BOWIE - In spring training of 2020, the Orioles implemented a new method for their minor league hitters to train with before games. Traditional batting practice, just to get loose by raking against slower, grooved fastballs, was going to be replaced by a routine that would be tougher for the hitters at 4 o’clock, but might lead to more production beginning at 7 o’clock.
Then the lost minor league season put this plan on hold. But this year it’s being implemented with full force throughout the Orioles system.
During four rounds of BP, in which batters get five swings each round, round one would be as in the past. Easy swings off fastballs to get loose. But then starting in round two, hitters would face a mix of pitches thrown by their coaches. Everything from breaking balls to changeups, and the hitter doesn’t know what is coming. There is an emphasis on what they would be facing in the game that night. If it’s a pitcher with a big loopy curveball, the coaches would do their best to simulate that.
The Orioles do this with all their affiliates. It has certainly taken hold well at Double-A Bowie, where I checked in on this recently. The Baysox lead their 12-team league in scoring and are near the top in several other offensive categories, including walks, on-base percentage and team OPS.
And there, all four coaches, along with manager Buck Britton, can throw BP and work to replicate game speed and action as much as they possibly can. Pitching coach Justin Ramsey throws BP, so does hitting coach Ryan Fuller, development coach Grant Anders and fundamentals coach Jeff Kunkel.
“We train as close to game speed as often as possible,” said Fuller, who has become important in conveying the hitting concepts the O’s use throughout their farm system. “Certainly, there are times we slow down if guys need to work on something or make a slight change. But for the most part, these guys are seeing nasty sliders every day, hard fastballs, changeups, so when they get into the game they don’t have to think. They are ready to do damage.”
Corner infielder Patrick Dorrian has been with Bowie all year and has been among the home run leaders on the O’s farm this season. He also leads the entire organization in walk rate among full-season players. Dorrian had a .714 OPS with 10 homers in 2019, and now has 20 homers with an .832 OPS.
He’s had a real solid year for Bowie, and said the BP routine has been a big key in his season.
“Our coaches, they throw pitches like the arm we are going to see that night,” Dorrian said. “It’s unbelievable and it’s usually difficult. But that is instant feedback. The BP has been huge, huge.
“I love it. It can be challenging, but you realize, ‘Do I want 30 fastballs down the middle and I can feel great in BP, but then I get in the game and it’s a lot more difficult? Or do I want to see that stuff in BP? See the curveballs and changeups and be more prepared.’ It’s very smart.”
And Dorrian, who has a 15.1 walk rate, said his focus on making good swing decisions and getting into good counts begins in BP.
“It’s a very strong focus (in BP). I don’t want to swing at pitches that are not strikes. It flows right into the game. If I am taking borderline pitches in BP, hopefully I do the same in the game. I want pitches you can do damage on, not a borderline pitch that you have to put a very good swing on to have success,” he said.
Obviously, the coaches can’t exactly replicate a 22-year-old, top-100 stud throwing high 90s. But they do pretty well at Bowie.
“We have coaches here where every coach throws really competitive batting practice with multiple pitches,” Fuller said. “We utilize the machine quite a bit, too, and they (the players) know every single day, the second round of BP is going to be mixed pitches. And the coaches that throw, whether it be a sharp slider we are going to see that night or a loopy curveball, we try and replicate the best we can. Certainly, the game is going to be more difficult, but if we can nudge them toward what they are going to see and use our scouting reports we can create an attack plan for that day.”
And the players have input. After the second round they can decide what they want to see the next two rounds. They might opt for more traditional BP or for another mix, or maybe they’ll have the coaches throw all curveballs, for instance. Their call.
So how does Dorrian handle that daily?
“It can change, depending how I feel that day,” he said. “If I feel a little weak with the bat or don’t feel super confident, I’ll do an extra round on fastballs, just to get it going. But if I’m really locked in and I feel good, I’ll do mix the whole time. It’s so similar to game-like.
“I think it has a lot do with it (his solid season). And I think a lot of the guys would agree with me. A lot of guys are really benefitting from it.”
Added Fuller: “It’s pretty incredible when you look at our staff. All of us have different arm angles, too. Ramsey a little bit lower slot. If we know the guy is going to be a bit of a slinger down low, he comes out for early work to replicate that. Having the staff here to replicate that is huge. None of us are lefties, so if there is a lefty, we utilize the machine to try and create what they will see.
“When I first came here there was brushback of, ‘I don’t want to see curveballs in batting practice, nobody does that.’ Now it’s at the point now where these guys don’t even bat an eye. And if we were to throw easy fastballs they would say, ‘What the heck is going on?’”
With hitters on the farm having years this season like those of Adley Rutschman, Kyle Stowers, Dorrian, Jordan Westburg, Robert Neustrom and Gunnar Henderson, to name just a few, the process of hitting successfully at night begins during the sunshine of the afternoon in BP.