Sean Manaea swung, and the plastic ball thrown by Josh Reddick changed direction with a loud pop. A group of A’s teammates gathered around the two players in shallow left field whooped as the ball followed a high arc – all the way to the infield dirt. Manaea dropped his green plastic bat and posed, watching its flight.
The interlude over, the group scattered, and Manaea joined the rest of the A’s pitchers for warmups before Oakland’s game against the Twinson May 30. This week, though, Manaea and the A’s starters will have to handle a real bat with the A’s playing consecutive interleague series in Milwaukee and Cincinnati.
American League starting pitchers typically only hit during interleague games in National League parks, a handful of times a year. Preparing their pitchers for that unfamiliar aspect of the game, though, is not something the A’s take lightly.
“It’s an incremental process,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “We want to make sure that we ease them into it, as opposed to just throwing them out there – hopefully that combats potential injury, because it isn’t something we do a whole lot.”
This year’s process, which started a few weeks ago, is being led by first-base coach Mike Aldrete, who described it as “slow.” On day one, Aldrete said, “we just talked.” Day two, the pitchers hit balls off of a tee. Day three, Aldrete tossed them pitches underhand with instructions not to swing hard.
Eventually, the pitchers graduated to batting practice. Before the May 28 game at the Coliseum, Manaea, Kendall Graveman and Rich Hill gathered at the batting cage at the plate. They took turns executing a few bunts, then began swinging away. Aldrete stood behind the cage, watching. Later, he began to call out hypothetical numbers of runners and outs, testing the pitchers’ ability to handle the bat in certain situations.
It’s an incremental process. We want to make sure that we ease them into it, as opposed to just throwing them out there – hopefully that combats potential injury, because it isn’t something we do a whole lot.
A’s manager Bob Melvin, on preparing his starting pitchers to hit
“I’ll tell them, ‘OK, man on third, less than two outs, we’re getting ready to pinch-hit for you, but I told the skipper you can get the run in. So make me look good,’ ” Aldrete said. “From their standpoint, they don’t want to come out of a game, so maybe we need to get good at this.”
Of the A’s starters, Hill, who spent four seasons in the National League with the Chicago Cubs, has the most hitting experience, with 14 hits in 114 major-league at-bats (.123 average). Most of Jesse Hahn’s 25 at-bats (.080 average) came in 2014 with the San Diego Padres. Graveman is 0 for 1 in the majors, and Manaea, a rookie, has no at-bats.
Oddly, Graveman’s at-bat was April 20 this year at Yankee Stadium after the A’s had forfeited their designated hitter because an injury forced DH Jed Lowrie to play second base. Graveman faced right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, whose average fastball velocity of 97 mph is second-highest among big-league starters this season. Graveman struck out – but not before fouling off a pitch.
“I caught it out of (the catcher’s) mitt,” Graveman joked about his late swing on the foul ball. “But it gives you confidence. He had 97 (mph), so he’s throwing an 88-mph slider. I throw an 89-mph cutter. So hey, that’s not as easy (to hit) as it seems sometimes to the guy that’s watching on TV.”
Graveman said he was an “average” hitter in high school, the last time he had hit in a game before that at-bat in Yankee Stadium. Pitchers who come up through A.L. organizations, as Graveman did with Toronto, usually aren’t required to hit in the minor leagues.
Manaea, who was drafted by the Royals and traded to the A’s, didn’t even give himself that much credit.
“I batted like .196 in my high school career,” said Manaea, a left-hander. “Whenever I wasn’t pitching, I would play first base. And the coach wouldn’t DH for the pitcher. He would DH for me.”
Manaea, though, seemed to be making progress under Aldrete’s tutelage. The first time the pitchers took batting practice, Manaea swung and missed at about half his pitches.
I batted like .196 in my high school career. Whenever I wasn’t pitching I would play first base. And the coach wouldn’t DH for the pitcher. He would DH for me.
A’s rookie pitcher
“Batting practice pitches,” Aldrete emphasized.
The second time, Manaea hit one over the outfield fence.
“That was incredible,” Manaea said. “Everybody saw me the first time and was laughing their butts off. It was just awesome to actually get the ball out of the cage.”
In a game, Aldrete said the most the A’s expect from their starter is to execute a bunt if there are men on base, or at least to make their counterpart throw more pitches than he’d like to record an out. But Melvin said part of the preparation is figuring out which of his pitchers could handle a potential hit-and-run – or swing away if the situation calls for it.
“You get to play the whole game, really,” Hill said of pitching under National League rules. “You get to hit, possibly get on base, run the bases. That’s fun. You’re one of the guys.”
Hahn discussed his two career hits, an RBI single against the New York Mets’ Zack Wheeler and an infield single off left-hander Alex Wood, then with the Atlanta Braves.
“I look at it as being really an accomplishment,” Hahn said. “And I give a lot more credit to hitters after I get in the box.”
Manaea said his high school hitting struggles stemmed partly from being “really, really scared of the baseball.” He said that’s no longer the case, though he added, “I haven’t seen 90-plus (mph), so I don’t know how that’s going to look.”
“I’m pretty excited to get an at-bat in a game,” Manaea said. “All my friends from back home, every one of them told me that if I ever get a big-league at-bat they’re going to be tuned in. I’m sure if I look silly I’m going to be hearing about it.”