AL teams adjusting to Interleague schedule
Pitchers could benefit, lower injury risk by taking batting practice throughout season
If pitchers' offensive numbers, by and large, are awful, then American League pitchers' offensive numbers, by and large, are abominable.
In the Interleague Play era, dating back to 1997, National League pitchers have hit .143 with a .178 on-base percentage and a .184 slugging percentage, striking out once every 3.1 plate appearances.
In that same span, AL pitchers have hit .120 with a .152 on-base percentage and a .153 slugging percentage, striking out every 2.6 plate appearances.
You would expect this, of course, because pitchers in this day and age are paid, trained and groomed to pitch and pitch only. Some, but not all, hit in high school and college, and none of them hit at the Rookie or Class A levels in professional ball. Only those affiliated with an NL club hit at the Double-A or Triple-A levels.
So when Interleague games roll around, invariably there are some AL pitchers being asked to do something they haven't done in a game since they were maybe 15 years old. And they're asked to do it against big league pitching.
It's a strange situation that keeps getting stranger, which is why the cries for both leagues to adopt the designated hitter are stronger than ever. But until and unless that day comes, teams -- especially AL teams -- must adjust to the reality of two 15-team leagues and the everyday appearance of Interleague Play that began this year.
AL teams used to prepare their pitchers to hit in one block of the May/June schedule, but they now find themselves having to work that prep time into Spring Training and various points of the calendar, depending on their particular schedule.
It's a bigger adjustment than it might seem.
"When guys aren't used to doing things," said Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher, "it can throw a wrench into the program."
Teams worry about their pitchers. They are the most valuable, most fragile, most outlandishly expensive (if we consider the ratio of dollars spent per inning played) commodity in the sport. So when those pitchers are required to grip a bat and run the bases (on those rare occasions when they're actually on the bases), stomachs turn and front-office and coaching staffs squirm.
"You always worry they're going to pull a rib cage or oblique, and it happens," Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "A few years ago, they lost a pretty good pitcher here in Chien-Ming Wang [who tore a foot ligament running the bases in 2008]. His career has been derailed since. I like pitchers hitting, but these guys don't have at-bats in a lot of cases. It's been a while for some of them, depending on the situation."
Now, whether swinging a bat a little more frequently in batting practice, as AL pitchers will be doing this season, will be an advantage or a disadvantage on the injury front is open to interpretation. Maybe they'll have a little more muscle memory on their side, or maybe they'll just have more opportunities to tweak something.
Some people think the whole discussion is silly, either way.
"You hear a lot of people talk about [the injury risk] when we have to run to first base or swing," Reds pitcher Homer Bailey said. "Come on, guys. Technically, you're supposed to be a professional athlete. If you can't sprint to first base or swing a bat, you need to reconsider a few things. Now granted, some guys are going to pull rib-cage muscles, but, come on, let's go. We're not porcelain dolls here."
No, but a porcelain doll might have about as much impact as some of the guys standing in the box trying to hit. Alas, those plate appearances (and the often-ensuing outs) count, so teams give their pitchers those swings in the cages and bunting instructions to eke out whatever upside they can.
AL teams all had to incorporate that instruction into the Spring Training schedule for the first time, and the general rule of thumb for in-season cage work seems to be about two weeks in advance of a visit to an NL city.
"I think it's good," said Yankees ace CC Sabathia, whose .238 career batting average with three homers and 14 RBIs is downright Ruthian when compared to his pitching peers. "You get into trouble when you just have that one block of games and you're just using those couple of weeks leading into it. But if you're doing it all year, like the NL pitchers, and your muscles get used to it and running the bases, the better off you are."
Royals starter Wade Davis said the practice has some other, unintended benefits.
"It helps us become a more complete player and understanding the game," Davis said. "I've always enjoyed hitting. Not necessarily because I enjoyed swinging the bat, but understanding why my hands couldn't hit certain pitches and stuff like that helps you understand your opponents' swings -- why they work one way and why they can't hit certain pitches."
That all sounds good, in theory, but the practical difficulty of four separate series in NL cities spread through the course of the season is that it assumes an omniscience about pitching probables that simply doesn't exist.
The Indians, for instance, are already thinking ahead to their two-game series in Philadelphia from May 14-15. They'd like to have the starters for those two games somewhat prepared to hit when the time comes.
Trouble is, the Indians, because of a ton of upheaval among their starters these first two weeks of the season, don't know what their rotation is going to look like next week, let alone next month.
"It's a big disadvantage," manager Terry Francona said. "I wish we'd just use the DH."
Perhaps someday that will happen. In the meantime, teams must adjust accordingly to the schedule's sometimes quirky demands and pitchers have to hope to make the best of an uncomfortable situation.
Unfortunately, no matter the schedule, pitcher futility at the plate is essentially a given. Look to the case of Royals starter Luis Mendoza, who, for the purposes of this story, was asked at the outset of the season what he thought about all the extra BP.
"Last year," he said, "I got two at-bats and felt like I hadn't hit in 10 years, so it was weird. But now we start early in the spring, practicing hitting, and that gives you more confidence."
A few days later, Mendoza started against the Phillies and struck out in both his at-bats.
C'est la vie.