If you get a chance, come to a game early and watch batting practice. Most of the time we’re worried about finding our seats and ordering the first cold beer of the night, but there’s something to be learned if you pay attention to what’s happening during BP.
You should see guys take the same kind of swings in batting practice that they want to take in a game. If Alcides Escobar needs to concentrate on keeping the ball low and hitting it to the opposite field in a game, it’s a bad sign if you see him pulling the ball and hitting it in the air during BP. Players should practice what they plan on doing once the game starts. Not too many people are talented enough to play home run derby in the afternoon and then hit opposite field singles that night.
Batting practice is taken in groups; one group might be shagging fly balls in the outfield, one group gets ready to hit and another group is actually hitting. Rusty Kuntz told me it’s a good idea to put similar hitters in the same group when you can. Put a little guy in with three power hitters and pretty soon the little guy is lifting and pulling the ball. Put the same little guy in with hitters like Omar Infante and Nori Aoki and if he sees them hit low line drives the other way and up the middle maybe the little guy will do the same.
George Brett once told me about being in the same hitting group as Bo Jackson. Bo would crush home runs and get the crowd jacked up. George would get competitive and decide to show the crowd he could do the same thing. By the time batting practice was over Brett had hit a bunch of crowd-pleasing shots, but taken bad BP.
So when you watch batting practice, think about what kind of hitter you’re watching. A guy with power like Justin Maxwell can work on going deep, especially in the later rounds of BP. A guy like Jarrod Dyson needs to keep the ball out of the air and go up the middle and the other way.
Watch enough BP and you begin to understand why some guys have good years and some guys are inconsistent. You can learn a lot if you show up early and pay attention.
Gordon power shags his way to a Gold Glove
And while you’re watching batting practice, pay attention to the guys shagging balls in the outfield. Some guys are goofing around (mainly the pitchers) and some guys are getting their work in.
Alex Gordon gets his work in.
During batting practice Gordon is serious as a heart attack; he goes after BP balls the same way he goes after balls hit during a game. He hustles and runs good routes. The one thing he doesn’t do is follow-through with a throw; by the time he gets to the ball another ball is almost in play.
Gordon’s batting practice routine is so outstanding that at one point the Royals made a video to show their minor leaguers how to shag balls:this is the way you practice— this
is how you win Gold Gloves.
When a single can be better than a home run
I once read a story about Tony Gwynn having a good day at the plate: he pulled a ball for a home run and also hit a single to the opposite field. After the game he was asked about the home run and he said something like: "The home run was a mistake—but did you see the single?" Tony knew he wasn’t going to make a living hitting home runs, but singles hit the other way were his bread and butter.
That brings us to Johnny Giavotella.
The other day Johnny hit a home run to left field and a single up the middle. Later I asked him if the single was a more difficult piece of hitting. Johnny said the single up the middle was more typical of what he needs to be doing; staying on the ball, keeping it out of the air—it was a line drive—and driving it up the middle or the other way.
The home run came with two strikes on a two-seamer that ran in on his hands, so he didn’t have much choice. Johnny had the right reaction; he pulled his hands in close to his body and got the bat head to the ball. It left the yard, but when I asked him if that would have been a home run in Kauffman Stadium he said maybe, but it might have been off the wall.
Home runs are nice, but Giavotella’s probably going make his living by hitting the ball up the middle. If you get to see him play, pay attention to his at-bats: if he’s consistently pulling and lifting the ball he’s getting away from the game plan. If he’s keeping the ball low and up the middle he’s on track.