Bullpen sessions are generally informal affairs. There is a line of pitchers, and a line of catchers, and a line of coaches and executives and other assorted onlookers leaning against a big red wall that rises between two of the four playing fields that compose the Phillies’ minor-league complex. The focus is on process rather than results, the selection of pitch type and location hashed out in a subtle interplay between the man behind the plate and the one rising above him from 60 feet, 6 inches away. Balls and strikes do not exist, only good pitches and ones that could have been better, the identification of one or the other communicated through waves of the glove or points of the finger or brief shouts of affirmation.
Atta boy. There it is. Nice.
All of this set the stage for a rather jarring experience Friday morning as the rhythmic sound of fastballs popping into mitts was periodically interrupted by a minor-league umpire’s exuberant strike call.
“It was … different,” catcher Cameron Rupp said, his bearded face breaking into a broad smile as he contemplated the latest wrinkle in his new manager’s quest to build a smarter, more efficient, more constructive spring training. “But it was good.”
In a sport that has been notoriously resistant to change, different is a word that doesn’t often come with a positive connotation. But Rupp, who was the oldest regular in last year’s lineup and remains one of two players on the roster whose Phillies tenure predates 2014, is about as old-school as it gets in this youthful clubhouse. And his reaction to the crew of minor-league umpires who spent Friday’s bullpen session calling out balls and strikes is, to a large extent, indicative of the consensus among his teammates regarding first-year manager Gabe Kapler’s attempts to spice up the first few days of spring workouts.
“What would be the downside?” Rupp said. “What would it be? There isn’t any. It helps our pitchers, because it gives them a visual. I think it’s very, very beneficial.”
When the Phillies made the decision to hire Kapler in October, one of the reasons they looked past his lack of managerial experience was a belief in the benefit of a fresh approach. Throughout the early days of spring training, that line of thinking has been borne out by the unique brand of energy one senses crackling throughout the complex. While much has been made of Kapler’s nutritional habits and fitness-model looks, he patrols the practice fields at the Carpenter Complex with a tempo and intensity of focus that call to mind a boot camp drill instructor, his gait alternating between a double-time march and steady jog. Yet he spends most of his time observing, peering through the backstop during bullpen sessions to get a batter’s eye view of one of his starters’ stuff, or standing off to the side of the catchers and studying their body language and framing technique as they receive each pitch.
There doesn’t appear to be a lot of downtime during these early sessions.
“We want to have quick, efficient practices that mimic the game conditions so that they can get used to it, and when we hit Atlanta those guys are strong and not broken down,” Kapler said, referring to the site of the Phillies’ season-opener.
At the same time, one of his first orders of business was to authorize the playing of music over the sound system on the fields where the Phillies hold their daily workouts.
“Ultimately, when we’re surrounded by music, we feel good,” said Kapler, whose father is a music teacher and a classically trained pianist. “We smile more, we’re more relaxed at the plate. There’s science behind this. It’s been studied. Workplaces are happier and they are more inspired when music is playing.”
The playlist, which features everything from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Pink Floyd to a variety of Latin American favorites, is updated every day with suggestions from players.
“You get caught singing songs and talking with guys and everybody is kind of grooving out to them,” pitcher Jerad Eickhoff said. “It keeps the vibe going.”
It’s the umpires, though, who offer the best example to date of the benefits that the Phillies hope to realize by injecting their organization with Kapler’s frenetic curiosity and fascination with optimizing processes. On a micro level, the potential benefit might appear to be so small as to render the exercise moot. But, as Rupp noted earlier, there is no discernible downside to giving pitchers and catchers access to a disinterested evaluation of the location of each pitch.
“It’s not the meat and potatoes — having umpires out there isn’t the most important thing,” said Kapler, who warned his players about the umps’ presence and told them to feel free to opt out of utilizing them. “It’s just, how can we find the last little detail that gets us a tiny bit better, gives us one step forward. Look, we’re trying to win 90-plus games. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take all of us coming together and thinking about how we can extract that last bit of value.”
In a sport where the difference between success and failure is often a fraction of an inch, the pursuit of any sliver of advantage is an obvious approach to embrace.