Blue Jays take new approach to batting practice with former pro pitchers

Toronto Blue Jays rookie Vladimir Guerrero Jr. takes batting practice before his major league debut against the Oakland Athletics. (Mark Blinch/CP)

TORONTO – The latest resource added to the Toronto Blue Jays’ batting practice menu is a pair of former pro pitchers available to better simulate game conditions during pre-game prep work.

Zach Stewart – the club’s primary target when Scott Rolen was sent to the Cincinnati Reds in the trade that also brought over Edwin Encarnacion – and lefty Matt Tracy were recently hired to not just throw, but to actually pitch to the team’s hitters, among other duties.

Having worked through other levels of the organization, they arrived in Toronto on Monday in roles that are still evolving. Tracy pitched some BP Tuesday while Stewart was on the mound early Wednesday, throwing some 20-30 pitches to Billy McKinney and a handful more to Brandon Drury.

Exactly how it will all ultimately work is still being determined, but for now the goal is “to expose (the concept) to the major-league level” before the hurlers “go back out to the minor-leagues,” GM Ross Atkins says in an interview. “We’re going to try to learn with the role.”

“What it looks like five years from now is hard to say,” says Atkins. “We do have a vision where it’s just seamlessly integrated into daily work. But that’s largely dependent upon the workload and health and recovery of the individuals. We need to learn what that looks like and how that impacts not just their routine but hitters’ routines.”

The idea of having former pro pitchers throw a competitive to BP hitters as opposed to the decades-old convention of coaches laying in 55-60 m.p.h. biscuits for demolition isn’t new. Atkins says the practice “is pretty common in Japan,” and he spoke to Dante Bichette, the former all-star slugger and father of Blue Jays shortstop prospect Bo, about the high-intensity BPs he would throw to his son as a way “to expedite the number of at-bats you actually get.”

“If you think about how many professional reps and how much time a hitter actually spends hitting against that level of pitching,” says Atkins, “it’s a very small number of minutes.”

Even in the majors the concept isn’t entirely new, as the Washington Nationals employed Livan Hernandez to pitch to their hitters in 2014.

Blue Jays bench coach Dave Hudgens was the hitting coach with the New York Mets at the time and remembers thinking that’s a good idea. “He’d throw breaking balls and even if guys don’t swing the bat, they watch the speed of the ball, you’ve got an arm to time and taking that at-bat right before taking the field is a great idea. But it’s hard to get organizations to buy into it. Ross and the all the front offices got to work on it. The key is finding the right guys who are into it.”

The underlying principle is in “trying to make practice a little more difficult,” says Hudgens. Traditional batting practice was an excellent way for hitters to feel good about themselves by sending grooved pitches several gears shy of game-speed into the seats, but critics have long questioned the value of such exercise. Over time, some hitting coaches began to encourage hitters to focus on certain situations as they swung – say, hitting the ball to the opposite field, or getting a fly ball to score the runner from third with less than two out.

More recently, hitting coaches have started moving pre-game work from the field to the batting cage with velocity machines and flips designed to train specific bat paths. All of it is designed to try and make batting practice more similar to trying hit 90-plus with cut and sink during games.

“That’s the flaw of (traditional) batting practice,” says Hudgens. “That’s why, I don’t want to say we stopped taking BP (on the field) because there are guys that still like to take batting practice, but we minimized it. We do more velocity work. We’re just trying to find any way to get better.”

The notion of taking batting practice against a pitcher who is actually pitching is a foreign one to many hitters. There will be lots of resistance from batters groomed on preparing a certain way their entire lives. As Atkins puts it, “we don’t expect that to be the case – we know that will be the case.”

McKinney described his first experience with it Wednesday as a little bit weird, facing someone he suited up with last year at Buffalo. Initially he looked at a couple of pitches down the middle but felt that wasn’t going to do much for him, so instead he asked Stewart to simulate a count, like a 2-2 breaking ball as the pitcher looks for the punchout.

“I feel like you need to have specific goal in mind to get something out of it,” says McKinney.

Still, he’s interested in experimenting with that type of practice, even if some are more reluctant. The Blue Jays aren’t going to force such work on anybody.

“We don’t know that this is great for every hitter,” says Atkins. “It’s not necessarily our hope that one day every single hitter will be using this. It’s more our hope that it can help one or two or 10 players in some way.”

Stewart, who made five appearances for New Britain in the independent Atlantic League this year, and Tracy, who finished up an eight-year pro career last year, will be asked to do different types of things to prepare hitters, not only pitch. Doing that every day would be sure to land them on the disabled list.

“We won’t abuse them,” Hudgens says with a grin.

Some days they may pitch off the mound on the field. Some days they may bring them in, or move the hitter up closer to the mound to the ball comes in faster. They could do the work in the cage, with Stewart or Tracy throwing off a ramp to simulate a mound. Using Rapsodo data, they can try to manipulate the baseball to better approximate the type of spin the opposing pitcher will feature on a given night.

“We’ll tell the guys don’t be embarrassed if they get you out, or you swing and miss, because it’s going to be more challenging, hopefully more challenging than the game,” says Hudgens. “The machine is good. But seeing the rhythm out of the hand is better.”

Atkins is hopeful that hitters will find a benefit to their timing and pitch recognition from practising against a more realistic visual. Early feedback he’s received is mostly just curiosity about what the thinking behind the concept is, and how it might be applied.

“We don’t want to push too much and integrate too heavily and have to pull back,” says Atkins. “What we’d rather do is integrate with small steps and have players and coaches asked for more. The roles (for Stewart and Tracy) will be more robust than just throwing batting practice. We’ll look for ways for them to help us find competitive advantages in any possible way.

“The more that our hitters in the minor-leagues and the more our hitters in the major leagues are asking for it, the more that it will grow.”

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