To challenge their hitters to improve, Orioles minor league coaches go to great lengths to develop 'nasty stuff' for batting practice
To see Orioles coaches prepare for mixed batting practice is to see the same kinds of pitch-design efforts actual pitchers go through, all in the name of player development.
At Aberdeen, pitching coach Forrest Herrmann stood behind a thrower with his phone aloft in the outfield hours before a game, capturing how a pitch left the hand the same way an Edgertronic high-speed camera would. In Bowie, hitting coordinator Cody Asche stood by home plate and critiqued a slider. As arms get loosened up pregame, every toss comes with a question – how was that one?
These aren’t pitchers getting this feedback, though. They’re coaches preparing to pitch batting practice.
The ability to replicate what hitters will see in a game is a requirement for Orioles minor league coaches these days, so to be around an affiliate before batting practice is to see the relentless pursuit of perfection on sliders and changeups that mirrors the process the actual pitchers undertake.
“We definitely have a growing understanding of pitch characteristics and just being as competitive as all of us are, we want to develop some nasty stuff and be able to challenge our hitters, to get guys out,” short-season hitting coordinator Anthony Villa said. “We’ve got some guys with low arm slots who throw kind of more two-seams and sliders, and they’re working on maybe getting on top of a curveball or having true backspin on a fastball, and vice versa. It’s pretty funny how motivated our hitting coaches are to pursue every little avenue to be able to create more representative BP by adding more pitches to their batting practice arsenal.”
It wasn’t always this way. Buck Britton was hired after his playing days as the hitting coach at Low-A Delmarva for the 2017 season, and initially learned how hard it was to simply throw a fastball down the middle during batting practice. That was the aim of BP then – to let hitters feel good and hit the ball hard–and Britton used to judge himself on how many balls left the ballpark during his BP sessions.
“In big league camp, if you’re throwing to the big boys, you want them to have a lot of loud contact,” Britton said. “That’s how you kind of gauged if you were any good or not.”
That changed as the Orioles’ player development program did. Matt Blood was hired to lead it at the end of the 2019 season, and brought in a new set of hitting coaches including Villa and Ryan Fuller to reimagine the hitting program.
Challenging hitters became an early focus, and when the minor league season in 2020 was replaced by the alternate site, they began to work in mixed batting practice to the group of prospects at Bowie.
“It was a slow transition,” Britton said. “It’s not like we just said, ‘Hey hitters, here you go–deal with it.’ It was like ‘Hey, first two rounds are fastballs, then let’s try to see if we can’t hit some breaking balls off a coach for a round.’”
As that practice grew, so too did an aspect of it within the coaches who throw mixed batting practice that hasn’t let up — competitiveness. Britton watched Fuller and Villa throwing breaking balls for strikes, and realized he had to up his game. Pitching coach Justin Ramsey taught him an over-the-top knuckle curveball — “a good one,” Britton clarified, a repeatable pitch that wasn’t going to tear up his elbow.
His pitches have been a work in progress ever since, and he’s proud of the challenge he can give the high-level hitters who seek it during mixed batting practice. He also has company in being competitive with the other throwers.
Full-season hitting coordinator Cody Asche said the efforts to improve for the hitters’ sake and for standing among the coaches go hand-in-hand.
He said: “We’re all trying to get super gross because we want to give our players the best look we can, and I think we’re also all competitive in the sense that we all want to be recognized as, ‘Oh wow, [Bowie hitting coach Branden Becker] is the grossest mixed BP thrower,’ or ‘Damn, I don’t want to face Villa, he’s too nasty.’ Deep down, we’re all super-competitive ex-athletes that want to be known as King of the Hill of the hitting department, to see who can throw the best BP.”
At Aberdeen, hitting coach Zach Cole spent last year at the complex working with two teams’ worth of hitters and honing his mixed BP skills. He’s taking advantage of Herrmann’s pitch design background at Aberdeen to help him create variations of every pitch to match that night’s opponent or give hitters the specific look they need to work on by adjusting grips and arm slots to get different movement profiles on his pitches.
“He does a really good job of pitch design, and we want to make our BP pretty much as game-like as possible and really prep these guys for a game,” Cole said. “The hitting department wants to be as nasty as possible. We like to talk our talk a little bit, too, and make it challenging for the guys. We want to be the best we can be as well.”
The better the BP pitchers get, the more value there is to the hitters they’re facing. The mixed batting practice rounds, as well as spin-based machine drills the Orioles do, are a way to give players as many game-like repetitions to improve with as possible. They believe that challenging practice is the surest way to improvement. Asche, a former big leaguer, says being a modern hitter means “you have to really try to combat a lot of gross, gross things” thanks to advances in pitch design and the advent of scouting reports.
Delmarva hitting coach Brink Ambler said it’s “really, really critical to get these guys some of the exposure
“Especially being able to throw those different types of pitches to give these guys reps, to see those off of an arm where guys struggling off of sliders, being able to replicate that for him or especially changeups to our left-handed batters, that’s really, really something that’s hard to simulate off a machine,” he said. “There are ways we can do it but being able to see it out of an arm is one of the best things you can do for those guys who really struggle with a change of speeds.”
Ambler said it can be a challenge for lower-level hitters to embrace the failure that comes with such practices, but it helps for the Orioles to have so many success stories atop their farm system when it comes to players who embraced it.
Britton, who managed at Bowie last season and is managing Norfolk now, said the Baysox group with Adley Rutschman and Kyle Stowers “really set the tone” with embracing mixed batting practice. Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson were key participants in the alternate site program in 2020, and vouched for the practice at the larger fall instructional camp that year.
As the effort continues, so too does the pursuit of better from those who throw to the Orioles’ young hitters. Fuller and Villa used to send videos to Delmarva pitching coach Joe Haumacher during the shutdown asking for tips on pitches, and once they got proficient enough with their natural right arms, the videos started coming in from the left side. The coaches are constantly picking pitchers’ brains for grips and tips, and sharing them with each other when they get them.
The pitching coaches are happy to help.
“I am surprised with how quickly these guys can adapt and learn,” Haumacher said. “But no sooner do they learn are they figuring out their arms are barking. And that’s a whole other topic.”
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I'd read about how the big league team has a pitching machine that's supposed to replicate the competition they're facing that day. Do the minor league teams not have access to this, or is there a need for manual coach pitching beyond that?
This was the article on the SpinBall machines: https://www.baltimoresun.com/sports/orioles/bs-sp-orioles-hitting-coaches-ryan-fuller-matt-borgschulte-20220404-tq2f7ozmn5dodng7hptoertxli-story.html