The art of throwing batting practice — and how it helps the Red Sox
FORT MYERS, Fla. — It’s still early in the season, so Victor Rodriguez’s right arm feels strong. No bags of ice or ibuprofen tablets have been needed.
It won’t last.
By the time the final game is played, Rodriguez will have thrown approximately 24,000 pitches of batting practice to Red Sox hitters. It’s an underappreciated and largely anonymous task, but one critical to any baseball team’s success.
Rodriguez is the assistant hitting coach of the Red Sox, a position he has held since 2013. Throwing batting practice is part of the job and Rodriguez is one of the best practitioners in the game. From 45 feet away, behind an L-shaped protective screen, he can throw fastballs over the plate or just a little inside or outside. Whatever the hitter prefers, he provides.
“Vic is the best thrower in the organization — ask anybody,” said Jackie Bradley Jr., who then proved his point by polling four teammates before a recent spring training game. “He can put the ball right where you want it. We all swear by him.”
For hitters, batting practice is the centerpiece of pregame preparations. It’s a way to get into a good rhythm or correct flaws in your swing. With the hitting coaches watching closely, a player may try to go to the opposite field with every swing or focus intently on hitting line drives.
The idea is to take what you accomplished in the afternoon into the game that night.
“You want to have a good round of BP for your confidence before the game,” first baseman Mitch Moreland said. “That is huge.
“I want the ball straight and in the zone at a good pace. Not too hard and not too soft. I’m not picky; I just want strikes. But some BP pitchers have a funky release, or their ball cuts. That can mess you up.”
Hitting coach Chili Davis assigns one of the batting practice pitchers to the same group of four hitters all season. The idea is to build up familiarity and comfort.
“You want a good routine for everybody,” said Davis, who is entering his third season with the Sox. “If the same pitcher is with them, he knows what they like, what they don’t like.”
Manager John Farrell occasionally throws BP, as do most of the coaches, with varying degrees of reliability. For every manager, part of putting together a coaching staff requires making sure there are enough good arms.
Rodriguez and Davis are regular throwers. Pitching coach Carl Willis often throws during early-afternoon optional workouts. First base coach Ruben Amaro Jr. is working to get better at it.
“Trust me, that’s easier said than done sometimes,” Farrell said. “It’s a skill being able to throw BP.”
The Red Sox have a deep rotation beyond their coaches. Bullpen catchers Mani Martinez and Mike Brenly take the mound almost every day.
Martinez, as quiet and unassuming as he is hard-working, has been with the team for 11 years. Brenly, the son of former major league manager Bob Brenly, was a minor league catcher for eight seasons before retiring in 2015 and joining the major league support staff.
Former minor league pitcher and coach Laz Gutierrez, who will be with the Sox all season as their mental skills coordinator, also will help out. That he is lefthanded is a bonus.
For home games, the Sox often call in Babson head coach Matt Noone, another lefty.
“It can be hard to find lefties,” Davis said. “We’re lucky we have a few.”
Davis learned to throw BP as a player by pitching to teammates. He was a designated hitter for much of his career but enjoyed pitching. Davis actually pitched in a game in 1993 as a member of the Angels and threw two scoreless innings against the Rangers.
“The manager asked me if I could go an inning,” said Davis. “I said, ‘Heck, I can go two.’ I was used to throwing. I’m pretty good, but I could be better. My shoulder gets sore sometimes.”
Rodriguez first learned how to throw batting practice as an amateur player in Puerto Rico. It was by necessity.
“We threw to each other all the time,” he said. “I would throw BP to my teammates. We didn’t have coaches to throw to us.”
For the 55-year-old Rodriguez, baseball has been his life’s work. He signed with the Baltimore Orioles in 1977 at the age of 15 and was sent to play in West Virginia in the lowest level of the minor leagues.
An infielder, Rodriguez played for 19 years with seven organizations. There were 11 major league games with the Orioles in 1984 and six more with the Twins in 1989, but that was it.
Rodriguez retired after playing in the minors for the Red Sox in 1994 and became a coach the following season. This will be his 21st season in that role. In all, he has spent 40 years in professional baseball.
At every stop on the coaching ladder, there were hitters who needed somebody to throw batting practice, and invariably it was Rodriguez who raised his hand to volunteer.
“I always liked to throw and I became good at it,” Rodriguez said. “As a hitting coach, you can get more accomplished by throwing to a hitter than talking to him. You pick up a lot of things when you pitch to them. Sometimes players just need a good round of BP. That helps them. Good BP is important.”
The four hitters Rodriguez had last season — Bradley, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and David Ortiz — all made the All-Star team.
“Vic gets you ready for the game,” Betts said. “If you need to work on something, he’ll make it easy to do that. He’s the best I’ve seen.”
When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2013, Rodriguez pitched to the entire starting lineup during the postseason. The players insisted on it.
“[Dustin] Pedroia said to me, ‘Do you want to win the World Series? You need to find a way to throw to us,’ ” Rodriguez said. “His hands weren’t feeling good and he wanted the ball in a certain place. By the end of the Series, I told David they had to win Game 6 because my arm was killing me.”
Counting spring training, Rodriguez will throw almost every day for eight months. Even rainouts are taxing as the players use the indoor batting cages to stay sharp.
Rodriguez estimated he throws 100-150 pitches a day, sometimes more. Add it up and you get tens of thousands of throws at roughly 70 miles per hour, all with a purpose.
To put that in perspective, San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner led the majors with 3,791 pitches last season.
“I enjoy it, I really do,” Rodriguez said. “But ask me again in August.”