It’s a little house, a man cave, a private lab: Here’s what goes on in the Red Sox’ batting cage
Who would want to go to a cage? For the Red Sox, the answer is just about everyone.
As the Red Sox prepare to begin their title defense, the effort will start not on the field in Seattle at 7:10 p.m. EDT on Thursday but instead about 40 minutes prior to that, as players start filtering into the breeding ground of the team’s offensive culture. The batting cage, traditionally a venue whose emphasis was repetition, instead transformed into something else in the eyes of many members of the team.
How do members of the team describe the cage?
“A little house,” said infielder Eduardo Nunez.
“A man cave,” said first baseman Steve Pearce.
“Our private lab,” in the words of hitting coach Tim Hyers.
It’s all of those things – and an essential part of where the Red Sox created a foundation for 119 victories in 2018. It’s worth considering all of those views of the batting cage to understand how the Red Sox formed their offensive identity and developed a top-to-bottom approach that forged the most prolific lineup in the game.
Our private lab
Historically, the batting cage represented an area where players simply went to loosen their muscles and to hone their swing through repetition. But those repetitions lacked purpose and detail.
“There were just a lot of mindless reps taken in there,” said assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett.
In 2018, the Red Sox challenged that convention. The arrivals of J.D. Martinez, who engages in numerous drills in the cage meant to ensure precision at every stage of the swing; Hyers, who believes in having players focus on one specific cue — a subcomponent of their swing that can help players maintain the direction of their swing — while inside the cage; and Barkett, who came from a Pirates organization that had studied extensively how to become more efficient and effective in training players helped to create a more purposeful approach to work in the cage.
“We were training based upon what the pitcher was doing that day, how to attack it. We were very specific in what we were doing,” said Barkett. “I had never really seen elite players training like that. It was really cool.”
Martinez is something of a pied piper, so focused on the specific relevance of every drill that it raised the curiosity of others about not just what to do before games but why they were doing it.
“He’s turned himself into this through all the stuff he does, how much effort he puts into his work, knowing what he wants to feel in his swing,” said Brock Holt. “That’s made him into who he is. He preaches that to everyone. I think that’s kind of helped. You see more guys taking interest in it, talking to each other.”
Hyers encourages the players to lock in on one specific cue in their swing, a feeling that allows the player to gain a sense that his swing is grooved in a way that allows him to attack pitches in the most effective fashion. That cue can be emphasized through any number of perhaps 10 to 12 drills, usually for very specific aspects of the swings (upper body, lower body, one-arm drills, among others) that the Red Sox typically employ in the cage. Players experiment with their pre-game training techniques.
“They have a set routine, but every once in a while there’s something from that buffet [of drills] that they’ll pull and try out,” said Hyers. “[The cage is] a workplace. In the past, it was — 10 years ago, 15 years ago — the cage was get loose to take batting practice. Some players didn’t do the cage. But that’s our lab.”
A man cave
But it’s more than that. Players are interested in the science and shape of their swings, and in the drills that get them locked in, but for the Red Sox, the pull of the cage setting goes beyond that.
The Red Sox play music in the cage (Barkett is almost always armed with a portable Bluetooth speaker — he played “New York, New York” on it as the Red Sox made their way out of Yankee Stadium after clinching the ALDS), something that contributes to an atmosphere that doesn’t just feel like a forced work setting.
“There were times I was doing private lessons as an A-ball manager where I hated the batting cage. I was stuck in it for hours at a time,” said Barkett. “There are times now where it’s a place of peace and comfort and where you feel at home with a brotherhood almost. I guess it’s who you’re sharing the cage with and what your experiences are. Ours is full of joy.”
Players love assembling in the cage — away from the crowd, away from the media, away from anyone except for uniformed team personnel — to have their defined space. Players aren’t just rushing in and out in preparation for the game. They do their work, then stay to be with teammates.
Sometimes, they talk about plans of attack against opposing pitchers; sometimes they talk about drills and what they’re trying to find in their swings; and sometimes, they’ll simply shoot the breeze and joke with each other. Often, all of these things happen in the course of the roughly half-hour during which players assemble there prior to a game.
“It’s kind of a man cave for the guys. You go in there, you talk, everybody is open, ‘Hey, this is what I’m feeling,’ and everyone feeds off that,” Pearce said. “Guys are constantly learning new stuff from other guys and can incorporate it. I think there’s more of that here than with any other team. People are just coming in and watching, being part of it.”
The Red Sox became Pearce’s seventh big league team in his 12th major league season last year. He’s seen many groups, and many cages. But what he immediately noticed with the Red Sox last year was different than anything he’d seen before — not only the number of people involved in pregame conversations, mostly about hitting, but also the effect of those exchanges.
“Everyone is open. Everyone is kind of listening,” Pearce said. “If you’re paying attention, you can pick something up, the way that someone explains something — boom! — it can explode your mind.”
Fenway Park didn’t have a batting cage behind the dugout until the 2005 season. When the team did create such a space, the natural constraints of the park (even with subsequent expansion) resulted in tighter cage confines than in most parks.
The resulting dimensions of the hitting area, particularly inside of Fenway, bring players together as they work.
“It’s intimate for us,” said Nunez. “It’s a little house that we have there. It’s very special.”
With players not only coming to the cage but staying there in growing numbers before the game, chatter – mostly focused on how to prepare for the game and how to attack opposing pitchers – envelops the group. The cage is a place where the team’s shared purpose on a given night comes into focus, and more broadly, where the team’s identity is forged in a way that set the stage for a team that proved singularly focused in pursuit of victories last year.
“We’re constantly [saying], ‘Last night is over with. This is what’s happening tonight. Let’s prepare. Let’s talk about it. This guy throws a sinker – he’ll throw hard sinkers down and in.’ Everything we’re doing is for a purpose,” Pearce said. “You go in there to almost get away from [everyone else]. You just go away to, let’s just play baseball. Let’s get back to this, start having fun.
“That’s what the cage is. You go in there to laugh, joke with the guys, see what the guys are doing, then, ‘Boom, it’s 6:55 — time for the anthem, let’s go out there and play baseball.’ ”