If one were to highlight the utter banality of baseball’s month of February, a simple action in a spring training complex back field -- featuring grown men who mime a throw to the plate, speed-jog fifty feet from the middle of the diamond to step on first base and receive an underhand toss -- might suffice. The act is then repeated without end until the pitchers are dreaming of breaking towards first in their sleep.
That’s the goal, anyway.
While it appears boring to both the participant and onlooker alike, drilling in spring training is likely favored to some of the original methods for ensuring pitchers take responsibility for covering first base.
In the late 1880s, the first baseman began to position themselves away from the base and closer to where they are today. This new positioning caused issues due to the fact that first basemen were now playing back to cover more ground and were beat when racing to the bag. This then became the pitchers’ responsibility to get to the base. Instinctually, pitchers shied away from the added cardio work and often stayed at the mound. According to the book A Game Of Inches, at that time the Cardinals’ owner and first baseman Charles Comiskey admitted he would field the ball from his position and if his pitcher failed to man the base, Comiskey would throw the ball to the unattended base regardless. “[T]he crowd saw who was to blame, and pretty soon pitchers got into the habit of running over rapidly rather than be roasted,” Comiskey said.
Even after several years it still had not sunk in with pitchers to beeline it to first base if the ball was hit to their left. In 1905, following a Washington Post article that described the acts of the the team’s pitchers not covering the base the previous season as an act of “stupidity or indifference”, the Washington Senators became one of the earliest recorded team to implement fielding practice for pitchers in spring training so they would be confident the first baseman could “play a deep field and feel certain that the pitcher will go over and take his throws.”
In many ways, the residuals of the old Senators practices carried over when the franchise moved to Minnesota. When Jack Morris arrived at the newly minted Lee County Sports Complex in the spring of 1991, the veteran pitcher encountered Twins manager Tom Kelly’s brand of tirelessly drilling on the fundamentals. According to Season of Dreams, after camp ended Morris told reporters that he covered first base more times in his first spring with the Twins in Florida than he had in 14 years with the Detroit Tigers.
A hundred years later the tradition continues in Fort Myers with the new generation of pitchers pantomiming their delivery to the plate and trotting off towards first. You would think that over the course of a century modern pitchers would realize that first basemen are no longer tethered to the base. In fact, some believe that the time spent on drilling this is a waste. As Angels pitcher CJ Wilson told MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez, “I'd rather spend the time going over strategies and pitching techniques than do PFP,” Wilson said in 2011. “It's just boring."(1)
Still, the Twins value pounding the fundamentals into their players -- even if it is based on a practice that stems from 100 years ago. It can pay dividends; take Twins’ pitcher Kyle Gibson for instance. In 2015, Gibson led all major league pitchers with 30 putouts.
In many ways the pitcher putouts at first are much like RBI totals -- they are all about opportunity. A right-handed ground ball pitcher is likely going to induce more opportunities than a fly ball pitcher or a left-handed pitcher. Likewise, a pitcher needs a first baseman who will not finish the job himself. Two reasons Gibson’s totals led baseball was: 1) he had one of the highest total of grounders in a first baseman’s zone and 2) his first baseman was unfamiliar with the position.
For more spring training talk, head over to TwinsDaily.com:
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