Kansas City Royals change BP routine with new hitting coach

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Kansas City Royals manager Mike Matheny waits for the next player to step into the cage as he practices batting before a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals in Kansas City, Mo., on Tuesday May 3, 2022.

PA

Four and a half hours before the first pitch Friday night, Royals batting coach Alec Zumwalt set up a pitching machine on the side of a screen before the first batting practices.

The precise positioning of the device was intentional. Zumwalt’s setup was meant to mimic exactly what the Royals would see that night against Houston starter José Urquidy; this involved simulating the pitcher’s trigger point, his starting location on the plate, and the movement of his four seams, which Statcast shows 19% increase over average MLB fastball.

“These machines are pretty accurate,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said later Friday. “But today it was more about guys really working on mastering those balls and getting that green number (vertical break) a little bit different than usual.”

The new on-field method is part of what Zumwalt – hired two weeks ago as the Royals’ batting coach – added as KC strives to prepare its hitters as well as possible each night.

Previously, pre-game hitters on this pitching machine were only available to Royals hitters in the inside cage behind the team dugout – an area that can get crowded on game days.

Using Friday as an example, Zumwalt set up the pitching machine for a more inviting exercise on the court, with veterans like Whit Merrifield and Hunter Dozier alongside young players like rookie Bobby Witt Jr.

Matheny says it all comes down to a bigger question facing the Royals and other major league teams: what exactly is the end goal of batting practice?

For example, during his 13-year major league playing career, Matheny didn’t feel like traditional BP – hitting lofted pitches – helped him. The mid-50s fastballs might have done good to hit hard, but he felt like those swings didn’t set him up for the game because they were so different from what he would see from pitchers in the big league.

Matheny isn’t all gamers, however. And he says some guys gain confidence — and feel better about themselves — by rolling up liners against soft pitches before the game.

It all comes down to the challenge of what Matheny has begun to label as “Get good versus feel good”. The pitching machine’s batting practice – “get good” – prepares players for what’s to come, though it’s also difficult and will lead to more failures. Hitting pitches softly thrown by coaches — “feeling good” — can still come in handy for veterans who have done this part of their training.

Matheny says the art from there is figuring out what proportions of BP each player needs to perform at their best.

This, however, is also clear: Zumwalt’s machine-based field BP has become a higher priority in recent weeks.

“Young guys kiss it where it’s part of their routine,” Matheny said. “And you’ll see some of the veteran guys ask the right questions to see, ‘Is there a good Why what are we doing here? Yes, it makes sense.

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Jesse Newell — he won an EPPY for Best Sports Blog and was once named Top Beat Writer in His Broadcast by AP Sports Writers — has covered KU sports since 2008. His interest in sports analysis stems from his math professor father, who handed out rules to Trick-or-Treaters every year.

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