Batting practice is serious business for Mariners
When the Mariners take batting practice before games, it's a well-orchestrated operation, not just a home run hitting contest for fans.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Mariners @ Chicago White Sox, 5:10 p.m., ROOT Sports
ARLINGTON, Texas — The cage and safety nets are rolled into place as four groups of hitters take the stage for a carefully choreographed production.
To many fans, batting practice is just for hitters to see how far they can pound home runs. But for the Mariners and other teams, it's an integral part of pregame preparation that — when done well — increases the odds of performing on any given night.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge has spoken about how his team — with 31 combined runs in two road wins against the Texas Rangers — is doing a better job of carrying its batting-practice teachings over to games. And to the players, trying to shed their image as nonscoring losers the past two years, batting practice can't be taken seriously enough.
"It's like clockwork," Mariners outfielder Mike Carp said. "Everything's right on time. Everything goes quick. It's very fluent, very professional, I'd say."
The Mariners begin every day before a 7 p.m. game with a pregame stretch of roughly 15 minutes, starting at 4:10 p.m. at home and 5:10 p.m. on the road. After that, they break off into four hitting groups assigned by batting coach Chris Chambliss.
On most teams, the groups are loosely aligned with the batting order — meaning the first three hitters in Group 1, the next three in Group 2, the bottom three in Group 3 and the reserve players in Group 4. But there is flexibility and variance, because some players insist on specific batting practice pitchers and grouping.
Ichiro, for instance, is always in the first group and must have right-handed-throwing strength coach Allen Wirtala as his batting-practice pitcher.
"The rest of the guys always have favorite guys they hit off, too," Chambliss said. "I try to accommodate it. And when it doesn't work, there are always a few guys that aren't that particular.
"I don't let them dictate it. But if they're comfortable with a certain thing, I try to let them do it. Because it's a game of repetition and routines and it's easy to get superstitious about it. And that's OK, because it's really about how they feel."
Wirtala and various coaches take turns as right-handed BP pitchers, and longtime minor-league pitching coach Scott Budner is the left-handed pitcher. On days the Mariners are facing a left-hander, Budner will usually throw BP to two different groups while the right-handers work one group each.
"I'm looking for good, sharp contact and for them to hit the ball where it's pitched," Chambliss said.
At most, each group has 15 minutes in the cage, though that gets pared to 12 minutes as the season progresses — especially on the road, where the visiting team never has a full hour to hit.
When any group steps in to hit, the first player gets two pitches he has to bunt. After that, it's another six or seven pitches to swing at before the second hitter steps in. During those swings, most hitters focus on taking the ball up the middle and to the opposite field.
"I try to hit something deep and to right field," said right-handed hitter Miguel Olivo. "I just want to loosen up and feel good."
Once that first round has been rotated through all three hitters, the same group begins a "situational" round of two hit-and-run pitches requiring something hit through the right side of the infield. A third pitch will be a runner-on-second, no-out situation, in which the goal is to advance the runner with a fly ball or grounder to the right side.
The fourth pitch will be a runner-on-third situation with the infield in, then a fifth pitch with a man on third and the infield back.
"So, with the infield in, you're looking to get a ball up in the air — to drive it to the outfield," said Kyle Seager. "And when the infield's back, you're looking to stay in the middle of the field. If you hit it on the ground, it'll be an RBI and if you hit it in the air, it'll be an RBI."
After that round, the players continue with hitting that's more freestyle. If they're feeling particularly good, they might try pulling and driving the ball as far as they can — eliciting applause from home-run-seeking fans. Or, if hitters feel more work is needed on going the other way, or certain situational hitting, they'll focus on that.
Each round continues with a decreasing number of swings. A designated "leader" of each group keeps track of time with Chambliss and lets the other players know how much they have left, how many pitches that round will consist of and what they should be working on.
It gets even more detailed for switch-hitters. Chone Figgins will change from a right-handed to a left-handed swing on each pitch; Justin Smoak will switch sides with every new round.
"You're not trying to hit homers or anything," Smoak said. "You're just trying to get your rhythm and timing right so that you'll be ready come game time."
For Smoak, the work on timing has been extensive from both sides of the plate as he tries to snap an early-season slump. He has hit four home runs his past six games, including two Wednesday night for a career-best six runs batted in during a 21-8 rout of Texas.
The players waiting for their group's turn to hit — or who have just finished hitting — won't be standing around chit-chatting. Infielders will go to their assigned spots and begin taking ground balls, while the outfielders will be in center field where coach Mike Brumley stands in front of a protective net and hits them fly balls and grounders off a fungo bat.
In left field and right field, pitchers will stand and "shag" fly balls off the bats of the hitting groups. Mariners catcher Olivo will stand with them while backup catchers like Jesus Montero and John Jaso will get work in at corner infield positions.
Carp will start off shagging flies in left, move over to center for defensive work with Brumley, then head in to hit with his group. After hitting, he'll grab his glove again and head back out to first base and take some throws so he can stay fresh at that position.
Smoak usually hits in Group 2, so he'll head to first base for grounders and take some throws to loosen up. Then, when Group 1 is done, he'll be warmed up for his turn to hit.
Players like Figgins, with multiple positions, are busy when not hitting. If he's not in the lineup and hitting in the final group, he'll spend his time moving from right field, to center and to left shagging fly balls.
Then, he'll come to the infield for grounders and to make throws from third base and shortstop.
"And by the time I'm done that, it's usually time for our group to hit," he said.
Seager recently used his time in batting practice to iron out problems that had left him in a 2-for-28 slump. He broke out of that with seven hits his final two games in Texas — four of them doubles.
He'll know whether he's had "a good BP."
"You can usually tell, if you feel like your swing is where you want it to be ... and your contact is pretty good," he said.
In contrast, a bad session will often see hitters fouling balls up into the cage.
Wedge said good batting-practice sessions won't always lead to greatness in games. It's the consistency he wants to see more of.
"That repetition just really leads into a game," he said. "It sounds like it should be easy to do, but it's a discipline. It's a mindset, a concentration to where you're up there and constantly working on what you need to do to be more consistent with your swing and your approach."
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @gbakermariners.