I came across an interesting article last week on how the Orioles’ farm system is re-thinking batting practice and thought I’d share some reflections here.
The article, by Steve Melewski for MASN sports network, describes how the Orioles have reworked bating practice to better prepare and develop hitters. Though the article doesn’t mention it, the changes are clearly informed by principles of cognitive science… and implemented with what strikes me as a bit of wisdom.
Traditional batting practice, as the article describes it, involved “raking against slower, grooved fastballs”- that is, the pitches were predictable, and hitable, most often strikes an often delivered by machine.
As my colleague Marc Mannella has pointed out the primary benefit of this approach is that it makes batter confident before a game- possible to a degree that’s an illusion–i feel good doing something much easier and more predictable than what the game will ask of me–but still player perception is not irrelevant. Something the Orioles have wisely taken into account.
The limitations of the traditional approach are several. 1) It’s all blocked practice or serial practice. That is, the batter for the most part knows what pitch he will face and therefore does not have to practice reading and reacting to different pitches. This means that batters are not practicing the key perceptive and reactive aspects of hitting. 2) Multiply this times ten if batters are hitting from a batting machine where they do not have to read cues from a pitcher’s delivery.
Result: “confidence and well-driven balls during batting practice” but reduced long term perceptive development and incomplete preparation for that night’s game
So the Orioles replaced it with a “routine that would be tougher for the hitters at 4 o’clock, but might lead to more production beginning at 7 o’clock.”
They divided BP into four rounds of five swings each. “Round one would be as in the past. Easy swings off fastballs to get loose. But then starting in round two, hitters would face a mix of pitches thrown by their coaches. Everything from breaking balls to changeups, and the hitter doesn’t know what is coming. There is an emphasis on what they would be facing in the game that night. If it’s a pitcher with a big loopy curveball, the coaches would do their best to simulate that.”
You can see the idea of randomizing training coming in here. The key to hitting is not knowing what pitch is coming and having to read and react to the uncertainty of it. Suddenly batters are practicing that. The fact that the pitches are thrown by coaches is imperfect but key. Can a coach perfectly replicate the perceptive cues batters will see from an opponent? No, but they can generally replicate perceptive cues. And all the research suggests that hundreds of hours of reading those cues adds up to knowledge and skill at reading pitches. A big part of hitting is accumulated experience.
As hitting coach Ryan Fuler puts it in the article “these guys are seeing nasty sliders every day, hard fastballs, changeups, so when they get into the game they don’t have to think. They are ready to do damage.”
One additional change (I suspect) is that the proportion of bad pitches faced in BP goes up. This might seem like a bad thing but it’s not (at least I don’t think so). Suddenly if every pitch isn’t a grooved fastball and I’m not swinging at every pitch, the emphasis is on pitch selection, on the art of perception and decision-making. “It’s a very strong focus (in BP). I don’t want to swing at pitches that are not strikes. It flows right into the game. If I am taking borderline pitches in BP, hopefully I do the same in the game. I want pitches you can do damage on, not a borderline pitch that you have to put a very good swing on to have success,” says Orioles minor leaguer Patrick Dorrian in the article.
So the first round builds confidence… five simple fast balls… a nice nod to to continuity (it feels familiar to hitters) and to the delicate psychology of baseball. The second round is all about unpredictability and therefore practicing the critical skills of hitting: reading, reacting to and selecting pitches.
The third and fourth rounds allow for specific focus and for player agency: “After the second round they can decide what they want to see the next two rounds. They might opt for more traditional BP or for another mix, or maybe they’ll have the coaches throw all curveballs, for instance. Their call,” the article notes. This aspect of letting the players participate in choosing how to use the practice is a smart way to respect their perspective and gain buy-in to a new procedure. You can hear Dorrian’s comfort with the new and also his appreciation for the old in his reflection on how he uses the last two rounds:
“It can change, depending how I feel that day,” he says. “If I feel a little weak with the bat or don’t feel super confident, I’ll do an extra round on fastballs, just to get it going. But if I’m really locked in and I feel good, I’ll do mix the whole time. It’s so similar to game-like.”
Two last thoughts. 1) It’s interesting to hear Dorrian reflect on how he approaches his BP decisions. As you might expect as a player he sees BP primarily as a tool to prepare for that night’s game. If i were his coaches I might be thinking about it slightly differently. One of the biggest challenges in developing players in professional baseball–I think–is the density of games. Once the season starts you play basically every night. There’s never “pure” practice… just to learn for the long term. But the Orioles’ model of BP actually does focus more on long-term development than other approaches. And it would do so even more if perhaps coaches subtly challenges players to think about it that way. “Take round four to prepare for tonight but allocate round three to a personal goal (e.g. i need to react to off-speed pitches after fastballs) and work on it for a month at a time. Have a more long term focus.”
The other last thought comes from this comment from hitting coach Ryan Fuller: “It’s pretty incredible when you look at our staff. All of us have different arm angles, too. Ramsey a little bit lower slot. If we know the guy is going to be a bit of a slinger down low, he comes out for early work to replicate that. Having the staff here to replicate that is huge. None of us are lefties, so if there is a lefty, we utilize the machine to try and create what they will see.”
- Given how important arm channel is to perception it’s super smart to to be thinking about matching caches to opposition throwing styles. 2. Given that they have no lefties and thus “utilize the machine” to replicate left-handed opponents, there’s a beautiful natural experiment to be run here. Comparing Oriole hitters’ long run progress and short term success against right handed pitching versus left handed pitching might tell them something about the effectiveness of the new model since, essentially, they can only apply it consistently on in the former case.
Here’s Melewski’s article: