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The Spring Training you don't see

After watching spring training games on television recently, it prompted me to dig a little deeper as to what actually happens every March in Florida and in Arizona.

We know that Spring Training is a six-week period of time for players get back in baseball shape before being shipped off to their various cities.

We know that Spring Training is an opportunity for minor leaguers to work with roving instructors and try to impress the front office brass.

We know that Spring Training is a trial and error period for managers to tinker with line-ups, double-play combinations and bullpen match-ups.

We know that Spring Training is a time for fans to get close to the superstars.

We know that Spring Training is the only time of the year that professional players work on bunt coverages, cut-offs and relays, pick-off plays and covering bases.

We also know that Spring Training is a chance for some guys to get comfortable with a new position or role.

But what about that cagey veteran who has made the team? How about the million-dollar man in the middle of a long-term contract whose roster spot is a lock and knows he’ll be a fixture in the rotation or everyday line-up?

As Spring Training wraps up and Opening Day is peaking around the corner, what did some of the older-heads of Major League Baseball accomplish in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues?

The more I talk with players, hear interviews on television and read accounts from the pre-season, I continue to find it very interesting what the established players use March for.

I was speaking recently with a former teammate of mine who spent several Spring Training’s around Greg Maddux. He told me a story I found surprising but adds to the genius of “The Professor.”

The day before a start Maddux was scheduled to make, the future Hall of Famer sat in the bullpen and told the relief pitchers how he was planning to pitch Met catcher Mike Piazza. He intended to feed the future Hall of Famer a steady diet of hanging curveballs, he said, “I want him to hit three homeruns off of me!”

Sure enough, the next day Maddux followed suit and stuck to his game plan. Piazza doubled and homered twice.

Following the game, Maddux was asked by a few teammates why he allowed Piazza to embarrass him out there. Maddux said, “Now I’ve got him right where I want him. I’ve already made this team. Spring Training is a time for me to work on things and set-up hitters I know I’ll face throughout the year and in the post-season.” He continued, “Piazza thinks that is what my curveball looks like and he probably believes I’ll be afraid to throw him a breaking ball. When I need a big out with him at the plate, I’m not going to hang a breaking ball, he’ll get my good curveball…and I’ll win. He beat me today in a Spring Training game. I’ll beat in a situation that could send us to the World Series.”

Word is, later that season in a pennant race, Maddux struck Piazza out to get out of a jam in a game that propelled the Braves to another division championship.

Very profound, huh?

Watching John Smoltz pitch a weekend ago, I noticed he was throwing a heavy dose of curveballs and change-ups. Normally he mixes a dirty slider with a filthy split-finger and his pitch selection that day struck me as odd.

A post-game interview cleared everything up. Smoltz eluded to the fact he was using a different repertoire.

The veteran right-hander was toying with whether he wanted to deepen his arsenal and with one pre-season start left, he had to determine if he was going to use those two pitches or junk them. Clearly, results were a non-issue for the established anchor of the Braves rotation; in case you were wondering, he was still dominant for six innings allowing only a lone run.

This approach is not exclusive to pitchers. Hitters create their own game plan as well.

Hitters will tell you that certain game’s or certain week’s, they will only swing at pitches they can drive to the opposite field. This approach may be an effort on their part to improve plate coverage, work on two-strike hitting or maybe their objective is to better use the back-side.

Some hitters will pre-determine that they will only swing at breaking pitches or inside fastballs, pitches up, pitches down, etc. I remember an old interview with Pedro Guerrero that adds a flip-side to the earlier referenced Maddux example. Guerrero said when facing a pitcher in Spring Training that he was certain he’d see later in the year, that he had no qualms at purposely chasing breaking balls in the dirt, face-high fastballs, etc. He said, “I didn’t mind letting the pitcher leave Florida thinking he can get me with his best pitch.”

Base-runners will often get picked off more in aiming to have good secondary leads, better jumps on steal attempts or improving their read on pitches in the dirt.

As you can see, Spring Training can be many things for its invitees, what the players plan is in March is often determined by his status within the game or the organization writing his checks.

A year from now, look through a different set of eyes to see if you can figure out what the All-Stars may be working on that day, it could add an educational element to your Spring Training viewing experience.

Until then, Play Ball!