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Baltimore Orioles

‘Nasty’ batting practice that ‘defies gravity’ part of new Orioles hitting coaches’ challenging preparation plan

SARASOTA, Fla. — The Orioles’ new hitting coaches hope the toughest pitcher their players face each day is one with three legs, five wheels and the ability to throw devastating breaking balls both left- and right-handed.

During morning batting practices at Ed Smith Stadium this spring, an orange extension cord has stretched from the first base dugout to the pitcher’s mound, connecting to a SpinBall pitching machine with the ability to replicate the repertoire of whoever the Orioles were facing that afternoon. Used both in the batting cages and on the field, the device is part of a game-like preparation program new Orioles co-hitting coaches Ryan Fuller and Matt Borgschulte have introduced this spring, designed to challenge hitters so they’re prepared to handle whatever their opponent is literally going to throw at them.

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“It’s not to make you feel good, like normal [batting practice], where you’re just crushing homers,” first baseman Ryan Mountcastle said. “It’s to make you get more ready for the game.”

Hired this offseason to replace Don Long, neither Fuller nor Borgschulte played or have coached in the majors, but both 31-year-olds have established knowledge of modern hitting and coaching techniques. Fuller once worked in education and has applied his teaching skills since joining the organization three years ago. He spent last year as Double-A Bowie’s hitting coach and the Orioles’ full-season hitting coordinator, overseeing a program focused on swing decisions that led to improved offense throughout the farm system. Borgschulte joined Baltimore from the Minnesota Twins’ organization and has a background in advanced pitch recognition.

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The new hitting routine presents a combination of what each brings to the Orioles. The focuses are presenting hitters with the quality of pitches they’ll see in games — and some that are even better than that — and challenging them to swing at only ones they can do damage on.

Rather than soft flips and casual throws for players to get their requisite number of pregame hacks, each of their six swings come against game-speed offerings, with the added decision-making process of whether the pitch is one they can drive.

“The mentality is taking yourself into situations that you’re not comfortable,” outfielder DJ Stewart said. “It’s not easy, but you’d rather fail in the cage than fail on the field.”

Creating perfect swings

A brand of pitching machine used by an overwhelming majority of organizations — but before last week, not the Orioles — the SpinBall features three dials to set the velocity, spin rate and spin direction of the balls coming out of the machine. Batting practice sessions with it allow the Orioles’ hitters to face pitches with similar speeds and movement patterns to those of that day’s opposing pitcher, with positioning also presenting a matching release point.

Tampa Bay Rays left-hander Shane McClanahan, who the Orioles will face in their Opening Day game Friday, threw his curveball at 82.5 mph on average with a spin rate of about 2,650 rpm and a spin direction of 5 on a clock face. Although many Baltimore hitters faced him last season, they’ll be able to get a refresher against his full repertoire before stepping in the box against him at Tropicana Field thanks to similar measurements being set on the SpinBall for batting practice.

“You get in there, and you just have a little bit better feel and an idea of where you need to look for the ball to start because you know how it’s gonna move because you’ve seen it before,” outfielder Austin Hays said. “Instead of just reading the scouting report, you can also actually get your eyes on something that looks like what you’re gonna see that night.”

The machine allows the Orioles to train against not only specific pitchers, but also specific pitches. Fuller noted that if a batter is struggling against a certain offering — elevated fastballs or sinkers in, for example — they can go up against several of them in one trip to the cages.

At times, coaches make these sessions even more difficult by using foam balls with a dimpled, plastic exterior, allowing for sharper and greater movement when put in the machine. A good elevated fastball will trick batters’ eyes and make them think the ball is rising; because of their lighter weight, the foam balls actually do.

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“It defies gravity,” corner infielder-outfielder Tyler Nevin said.

The pairing of the balls with the new machine “makes a pitch that you probably won’t ever see because it’s that good,” Borgschulte said, but the level of difficulty helps players discover their weaknesses, allowing them to correct those in practice rather than games.

“My first 10 swings, I’m usually 0-for-10,” outfielder Anthony Santander said with a laugh through team interpreter Brandon Quinones. “It has to be an almost perfect swing every time to make contact.”

The balls also have the benefit of not hurting hitters’ hands when they’re jammed on inside pitches, which does happen amid the high-velocity sessions. Players also don’t have to worry if the extreme movement causes one of the balls to hit them, possibly removing a level of apprehension that might otherwise enter the drills.

Instead, it creates an attitude of, as Fuller put it, “Hey, bring that nasty stuff at me. I’m gonna take my best swings at it.”

Heart of the zone

There’s an importance to not only what comes out of the SpinBall, but also where it’s headed.

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The Orioles’ on-field batting practice sessions feature a unique target set up behind home plate: a 25-pound black medicine ball resting atop a ball bag.

