O’s will take BP program from the minors to the majors

When the 2022 big league season begins, no doubt, the Orioles’ new, young co-hitting coaches, Ryan Fuller and Matt Borgschulte, may have some thoughts on how O’s hitters can improve. There may be some methods they eventually want to introduce and/or enhance for the big league hitters.

One aspect that the Orioles are now likely to implement at the big league level was the batting practice routine and approach they used on the farm last year. The Orioles had actually intended to begin this process with their affiliates in 2020 before the minor league season was canceled.

So the plan had to wait.

But at affiliates last year the minor league hitters would not just face lower velocity grooved fastballs in batting practice. Hitters would see all pitches, including breaking balls and changeups, and the coaches throwing the BP would try to replicate what the club would face on the mound that night. If it was a pitcher with a big loopy curveball, hitters would see some of that. If he had a solid changeup, they might see more of that during BP.

Ryan Fuller Headshot Sidebar.jpegThe first of four rounds for hitters were traditional. Grooved fastballs to mash and use to get loose. In round two of BP, hitters would see a mix of pitches featuring what they would get from that night’s opponent and would not know what was coming. In rounds three and four the hitter could choose whether to continue with the mix or go back to the traditional warmup.

During a recent interview with Fuller, 31, I asked him if that BP approach is now coming to Baltimore.

“Absolutely,” he said. “We’ll have some feel with, OK, let’s build up to it. Let’s see if these guys have an appetite for it, but certainly in the cage, on the field, we’d like it to be closer to game speeds. We know that transfers to actual game performance better than just easy BP down the middle.

“And it’s going to be really exciting as these minor league guys come up. They’re going to say, ‘What’s the deal? Give us what we were used to at the minor league level.’ And from conversations with guys in the past who are already up there, there is certainly an appetite for, ‘Hey, we are facing a nasty slider tonight. It makes sense to see it today in training too.’ That is obviously one of the staples in our training environment and something we definitely want to bring up to Baltimore.”

This BP approach would be new for O’s hitters at the big league level, but Fuller reiterated that hitters will have plenty of input and won’t be asked to participate in an approach they don’t feel is helpful come game time.

“We’re not too concerned with what’s been done in the past or what other people are doing,” he said. “We’re just trying to get these guys as prepared as possible. What they are ready for and what we feel like we can push, we’re going to do it. But obviously, that’s the hitting coach, right? The yin and the yang of the relationship with the players. We’re not going to force anyone to do anything they don’t want to do. But certainly we want to nudge them with ‘We really feel like this is going to prepare you for tonight. Are you ready for it?’ And when they are we’ll give it to them, and if not, we’ll keep nudging them until they are.”

When I produced this story on BP in the minors earlier, I interviewed a few of the Bowie hitters, including third baseman Patrick Dorrian. He produced an OPS of .714 during the full 2019 season and then had an .837 OPS and went from 10 homers in ‘19 to 22 homers last season with Bowie.

“It’s unbelievable and it’s usually difficult. But that is instant feedback. The BP has been huge, huge,” Dorrian said, for both his success and that of several teammates.

“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.”

Dorrian had one of the best walk rates on the O’s farm at 14.6 and felt the work he did on making good swing decisions in batting practice carried over to that night’s game.

“It’s a very strong focus (in BP),” he said. “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.

“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 the guys are really benefitting from it.”

Fuller said he has been getting to know Borgschulte for a while now and the two are meshing very well as they prep for their roles as co-hitting coaches. They share beliefs in the BP approach discussed here and many other aspects of teaching and coaching hitters.

“When Matt gave his presentation during the interview we were kind of just blown away,” said Fuller. “Like, man, has this guy been watching us? He was speaking the same language in terms of swing decisions and swing-decision training, exposing our guys to different shapes and speeds.

“So, hey, we’re facing Gerrit Cole tonight, we’re going to practice facing Gerrit Cole in training today. We’re actually going to make it a little bit harder, and what was exciting about Matt is that he’s had a ton of experience with swing-decision training, perceptual and visual cues, what to pick up on, and it was really exciting to say, ‘Here is something we feel we’re already doing pretty well, but this guy can take us to even a better level.’ He’s been excellent breaking down swings of our players, where sometimes you see a guy for a year or two and you kind of have a bias for what you look for. His clean slate, he’s come in and said, ‘Hey, have you noticed this?’ So having a fresh pair of eyes has been really, really nice with someone speaking the same language, and you develop that trust quickly.”

And Borgschulte brings extensive experience with pitch occlusion training, where hitters see a video that is stopped as the pitch is on the way. They have to decipher what pitch is being thrown and if it will be a ball or strike. The O’s have used some of this before, but Fuller said now it figures to be a bigger aspect of their hitting approach system-wide, due to Borgschulte’s extensive work with it.

“Absolutely. That is one of the things that Sig (Mejdal) has started here once we got hired, pitch occlusion training,” Fuller said. “That is something Matt has been doing for the last decade too. We’re eager to see how we can implement that and the response he is going to have with the guys. Any little thing that we can use to get guys more prepared and feeling more confident for their at-bats each night we’re going to do.”

Having the trust of the manager is huge, too, for any coach, and Fuller said he and Borgschulte quickly hit it off with O’s skipper Brandon Hyde.

“It was great going through the interview process” said Fuller. “Got to know him a lot better, we got to spend time together down in Florida. He’s been super open-minded. Curious about what we were doing. But I’m really looking forward to seeing what’s worked for him in the past. I’m reading ‘The Cubs Way’ now about him and Tim Cossins winning a World Series with the Cubs. It’s super exciting to be able to learn from someone like that, that developed a system with the Cubs like the Orioles are going through now. Taking those young players and winning a World Series with them. I’m looking forward to leaning on his experience and asking a ton of questions.”

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