NORFOLK, Va. — Colton Cowser tried Jordan Westburg’s hitting routine last month in Jacksonville, and immediately understood.
So, too, did Connor Norby earlier this season, while Josh Lester has taken some pieces of it for his own pregame work.
In Orioles minor league circles, the presumed next man up when it comes to a major league call-up — Westburg — has a next-level consistency in how he goes about his pregame hitting in the cage every day. It’s the same four drills every day, as early as possible, then a game-specific round and he’s out.
It serves plenty of purposes, most obviously that it fine-tunes one of the most consistent and prolific offensive approaches in the Orioles’ system. There’s also humility to it: He doesn’t want to take up much of his teammates’ or coaches’ time. But it gives a firm example of the age-old mantra of controlling what one can control. Westburg does, every day, and is on the cusp of the majors because of it.
“This is an absolute business for Jordan Westburg,” Norfolk manager Buck Britton said. “He has fun when he plays, obviously, cuts up with the guys. But when it’s doing the work, when it’s playing the game, this guy wants to win, and it is an absolute business.”
The routine, honed to perfection since he signed with the Orioles, goes as follows.
He takes a short bat — a training tool best described as a regular bat that appears to have most of the barrel chopped off. They’re designed to use with one hand, but Westburg uses two. His swing is two-handed, so he practices with both hands, “because that’s how it is in the game,” he said.
On that early drill, he’s trying to hit everything to the right side, opposite field for him.
“I want to hit everything kind of oppo — not just hit it that way, but drive it that way,” Westburg said.
Next, he takes his traditional bat for something known in the organization as dart drills: coach-tossed BP from close range behind a screen, and at times varying angles. Westburg’s first set requires the screen be moved over to the opposite-field angle so the ball is coming at him, and he opens his right-handed stance to a 45-degree angle.
“Still the same idea,” he said. “Trying to drive the ball to the right side of the field, just with minimal movement in my lower half.”
From there, he gets into his regular stance and switches to mini plyo balls — which are filled with sand — from that same opposite-field angle. He uses the smallest ones, and a bat he describes as a whiffle-ball bat with a small diameter. Those drills, hitting coach Brink Ambler said, are part of the routine because “he’s really working on shoring up his contact,” given the potential for swing-and-miss in his game.
Ambler explained the benefit as such: “It’s a rubber ball filled with sand and in flight it stretches so to be able to direct the force and actually get the ball to travel and make it look like you actually hit it, you have to hit it square. Otherwise, it exaggerates the miss. If you clip it, it’s straight up or straight down. We have a lot of guys who use that and have success with it. It shows you and there’s immediate feedback. I think some of the things Westy likes give him the feedback right away because he’s really good at being his own coach.”
Westburg described this drill as “a little more hand-eye,” but the same idea as the last: “Try to drive the ball to right-center field.”
The last of the four static drills are varied plyo balls — some heavier, some lighter — with the screen moved to the opposite side “where the ball is almost coming from behind me,” Westburg said.
“I’m either trying to work through center field or to the pull side and hit the ball in the air, hit the ball hard, hit it flush, hit it square,” Westburg said.
Next is pretty standard fare for Orioles minor league hitters: spin work to replicate whatever that night’s opposing starter throws most to righties. Westburg likes that off a spin-ball machine, which he describes as “very exaggerated, maybe a little bit harder than it might feel like in a game.”
The only time that routine differs, Norby said, is on Norfolk’s Thursday matinee games. A few weeks ago, he had a home run and a double on a day he ate three donuts and took no swings before the game. That’s now the new Thursday day game routine.
The minors are about development in a lot of ways: skill development, mental growth, physical gains and emotional maturity. Having a routine like this, which he usually can knock out in about 25 or 30 minutes — both for efficiency’s sake as one of the first in the cage every day, and also to avoid the chatter that comes when Colton Cowser arrives — is part of an effort for Westburg to control what he can about his day.
As an “organized, clean person” away from the field, he says that bleeds into what he does at the field.
“No matter what happens, or what’s going on around you, you can kind of have something to fall back on,” Westburg said. “I wanted to build something that kind of checks all the boxes I need to feel like I’m locked and ready in the box and my swing is working the right way.”
The results are hard to argue. He has 17 home runs and a .941 OPS this year at Norfolk, and combined with his long spell there last season, has 35 home runs and an .898 OPS in 153 games at Triple-A. This season, he has some attractive underlying numbers.
He’s pulling the ball less this year, with his opposite-field emphasis directing his hard contact away from the new spacious confines of left field at Camden Yards. He’s swinging and missing a bit more this year than last year (14.4% versus 11.4% at Triple-A last year), but has a 50.1% hard-hit rate (95 mph or higher) and a 95th-percentile exit velocity of 108.2 mph.
Westburg says he uses the failures that happen daily on a baseball field as “a learning pedestal,” and uses the feedback the game gives him to attack it in a different way the next time.
“That always keeps it fresh,” he said. “That keeps it from getting monotonous and keeps me from thinking too much about other things. It keeps me here, where I’m at, trying to get better.”
That he’s still in Norfolk comes down to circumstance. The Orioles’ infield is relatively steady, and as a right-handed hitter who isn’t on the 40-man roster, there’s no incentive to add him earlier than the team has to, no matter how well he performs. Westburg said he’s “fairly confident” he’s going to end up in the big leagues at some point, and having such a set routine to follow and help propel his growth helps.
Britton said: “You talk about character, that takes some mental toughness to be able to grind through. … To just come out and put up the numbers he’s putting up right now, knowing that he’s done probably enough to get a shot and there’s no opportunity, it’s a testament to the makeup of this kid.”