Logic say that practice makes you better. If you practice hitting, you become a better hitter. If you practice pitching, you become a better pitcher. And so forth.
Its logical. But is it true? Not always. Maybe not even most of the time in baseball.
As a kid, I always practiced. But when I played hardball as an adult (semi-pro and adult baseball) in the eighties and nineties, my teams generally did not practice. At first, I thought that was crazy. So did all the other new guys to the team. But it was very hard to have a practice because adults have varying work schedules, as well as wives and kids and so forth. So we simply did not practice.
We played double headers on Sundays year round. (I am in California.) Did we stink from lack of practice? No. We occasionally played high school baseball teams or American Legion teams, and we generally beat them. This, in spite of the fact that they practiced incessantly and we never practiced. Hmmmmm.
Are there any other baseball teams that do not practice? You bet. Major League teams in season do not practice much. They just play games. When I coached a 13-year-old minors team, I had to cancel practice because of poor attendance. I believe all the other teams in our league did the same. How did we play? Just fine. I do not remember our record, but I believe we were above .500 and we came within two runs of beating the league champion in the playoffs. Sandlot baseball teams, which are rare now, but were common in my 1950's youth and before, generally did not practice. We just played. Not practicing sounds like heresy. But it is, in fact, a long baseball tradition and the rule where the players are adults or they are kids without adult supervision.
Let’s look at the other end of the spectrum. Early in my adult playing career, I used to go to a batting cage almost every day. It was expensive and time-consuming, so I bought my own pitching machine and practiced like crazy in my backyard. I also bought a Swing Rite batting tee and hit 100 balls a day off it using the perfect form I had learned in a number of clinics and batting camps I attended.
So my hitting got much better, right? Nope. In fact, I hit better my first year in adult baseball, before I took the clinics and got all the cage time, than I did after all the instruction and practice. My swing when I hit better was “wrong.” When my swing was “right,” I hit worse.
Bad instruction? No way. I was trained by Major League guys like Jim Lefebvre, pro-hitting consultant and inventor of the Swing Rite Oscar Miller, former San Francisco Giant Rob Andrews, and other former Major Leaguers. In fact, I got occasional compliments on my swing after all the instruction and batting practice. Once, at a batting cage, a pro who was working out watched me and asked me who I was and where I played. When I asked why, he said something to the effect that he could tell I knew what I was doing.
Logic aside, my experience seems to indicate that batting practice does not help much and may hurt. How could that be? For one thing, almost everything has a point of diminishing returns. While batting practice is clearly helpful to a player who has never hit a baseball or who is in his first or second year, it is not true that continuing to practice for years and years will pay equal dividends. It appears that my adult efforts to improve had little or no positive effect and may have even had a slight negative effect.
The theory may be that once you have got the basic hitting motion down, refinements in technique and mechanics add little to your success. Furthermore, obsessing about your hitting mechanics likely causes you to think too much in the batter's box. Hall of Famer Yogi Berra said, "You can't think and hit at the same time."
Same is true of pitching, throwing accurately, and fielding ground balls. I have seen lots of Little League coaches spend lots of time hitting infield and working with their pitchers. But I have never seen a youth pitcher or a youth infield get better over the course of a season as a result of practicing “get one,” “get two,” bull-pen work, and so forth. I have seen pitchers and infielders get better with age, but it appeared that they all got better with age, not just the ones whose coaches made them practice a lot. The only pitching my youth players did was in game conditionsintrasquad games and practice games with other teams in the pre-season and actual games during the season. I would occasionally take a pitcher aside and work on a dangerous mechanical problem, but mainly I focused on finding the kids who got the best results and on the mental aspects of pitching.
Practicing fielding grounders in the infield probably does not hurt generally, the way obsessing about batting mechanics can. But one coach said, and I agree, that practicing two-throw, double-force plays in youth baseball, where they are almost never made, probably causes middle infielders to hurry too much and thereby miss some force outs at second.
In short, my teams did not do batting practice, pitching practice, or grounder fielding practice, but we were generally in the top of the league in those categories. In 1992, I never, repeat, never held batting practice all season. Our team batting average was .320. Our team slugging average was .463 and our team on-base average was .590.
In 2006, one of my readers told me that in 2005, when they had batting practice twice a week, his team hit .267. In 2006, he never had batting practice and only did what I recommend in my book Youth Baseball Coaching, which is lighter bats, emphasis on getting a good pitch on the first two strikes, and shortening the swing on the third strike. And in 2006, his team batting average went up to .406 and his team on-base percentage went up to .606.
We did hold practices. In fact, I never even cancel a practice because of rain. Our practices were full and intense, but they simply did not involve batting mechanics, throwing pitches, or fielding grounders. We worked on other stuff that paid immediate dividends and that did not harm the players the way batting practice can. See my book Youth Baseball Coaching for details.
The 3/26/01 Sports Illustrated had an article called “Pivot Physics” about the science of the double play. Actually, it is about what I called a “two-throw double-force play” in my book Youth Baseball Coaching.
They focused on Barry Larkin and Pokey Reese, who they said were one of the best double-play combinations in the game. “Whatever chemistry they have, however, is due more to nature than nurture,” said article author Tom Verducci. By that he means double-play combinations are born not made. They rely on instincts, not practice.
The article quotes Reese: We dont ractice it all that much. Once in a while during the second or third round of [pre-game] batting practice well field a ball and turn two. Thats about it.
Cleveland shortstop Omar Vizquel is quoted in the article saying, Practice is overrated. Basically, its reaction and instinct, like playing basketball.
John T. Reed