FORT MYERS, FLA. – C.J. Cron was asked if his favorite hitting drill was to work off a hitting tee, honing his swing on flip throws, facing a pitching machine turned up to maximum velocity or good old-fashioned batting practice.
His answer was yes.
“I like doing all of it,” he said. “I just like hitting. Any time I’m hitting, I’m happy.”
Jonathan Schoop is the same way, but there might be days when he will stay indoors and pass on batting practice. Nelson Cruz likes to test himself by setting up the pitching machine to throw curveballs, but not sliders. He’ll study video and make adjustments. He might take batting practice on the field if he wants to see how the ball is carrying that day.
Each Twins player has his own pregame hitting routine, to the point where there’s less of a reliance on traditional batting practice than ever before.
It’s a trend that has quietly spread through the league. In 2015, for instance, Bryce Harper was on everything, batting .330 with 42 home runs and 99 RBI while winning the National League Most Valuable Player award. And he didn’t hit on the field before games, claiming that it was tiring.
The Twins are allowing their players to select their pregame hitting drills a-la-carte. If they don’t want to hit on the field, they can stay indoors. The Twins routinely cancel on-field batting practice on day games following night games and are willing to scratch it more often.
“My opinion is that it is not a necessity,” Twins hitting coach James Rowson said. “Batting practice in general should be optional on the field.
“Some days you want to see how the ball is flying. Some days you just want to stand in the box and see how you feel. I think the players at this level kind of have a feel for what will get them ready for their games. Your focus should be more on what routine am I using that’s helping me feel most prepared at 7:05 p.m. or whenever that game is going to start.”
A new wrinkle for this season is usage of pitching machines turned up to 85-90 miles per hour. The theory is that baseball is the most difficult sport to practice at full speed. So anything that gets close to the mark is an improvement.
“My view is that to make someone better at something, it has to be hard,” Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey said. “I believe in the concept of deliberate practice and deep practice methodology. In order to do something and get better at a skill, it’s not just a monotonous routine.”
It’s why manager Rocco Baldelli had pitchers throw live batting practice to hitters without any cages or screens on the field, to have players get used to and perform in that setting.
Coaches stand in front of the mound as they throw batting practice, with pitches coming in at around 60 miles per hour. That’s nowhere near game speed. Pitching machines can be cranked up to 95 mph. The Twins set theirs around 90 mph.
“I like it because it gets you ready for the game,” Schoop said. “It gets you focused. In B.P., you can go through the motions sometimes, but the machines make you have to be ready.”
There might be days in which the machine appears on the field and replaces the coach. So the Twins are going to bring one with them on road trips.
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Rowson said. “I wouldn’t rule out a day where some guys didn’t want to take B.P. on the field and the option was just, hey, let’s whip out the machine if anyone wants to do it.”
The Twins have hitters take 25 swings — five rounds of five swings each — during batting practice. They take many more behind the scenes. They can work out kinks in their swings through flip throws, when a coach or player gets on a knee and simply flips balls that are belted into a net. They can place balls on a tee and work on pulling them or going the other way. They can hit off machines.
Batting practice is part of baseball’s soundtrack. It’s one reason why fans line up at gates two hours before game time. It has a role as a stadium breaks out of its afternoon slumber and comes to life as the first pitch nears. It seems hard to imagine baseball without it.
But it is no longer a necessity, as modern stadiums provide areas under the stands where a hitter can work on anything he wants, any way he can. Many hitters have taken dozens of swings before batting practice begins.
“It should never be mandatory because of the amount of swings throughout the year,” said former Twin Brian Dozier, now with the Nationals. “They should take B.P. as needed throughout the year, whether that be zero swings or 100.”
With that in mind, the Twins have adapted to the times. They aren’t elbowing batting practice out of the way, just embracing that if it can help their hitters, they are all for it.
“What we’re doing is we’re offering our guys different options whereas the season gets going, there might be guys that really latch on to some of these things but also some guys that would prefer to just hit batting practice the way they normally have,” Baldelli said. “Again, it’s giving our guys options but, also, I do believe anything that you prepare, anything you’re preparing for, I would prepare for it the way it’s going to play out in the game as opposed to preparing for it for it half-speed, just in general terms.”