It’s a drill used at Baltimore’s minor league affiliates in recent years as part of the organization’s swing-decision emphasis. The medicine ball represents the heart of the strike zone, the types of pitches that hitters can have the most success on. In 2021, major leaguers posted a .564 slugging percentage on pitches to the heart of the zone, compared to slugging .296 otherwise, according to Statcast data from Baseball Savant.

Any pitch bound for the medicine ball is one that hitters should pounce on. They should pass on those that miss or even simply knick it.

“Maybe it doesn’t look professional, other teams may not be doing it,” Fuller said, “but it makes so much sense to have a target back there.”

The method already produced results in the farm system. Players at the Orioles’ four full-season affiliates experienced a 32-point jump in OPS in 2021 compared to the most recent minor league season in 2019, with increases in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage as well as home run and walk rates. Although strikeout rate also increased in the system, that’s considered at least partially a byproduct of hitters honing their swing-decision skills and passing on borderline offerings.

“I get a 3-2 pitch on the outer half that’s probably not a strike, I swing at it, how much damage am I going to do?” infield prospect Patrick Dorrian said. “I’d rather take my chances of getting that walk and taking the pitch and bettering myself rather than worrying about the umpire calling that a strike.”

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Dorrian worked with Fuller last season at Bowie and found his teachings vital in improving his game. His walk rate, in particular, jumped more than 5% from 2019. Only Adley Rutschman, regarded as one of baseball’s top prospects, walked in a higher percentage of his plate appearances among qualified Orioles minor leaguers.

In a short time this spring, Fuller said the Orioles are seeing similar gains in swing decisions, as well as hard-hit and line-drive rates. Since last year, all players in the organization, including major leaguers, have received scoresheets grading their swing decisions in each game, with their choice on every pitch receiving positive or negative points and providing instant feedback.

“More times than not, your scores would be a pretty decent reflection on how your game went,” said first baseman-outfielder Trey Mancini, the longest-tenured Oriole. “Obviously, there were some times where you had great swing decisions and you lined out three times. But overall, the better swing decisions you have over the course of time, typically the better the results are going to be.”

The medicine ball serves as a target not only for the SpinBall machine. Coaches also throw to hitters during practices, pitching at relatively higher velocity from a closer distance and mixing in breaking balls. It’s part of what Fuller called “a buffet of options for these players.”

“I think they see that we’ll throw forever,” Fuller said. “My pants are incredibly dirty. We love being in there sweating with them. And I think they see, like, ‘These guys are working just as hard as we are.’”

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‘Trained to execute’

In Mancini’s freshman year at Notre Dame, he and the Fighting Irish dropped two of three to a Connecticut team stocked with future major leaguers. Fuller, then a junior, was the Huskies’ starting third baseman. Both he and Mancini went 6-for-11 with five RBIs in the series.

“It’s funny coming full circle,” Mancini said, “and he’s my hitting coach in the majors now.”

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Add in his work at the Orioles’ alternate site in 2020 and with Bowie in 2021, and Fuller came into camp as a familiar face for many players, which Borgschulte said has provided a credibility that has “transferred to most of the guys on the roster.” Borgschulte, meanwhile, has integrated himself quickly with what Mancini called a “calming presence.”

“He’s kind of always at 72 degrees,” Fuller said, describing his partner with a temperature that will match the air-controlled environment inside Tropicana Field when the Orioles begin their season there Friday.

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That’s when the methods Fuller and Borgschulte have been using throughout the spring can truly begin to be measured. But Orioles players are already feeling the benefits of the tandem’s efforts.

“They just have a very good understanding of what it takes to be a good hitter,” Hays said. “In areas that you’re lacking, they understand how to read that data and bring it to you in a way that’s not like rocket science. It’s still simple.”

That’s the coaches’ hope, as well, with techniques as straightforward as a medicine ball for a strike zone and a more dynamic pitching machine used with designs of minimizing minutiae for players.

“I don’t want them thinking too much about, ‘Oh, I got to know about this and this and this and this,’” Borgschulte said. “If we challenge them, give them what they’re going to see in the game, have an idea of what the plan and approach is for a specific pitcher, then we’re trying to set them up for success as best we can.”

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Each player has individual goals for the season, but throughout the year, the metrics the coaches will pay close attention to for the Orioles as a team are the same that led to success for Baltimore’s minor leaguers in 2021: make smart swing decisions, hit the ball hard and do damage.

The hope is that the work from the past few weeks will have prepared the Orioles’ hitters to do that. The training will, of course, continue into the season, with hitters’ preparation for each day’s opposing pitchers going beyond a scouting report or a simple idea of what pitches they throw.

“We play in the AL East; there’s never going to be an off night,” Fuller said. “Every arm we face is going to be really good. … And when you get into the game, hopefully you can go on autopilot and say, ‘I’m trained to execute in this moment.’”


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