Batting practice makes perfect for Yanks
Yankees take extra swings in early-afternoon sessions
NEW YORK -- There's a runner at second and nobody out. Derek Jeter tucks the bat under his left armpit, straps his gloves, digs his shoes into position and cocks his right elbow high.
Thwack. The baseball skids into the grass in right field, enough to get the run home and add to Jeter's RBI total. But the Yankees shortstop doesn't run. Instead, he tilts his head back to Kevin Long, who is leaning his forearms on the batting cage.
"Kev, give me a situation," Jeter will call out.
Welcome to the early-afternoon batting practice, where scenarios like this one have played out regularly across the country. The Yankees are not the only team that holds 2 p.m. hitting in the first game of a road series, but they may be earning the highest marks for attendance.
"Our team is one of the few that most guys want to hit, especially after an off-day," says Long, the Yankees' first-year hitting coach. "There's 12 or 13 position players, and 10 of them will show up. After an off-day, it's great to get going and get back into the swing of things."
Early hitting kicked off this year as a product of necessity, when the club was kept off the field at Yankee Stadium due to inclement weather conditions. Once the team finally escaped cold, snowy New York, center fielder Johnny Damon suggested the team take advantage of the cover provided by its first destination, the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
Nearly the entire team showed up that April day, gathering under a puffy white roof and littering the artificial turf some five hours before game time. To Long's delight, their enthusiasm hasn't dampened in the months since.
"It's totally optional," Long said. "If they want to show up, they can. If they don't, they don't have to. But if there's that much interest and that many people want to do it, I think it's obviously beneficial."
The mindset of a hitter strapping it up to enter the cage is centered around consistency. Batting practice makes perfect, and thus players will dig into the box looking to keep their swing short and compact, using the whole field and letting the ball travel where it may.
Some, like right fielder Bobby Abreu, have check-points to run through. Abreu started the season pulling the ball too much for manager Joe Torre's taste, and the result was an extended slump that bore frustration.
Once Abreu was able to start slicing the ball to left field, his troubles seemed to lift, but recently Abreu has fallen back into his pull-happy ways, leading to a 3-for-24 showing on the club's trek to Denver and San Francisco.
"I just keep doing my preparation and work in there," Abreu said. "I'm just trying to stay consistent. I know early in the season it was a struggle, but now if you see, I've got more balance at the plate and better contact."
Part of the allure of early hitting is allowing players to gain some familiarity with the stadium they'll be encountering for the next three or four days.
"You always see which way the wind blows out, you know?" said second baseman Robinson Cano. "Those are the things about the stadium that you want [to know], not only when you're hitting, but on defense."
Short of rookies, not many players need an introduction to facilities like Boston's Fenway Park or Baltimore's Camden Yards, where the Yankees will hold early hitting on Tuesday. The club's recent Interleague swing did prompt some curious examinations, most notably in Denver's mile-high altitudes.
"When we were at Coors, we had to go out there and get used to all that air," said reserve outfielder Kevin Thompson. "That's what a lot of us did. We ran around; you get used to the backgrounds of the different stadiums. That's what it's mainly for."
Before the club's series against the Colorado Rockies, Torre warned the hitters against getting too homer-happy in the thin air. Perhaps it was the humidor or the dry mountain heat, but the baseball didn't seem to be flying much in the three-game series. Nor did it soar in batting practice, when most hitters obediently concentrated on producing level, line-drive type strokes.
"There's not one guy on our team who goes into BP trying to launch balls," Long said. "I think they know the reverse effect of that can be devastating, because you really work on a long swing and a lift swing when you're trying to hit home runs. That really isn't an issue."
That, Long said, explains why Alex Rodriguez expressed reluctance to participate in this year's All-Star Home Run Derby. With 28 blasts already to his credit, power isn't a problem, but A-Rod doesn't need anything fouling up the works.
"Sometimes that'll take you back a week or 10 days," Long said.
The Yankees do try to hit the ball hard in the cages. It's not uncommon to hear some hoots and hollers come from the general area of home plate when a hitter gets a hold of a fat pitch; the Yankees just prefer it would come naturally.
"You want to use a couple of [power] swings just in case you've got a situation in the game," Cano said. "But me, I always try to stay in the middle and go the other way."
Instead of putting on monstrous power displays, the Yankees rein in expectations. For Jeter, Long may load the bases with ghost runners, nudging the captain to get at least one in, before Jeter calls out to the other hitters in his group, "All right, guys, these are your first four at-bats today."
Third-base coach Larry Bowa may josh players, challenging them to do better than 1-for-4 or 2-for-4. Often, Rodriguez and Melky Cabrera will decide to see five pitches each, and fight each other to see who can do more with them.
"But none of them are home run-type games," Long said. "They're all line-drive, production type drills. This is why they like to do it. They've already done that today; it's almost like pre-playing a situation that might happen in the game."
Not every player needs such diversions to keep their focus. Some, like Abreu, prefer to quietly go about their normal routines with no interference. Cano sums up the Yankee way by saying his enjoyment comes not from achieving simulated tasks, but the end result.
"Winning is how you keep it interesting," Cano said. "You go out there and you win the game. It's work."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.