PHILADELPHIA – Bryce Harper struggled to hit in 2018, at least compared to his lofty Most Valuable Player standards. He struggled so much that some folks even wondered if he should re-sign with the Nationals for one season, re-establish his market in '19 and hit free agency after that.
The idea seemed like a stretch, but it reflected Harper’s slash line (.214/.365/.468) at the 2018 All-Star break. But then Harper became Harper again. He slashed .300/.434/.538 in the second half. He entered free agency and signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies in February '19. This March, Harper cited his work with new Phillies hitting coach Joe Dillon for helping him salvage his final season in Washington. Dillon was the Nationals' assistant hitting coach from 2018-19. He incorporates game-speed drills into his work, which is a relatively new concept in baseball. Harper performed those drills daily in the second half of ’18. He plans to perform them daily in ’20.
“Last year, I wasn’t able to do it because we didn’t have it, you know what I’m saying?” Harper said.
Dillon’s drills accompanied with some pretty cool technology should help the Phillies reach game speed by Opening Day on Friday against the Marlins, despite a three-plus-month break between Spring Training’s cancellation in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic and Summer Camp’s return earlier this month.
“It’s designed to get guys’ eyes sped back up and get used to velocity again,” Dillon said recently. “I’ve had some success in the past using it with guys coming back from rehab stints. Just getting feedback from guys, they seem to get used to the velocity and get their timing back a little bit quicker.”
Harper welcomes his reunion with Dillon, who brings new concepts in training to the Phillies. It includes the iPitch Smart Pitching Machine in the batting cages at Citizens Bank Park.
The iPitch is not the pitching machine that the average Joe finds at the local batting cage. Dillon or assistant hitting coach Pedro Guerrero -- or anybody who can work an app -- operates the machine on a tablet. Press a few buttons and the machine throws fastballs, sliders, curveballs, changeups -- even rarely thrown screwballs, if needed -- at specific speeds and spin rates. They can randomize the locations of the pitches, too.
Theoretically, the Phillies can program the pitching machine to mimic the speeds and spin rates of the starting pitcher they expect to face that night. Got Max Scherzer? Check Scherzer’s Statcast numbers and punch them in. Dillon said some hitters had access to some type of machine like that over the break. Others tried virtual reality headsets.
“It’s nastier, because it’s a machine,” Harper said. “It’s like a robot throwing, you know what I’m saying? A guy throwing a curveball out there, it’s going to be nasty, of course. But a machine doing it on a dime, it’s like, 'Holy crap.' It’s just really, really good. Once you get out there, it’s like, 'It’s not as good as what I just saw in the cage. I can spit on that.' You’re going to make mistakes out there, of course. You’re going to swing at stuff in the dirt. That’s how it is. But I really enjoy doing stuff like that because it really makes your mind work.”
Dillon wants to make a hitter’s mind work, which makes this about more than just a pitching machine. Hitters cite two specific Dillon drills. In the first, the machine throws fastballs at about 95 mph. The hitter starts at home plate and moves closer to the machine after every pitch. They try to make contact each time. The closer they get to the machine, the faster the pitches look.
After about seven steps toward the machine, the hitter moves backward. He finishes at home plate.
“Basically, as they step up, they’re taking away time and space,” Dillon said. “When they step back, we’re giving it back to them. They’ve got to figure out what to do with the time. Every time they swing, they have to adapt and adjust, because the timing is going to change, the trajectory is going to change -- all the different things change, right?”
In a game, the pitcher throwing 99 mph does not seem as daunting because the hitters just saw pitches that looked 130-140 mph.
“The point is making it tough,” Dillon said. “We know through science and studies that, when you challenge the guys in their work, they’re going to perform better on the field.”
In the second drill, a hitter sees 20 random pitches in 20 random locations. The goal is simple: Swing only at the pitches in the strike zone. Hitters get points for swinging at strikes and taking balls. About 50 percent of pitches thrown in games are in the strike zone, but hitters typically swing at everything during batting practice.
“We expect guys to go be patient in the game and not chase, but we don’t ever work on it,” Dillon said. “There’s the process in the brain that says, 'No,' just like there is a process that says, 'Yes.' And so we’ve never really trained, 'No.' This is a way to train the, 'No.' That’s where those 20 pitches come in. I’m basically trying to get them to take half the time. It’s not taking the place of batting practice. Think of training above the shoulders. It’s just training the brain to process and make decisions and maximize what they can do.”
The Phillies have bought in.
“It’s like overtraining,” Jay Bruce said. “I always tell people, especially the young guys, in my career what has kept me being good as opposed to great is my pitch selection -- not being able to get on base at a higher clip. That’s what he’s essentially trying to do. I think we train swing, swing, swing, swing -- but we don’t train a lot of take, take, take, take. I’ve done plenty of swings in my time, taking is what I need to do better at. So it’s like trying to train that in a more controlled environment, but also less controlled at the same time. It’s not like BP, where everything is right there. At this level, you have to split hairs. You have to be able to get just a little bit better. I think that Joe is seeking that for his players.”
“Like, why am I swinging at the ball that’s here just because I’m in the cage practicing?” Rhys Hoskins said, pointing to a pitch out of the zone. “Being able to speed your mind up, but also slow it down at the same time. Being able to slow this process down is ultimately going to make us make better decisions.”
Does it work? Harper pointed to the Nationals, who beat Houston in last year’s World Series.
“They were really heavy on it last year,” Harper said. “A lot of their guys did it every single day last year. And it pretty much all started in 2018 when Joe came over. It really made you work. It really made you perform at a different level. I know Howie [Kendrick] used it every single day [and] [Anthony] Rendon. It really trains the mind. Some days I’m going to go out there and go 0-for-4 and punch out three times. The machine isn’t broken. No, it’s just part of it. The game is a challenge, but this really helps me.”