Boise Hawks pitchers balance hitting and pitching
Daniel Koger’s career at the plate came to an early end.
As a senior at Alabama’s Huntsville High in 2011, coaches benched him from the lineup to let him focus on a pitching career.
The moved paid off for Koger when the Colorado Rockies selected the left-handed pitcher in the 15th round of the 2015 MLB Draft. But joining a National League organization means Alabama’s former Mr. Baseball and the rest of the Boise Hawks pitchers will one day have to fend for themselves at the plate.
“It’s one of those things where you think about if I do get (to the majors) and I got to sit there in the box and face a 95 mph fastball, you kind of wonder what you’d do?” Koger said.
Pitchers in the Rockies organization work on bunting and take a few hacks in the batting cage during spring and extended spring training. But once they enter Boise or other levels of the low minors, they put their bats away as leagues utilize the designated hitter.
They won’t hit in a competitive game until Double-A, when pitchers hit against other National League affiliates. The Rockies’ minor league teams use a DH against American League farm clubs.
Assuming Koger moves up one level in the Colorado organization each year, he wouldn’t reach Double-A until 2019 — eight years since he last swung a bat in a competitive game.
“We work on bunting in spring training, so that shouldn’t be a problem once you get to those levels,” Koger said. “But hitting is a whole different story. When you get there, you’ll figure it out there.”
Hawks manager Andy Gonzalez said delaying a pitcher’s hitting career serves two purposes — preventing injuries and allowing them to focus on pitching full time. Professional hitters will weed out pitchers not capable of reaching Double-A, so their ability to hit in Boise doesn’t matter.
“Right now, we want them to focus on how to pitch, fastball command, pitching in the bottom of the strike zone,” Gonzalez said. “Those are the most important things for them right now.”
Gonzalez said the Hawks will host a pitcher’s batting practice day once or twice a summer to break the monotony of the season. But he won’t tell them when, offering it as a surprise.
“They’ll have one or two days of BP so they can feel good about themselves,” Gonzalez joked. “They can’t wait for that day.”
While with rookie-level Grand Junction (Colo.) last season, Koger said the pitchers split into two groups to create a competition. Grand Junction’s hitting coach judged what would have counted as hits, and the group with the most won.
“We get cooped up in the bullpen and in the dugout all the time,” Koger said. “For us to go out there and swing it a little bit — some of the guys could swing it. Some of the guys had some power. A few home runs went out, so it was pretty impressive.”
During daily batting practice, pitchers draw the unenviable duty of shagging fly balls over and over again. Boise reliever George Thanopoulos said talk in the outfield quickly turns to their own hitting prowess.
“For most of the pitchers, we always think of ourselves as the best hitters on the field,” Thanopoulos said. “We’re always wanting pitcher’s BP.”
But Thanopoulos knows where his bread is buttered. He’s a professional pitcher, so he’s devoted himself fully to his work on the mound. A 27th-round draft pick in June, he hasn’t touched a bat since the fall of his freshman season at Columbia University.
He’s leaned on the veterans on the roster to learn what the Rockies expect from him at the plate. And he knows he’ll need to make one career investment before next spring training.
“I just got to make sure I’ve got some batting gloves so I don’t hurt my hands,” he said.