At one point during these summer months at home outside of Las Vegas, Dexter Fowler looked into an inflatable, collapsible contraption that he could unfurl in his backyard and use as a full-sized batting cage. Instead, he did a little online window-shopping and decided to look smaller, go old-school, but at a get-schooled speed.
He bought a Wiffle-ball pitching machine, one with a “TURBO” setting.
“We can play in the yard,” he said. “Like we were kids.”
Before he shifted to the field to face some pro pitchers who live nearby, Fowler twisted the knobs on a brand new MaxBP Pro Pitching Machine. A bucket of golf ball-sized Wiffle-brand balls sits atop a tripod and, zip, fires them at a variety of speeds and with styles as specific as a curveball from a righthander or lefthander. The manufacturer claims pitches can be fired at speeds from 35 mph to — cranked at “TURBO” — 140 mph. Not exactly kids’ stuff.
Fowler grabbed his game bat, stood about 28 feet away, and took his chances.
“Vegas is kind of windy so the ball was moving,” he said. “It’s throwing 104 mph and it’s moving everywhere. Good for my hand-eye coordination and then when you see pitches the ball looks like it’s huge.”
The Cardinals’ switch-hitting right fielder returned to full workouts Wednesday and intends to play in Thursday’s intrasquad game at Busch Stadium after missing five days with a sore back. Fowler experienced stiffness and later back spasms during the Cardinals’ first instrasquad game. He eased from the field into the training room and went nearly a week without swinging a bat.
One of his at-bats in “Live BP” Wednesday came against Daniel Ponce de Leon with the bases loaded. The Cardinals simulated situations, complete with baserunners. Fowler worked the count and then took a called strike 3.
It was a snapshot of the intrinsic trouble that comes with judging offense during workouts and intrasquads like the Cardinals are holding this week. When is a hitter searching — versus when is a hitter working? The result was a zero, but the process was the purpose. Getting back in the swing Wednesday, Fowler was tracking pitches, chatting with catcher Yadier Molina the entire at-bat about what he saw where and how his timing was.
“What people don’t understand is guys — they’re working on things,” Fowler explained. “For instance, I get in there, haven’t hit for five days, and I didn’t warm up. I got in there and punched out twice. But I’m talking to Yadi. Yadi is talking to me. ‘Hey, you’re just a tad bit late. You’re a little bit early.’ I was like OK. We’re getting feedback from each other. … I think you can adapt a little quicker like this. (In spring training) you get your two at-bats, take a day off, and then you get two more at-bats and you might walk once.
“In a week, you have six at-bats. You can get six at-bats in one day here.”
The drag on the Cardinals all last season was an inconsistent offense and specifically the thin production atop the order that left Paul Goldschmidt too few opportunities to drive home runs. A lack of rumble from the lineup in intrasquad games is an incomplete measure of an offense, but during informal games and Live BPs like Wednesday there are glimpses of the lineup personality the Cardinals think will lead to production. It starts with seeing pitches.
A 0-0 game on Tuesday showcased a strong outing from Austin Gomber and more of the same from opening day starter Jack Flaherty. Pitching coach Mike Maddux calls all those zeroes “donuts,” and they hid the less satisfying center of a few innings. Flaherty’s pitch throbbed, and Molina turning a 1-2 count into an eight-pitch walk was one of several extended duels. On Wednesday, Ponce de Leon walked one and struck out three in his first simulated inning. Yet, those four batters saw 21 pitches.
“We’ve thrown more pitches than we have in awhile,” Maddux said. “Because it’s grind it out. You’re seeing long at-bats. Well, four up and three down, that should get it done easier than 21 pitches. Just making him work. That was Jack (too). It was just a fistfight every at-bat. Those are the kind of lineups — the ones that grind you, grind you, grind you. They end up wearing you down.’
Fowler is one of three Cardinals who have excelled at seeing pitches — “grinding,” in the parlance of the park. In his three seasons with the Cardinals, Fowler averages 4.12 pitches per plate appearance. This past season, Fowler ranked 11th in baseball with 4.21 pitches per plate appearance, and Goldschmidt ranked seventh, at 4.23. The Cardinals were the only team with two in the top 11, and a third just missed. Matt Carpenter averaged 4.40 pitches per plate appearance last season and would have ranked third in baseball if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.
Over the past three seasons, Carpenter averages 4.35 pitches per plate appearance.
Working the count might be practice now. It’s an identity later.
“Right. I also think it’s a mindset which I’m super happy about our offense and guys taking those grind-out at-bats,” manager Mike Shildt said. “I get it. It’s an end result with runs. But it’s also a process to it, and the process doesn’t always work, but without the process the results are pretty much guaranteed. They are not what you would like. …
“The first (thing) you start with from a timing perspective is your eyes.”
That’s why Fowler bought the Wiffle-ball machine. His personal trainer usually throws offseason BP to him, and to switch it up — to crank up the speed, to dial up his focus — the high-speed Wiffle ball offered a different view for pitch recognition. And wind rippling over the hills where Fowler lives added some adventure. He went from there to facing lefty Chasen Shreve or righty Paul Sewald — both now Mets — as he readied for “Summer Camp.” He felt the work with the point-blank, golf ball-sized pitches got his eyes sharper faster.
As he waited for word when baseball would start, Fowler was intrigued by the NBA’s plan to plant its league in one place, Orlando, Florida. The veteran said he was “kind of leery of us not being in a bubble (because) being in a bubble would be a lot easier.” Instead, baseball is going to try and keep its game on the road, moving from place to place on a schedule that will have an unforgiving pace. There’s no ease-in to a 60-game schedule, no time to find timing, no reason to watch and wait.
It’s like a high-speed Wiffle ball from 28 feet.
Blink and you’ve missed it.
“It’s like an extended playoffs,” Fowler said. “Kind of go out guns blazing. I guess there’s no break-in time. It’s from the first pitch on you’ve got a 60-game sprint. Your adrenaline has to be at its all-time high for 60 games. I believe guys can lock in for 60.”