game situations are currently the primary place where hitters develop because batting practice does not allow them to do so. A player who needs to learn the strike zone can only improve so much in a drill where they see nothing but 65 mph “fastballs.” A hacker trying to pick up spin out of the hand can’t realistically prepare for plus curveballs when the only practice he gets is against coaches trying—and often failing—to spin the occasional bender from 50 feet. Even situational BP rounds have a laboratorial feel, where hitters employ vastly different swings and approaches than what they’d ever use in a game.
Simply put, minor league hitters should get more game-like repetitions. If a player needs to learn to hit a breaking ball, for example, he should regularly see developmentally-appropriate curveballs and sliders as often as possible. Fortunately, there may be a way for teams to get hitters the help they need. The solution? More pitchers.
Minor league rosters are relatively small, and minor league players are preposterously inexpensive. Given those realities, it should not put an undue financial burden on big-league clubs to staff their minor league rosters with three additional pitchers. These arms would be with the club for the express purpose of helping that team’s hitters improve.
In practice, they would function much like rehabbing pitchers throwing a simulated game. In a sim game, pitchers work through an “inning,” facing real hitters trying to make hard contact, pitching to several hitters in a row to help them build stamina. Here, practice pitchers would face hitters in a similarly game-like situation, where their job is to help hitters build an immunity to their biggest weaknesses.
As an example, let’s say that D.J. Peterson is having trouble taking curveballs down in the zone. In that case, he would be asked to face one of the practice pitchers several times back to back on a given day—and possibly several times per week, if necessary—much like a hitter would oppose a rehabbing pitcher in a simulated game. The pitcher would feed Peterson a steady of diet of curves, allowing him to train himself to lay off of a tough pitch. Part of the advantage here is that not every pitch would be a breaking ball: by mixing curves with other pitches, Peterson can work on facing curves while also being asked to hit fastballs in a situation that resembles game conditions.
The ideal pitcher for this kind of role is someone with a deep arsenal and good command. While you may be thinking that anyone with those two skills is already employed, teams would actually have a deep pool of potential pitchers who could help. They could employ retired pitchers, keep arms they would otherwise release, or recruit college pitchers or minor league washouts with good secondary skills but insufficient velocity for professional ball. Remember, minor leaguers don’t need to face Clayton Kershaw: they just need to oppose a competent arm who can help them develop.
To expand, they need someone like Tyler Wright. Wright, a southpaw, was Seattle’s 26th-round pick in 2013. He threw strikes, mixed three pitches, and generally kept the ball out of trouble spots for Seattle’s short-season affiliate in Everett. He posted a 1.99 ERA and struck out more than a batter per inning in 2013, eventually emerging as a late-inning arm on the best team in the Northwest League. But Wright’s fastball sat in the low-80s, and despite his initial success, he only pitched one season in Seattle’s system.
Wright may not have had a big-league ceiling, but he might have meaningfully contributed to the organization as a practice pitcher. He could have helped lefties struggling against southpaws, or righties baffled by changeups. Wright could also have been asked to just throw strikes and provide hitters an opportunity to work on situational hitting against a real pitcher. And if the team wanted their hitters to derive these benefits against better velocity, they could have had him throw from 58 feet away instead of 60.
It’s not clear whether the ideal model would employ these arms as active players—where they could sporadically pitch in games alongside their primary responsibility as practice pitchers—or as intern coaches (paid internships, please). Teams could also get the same benefit from bloating their roster with pitchers, and rotating them in and out of practice and game duty over the course of the year.
Regardless of the format, it’s clear that minor-league hitters don’t get enough developmental work. Employing several practice pitchers at each affiliate would help parent organizations get their prospects additional repetitions. Such a model would also allow hitters to work on their weaknesses in a game-like situation, without worrying about their batting average, or wondering if a bad week might get them demoted.
Looking forward, it’s difficult to assess the potential magnitude stemming from a team implementing practice pitchers. It’s always complicated to untangle a player’s developmental path, or to pinpoint specific reasons why prospects fail or succeed. Practice pitchers could conceivably help some players quite a bit, while offering very little benefit to others. Ultimately though, competitive advantages are shrinking around the sport, and there’s every chance that a team could get an edge from using batting practice pitchers. Given the limited financial investment required, it’s a strategy that enterprising teams should adopt.