PHOENIX -- The A's enjoyed something of a Japanese-style workout on Friday, setting up a pair of batting cages side-by-side on one of their four fields at Papago Park.
After seeing Japanese teams make use of this setup before exhibition games in Tokyo in 2012, the A's toyed with the idea of copying the format last spring but were hesitant of coaches getting hurt while throwing. Then bench coach Chip Hale came up with the idea of using pitching machines, paving the way for Friday's wildly successful experiment.
"Double the work and in just two and a half hours," said manager Bob Melvin. "It was a good day out there today."
Hitters faced a left-handed curve-throwing machine and a right-handed one.
"Sometimes in spring you work your way into breaking balls, which can be more difficult in games, and this helps to kind of speed the process up," Melvin said. "It was consistent with strikes, and guys were swinging."
"It's definitely an interesting way of doing things," said first baseman Nate Freiman. "I like it."
Since that was the general consensus, the A's plan to utilize the system again this spring.
A's impressed by Gray's early spring performance
PHOENIX -- At this time last year, all eyes were on Sonny Gray. Yet on Friday, Bob Melvin didn't even bother to get a look at the right-hander throwing live batting practice.
"I purposely didn't watch Sonny today," said Melvin, smiling. "I didn't want to see him break any bats or hurt any feelings."
"When he told me that," said Gray, "I kind of laughed. What a difference a year makes."
Indeed. Gray was still a prospect last spring and months from making his big league debut. Fast forward through 10 impressive starts and another two in the playoffs, and the 24-year-old is now a staple at the top of Oakland's rotation.
Through it all, Gray has continually showcased improved fastball command. That was no different on Friday at Papago Park, where Yoenis Cespedes stepped away from the plate, shaking his head and commenting, "He looks real good. Very fast!"
Gray, who also faced Josh Reddick, threw a total of 16 fastballs, 10 changeups and four curveballs.
"My fastball location and movement were both really good today," he said. "That's something that we worked hard on, all throughout last year and even this offseason in the early bullpens. That's why I came in here two weeks early, to get working on that even more with the coaches. Hopefully, that continues to go in the right direction."
Gentry undergoes precautionary MRI on back
PHOENIX -- New A's outfielder Craig Gentry was held out of Friday's workouts because of lower back tightness.
Gentry was sent for an MRI as a precautionary measure, with results not expected to be revealed until Saturday morning. The A's don't believe the injury to be serious, but rather a mild setback brought on by the outfielder's lengthy drive from Texas to Arizona.
"It's been a couple days it's been bothering him some, so we've been holding him back the last few to be proactive," said manager Bob Melvin. "I don't think there's any problems there."
Melvin noted that the 30-year-old Gentry, acquired by the A's with Josh Lindblom from Texas this winter, does not have a history of back issues.
Babitt set to join A's broadcast as analyst
PHOENIX -- A new voice will be heard periodically with play-by-play man Glen Kuiper on Comcast SportsNet California's A's telecasts this year.
Former Oakland infielder and current Mets scout Shooty Babitt is set to join the broadcast team as a color analyst for 20 games this season, much like Scott Hatteberg did the previous two years. Babitt's debut in the booth is scheduled for May 5, when the A's host the Mariners.
Hatteberg, meanwhile, will not return for any telecasts, instead keeping his focus on his A's front-office role as a special assistant to baseball operations.
In addition to his telecast duties, the always energetic Babitt will continue to serve as an analyst for Comcast's "A's Pregame Live" and "A's Postgame Live" shows for a seventh straight year.
"Shooty has done a tremendous job on our pre- and postgame shows over the past six years," said Ken Pries, vice president of broadcasting and communications for the A's. "We're happy to add this fan favorite to our game telecasts."
Ray Fosse remains the network's primary A's analyst and is scheduled to work 126 games this season. This marks his 26th season in that capacity.
Comcast SportsNet California is slated to air 146 A's games, including 144 during the regular season.
• MLB Network will air more than 200 Spring Training games starting Feb. 26, including these eight A's games that will be available on MLB Network in the club's home TV market: March 2 at Angels, 1 p.m. PT; March 3 vs. Dodgers, 6 p.m.; March 6 at Brewers, 12 a.m.; March 11 at Dodgers, 7 a.m.; March 16 vs. Rangers, 1 a.m.; March 18 at White Sox, 1 p.m. (live); March 24 vs. Cubs, 12 a.m.; March 25 at Rangers, 11 p.m.