Pitchers' fielding practice is a rite of spring

Pitchers' fielding practice is a rite of spring

PEORIA, Ariz. -- The drill begins with a bell, a horn or the voice of a pitching coach.

And it's usually met with a few sighs, shoulder shrugs and occasionally, a clap.

It doesn't matter if you want to do it. And it doesn't matter if you are New York's Andy Pettitte, Boston's John Lackey, reigning Cy Young Award winners Tim Lincecum and Zack Greinke or an unknown Minor League pitcher -- you will practice fielding your position during Spring Training. You will move station to station to improve your defense, and it will be the first thing you do every single day for the next six weeks.

Every. Single. Day.

It's called pitchers' fielding practice, also known as PFP, and it could be the most dreaded part of Spring Training. But it's also among the most important. PFP gets pitchers in tip-top shape and can mean the difference between a run or a game in the regular season.

"During the course of the year, most of the pitchers that succeed and win games will have a PFP play a couple of times a game," Padres pitching coach Darren Balsey said. "The guys that get the job done and execute may end up winning the club the game. There are a lot of times that a pitcher throws the ball away or doesn't field a bunt correctly and a run scores. That can't happen. That's why we work so hard on it during Spring Training."

Each club has its own version of PFP and time spent on the exercise varies from 15 minutes to an hour each day. PFP usually starts immediately after the morning stretch and includes these practices: covering first base and third base, pitchouts, pickoffs and rundowns, bunt plays, backing up relay throws, slow-rollers, comebackers, double plays, and balls hit in-between fielders.

"As a pitcher, if you have the opportunity to get that out, you have to help yourself," Padres pitcher Jon Garland said. "If that ball is right there in front of you, that's a lot better than being in the outfield so you better make that play. It does get boring and these first few weeks of Spring Training, it's all you are doing, but you have to take it seriously."

In the National League, pitchers hit, bunt, slide and review the signs during Spring Training PFP. Most teams revisit pitcher's fielding practice two or three times during the regular season.

"There is a proper way to cover first base and there are proper angles to fielding, fielding a bunt or hitting the bag," Padres manager Bud Black said. "I don't want our guys just going through the motions. We work on this stuff in Spring Training and during the course of a season, if a pitcher does not make the right play, we get really ticked off."

Some believe Greg Maddux is the best fielding pitcher of all-time. He has 18 Gold Glove Awards to back the claim. Retired pitchers Kenny Rogers and Mike Mussina, along with White Sox ace Mark Buehrle and St. Louis star Adam Wainwright, who each won a Gold Glove in 2009, are often the first mentioned as strong defensive pitchers.

But is a good fielding pitcher born or is he made? Athleticism plays a role in defensive success, but just how big of a role?

"To me, it's all about how good of an athlete you are," Rangers pitcher C.J. Wilson said. "I was an outfielder and I think a lot of guys that used to play a position just do it naturally. Personally, I'd rather spend the time going over strategies and pitching techniques than do PFP. It's just boring."

Instinct plays a role on defense for pitchers. Can instinct be taught?

"I think a lot of what happens comes naturally," Buehrle said. "You don't have a lot of time to think and that ball is coming at you pretty fast sometimes. You make the play without thinking."

Buehrle has an advantage on the mound. He spent his childhood playing roller hockey with his buddies and was usually the team's goaltender. The sport taught him how to move laterally and he sometimes uses the hockey techniques to stop baseballs.

He's not above a kick-save or throwing his hip into a ball if it means a chance at saving a run or getting an out.

"I've taken some pretty good hits off my body, but so far, I've been fine," he said. "I know there is going to come a time when I get nailed and I'm going to ask myself, 'Why the heck did I just do that?' but you just do what you have to do. It's all instinct."

During the World Series last year, Mariners pitcher Cliff Lee, then with Philadelphia, made a few defensive plays, including a behind-the-back catch -- on instinct. The plays cemented his status as a solid fielding pitcher.

"Some of those plays, I was just trying to get a glove on it and it's not anything you work on," he said. "It's just something that happens. I think my athletic ability had something to do with that, but it's also about being ready. Once you let that ball go, you are a fielder."

Pitching coaches acknowledge that instinct and athleticism play roles in PFP, but also say repetition can improve a pitcher's skill and remind him of proper technique. It makes sense. It's not like pitchers are taking ground balls or covering first base in drills during the offseason.

Pitchers, like most players, run or lift weights during the winter months. It's not uncommon for a big league pitcher to start throwing in January, but offseason PFP is unheard of.

"You hear all the time that you want the pitchers to be involved in as few plays as possible and the pitching coaches want the exact opposite," Reds pitching coach Bryan Price said. "We want our guys to be able to handle the ball and make plays. The only way to feel confident in these guys is to give them the repetition and make sure they are confident on the infield."

One of the only ways to keep the pitchers from losing interest during the monotonous drill is using games to keep PFP fun. The Rangers pitchers play Wiffle ball. The Padres have a contest to see which pitcher can make the most PFP plays without making an error.

In one of the most notable moves by a manager in the history of PFP, Detroit's Jim Leyland agreed to take on Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander in a pitcher's fielding practice showdown this spring. After Leyland hit ground balls by Verlander in the first two days of workouts, Verlander declared that he would not let his manager get another ground ball past him for the rest of camp.

The result has been an entertaining -- and beneficial -- competition for all of the pitchers in camp.

It was Detroit that brought PFP back into the spotlight after the 2006 World Series against St. Louis when Tigers pitchers made five errors, four of them on throws to first or third base. Verlander had two miscues as the Tigers lost the Series to the Cardinals in five games that year.

"Everybody saw what happened in the World Series a few years back with Detroit, but that just happened to be on the big stage," Garland said. "That can happen every day or ever year in a game. You make an error and it can make the difference in a game."

Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.