Do More Than Just Throw Pitches In The Bullpen
There are far too many pitches being thrown in the bullpen that don't have any real purpose. Sure, pitchers are throwing various pitches and attempting to locate them in the zone, but that is not close to enough for anybody who desires to be a high level pitcher.
There aren't many pitchers doing the 5 things on the following list, so if you make them part of your pitching routine, you'll elevate your game above your peers very quickly.
Here are the top 5 things that pitchers can do each time they throw a bullpen to improve faster and use their time far more productively:
1: Be More Precise With Pitch Location
If you watch most catchers in the bullpen, you'll see them set up somewhere on the plate and put their mitt around thigh high to a hitter. The pitcher will then go about trying to hit this target time after time, with multiple pitches. The catcher may move the target slightly, but you won't see much more than a pitcher just trying to get his pitches somewhere in the strike zone. While being in the strike zone is important, real command demands much more precise focus.
Instead of just working “in the zone”, get into very specific and precise parts of the zone. Have your catcher put his glove low and away, and then move to high and in. Hit those spots, and then move to two other spots. Work on moving the ball in and out in succession, and then work on moving it up and down.
Coaches at a lot of levels prefer their catchers set up on plenty of the plate, assuming that the pitcher doesn't have what it takes to “spot” his fastball on the edges. They set up in the middle and their happy when the ball ends up a little out or a little in. The problem with this thinking is that it will never allow the pitcher to actually develop precise command.
Aiming at a big and general “zone” is not conducive to learning how to command a baseball to a precise location. If you don't work on hitting spots, you may never truly learn how to do it. Every bullpen should be composed of very precise and specific locations for your pitches.
2: Get A Hitter Out
Every single bullpen and pre-game session should include working through a couple hitters with your catcher. Put any hitter that you want in the box with your imagination and work an at bat with him. Do this in the windup and the stretch, and do it every single time that your in the pen.
Far too many pitchers teach themselves how to “throw” in the bullpen, but not compete. Pitching needs to be an aggressive and competitive action, so we need to practice that way. There's no excuse for coming into a game and not having everything you should have right off the bat. Part of this is physical, or being warmed up adequately, and part of it is mental.
You must compete in the bullpen and learn how to pitch with confidence and aggressiveness.
3: More from the stretch
I'm not sure what the percentage is of pitches thrown from the stretch compared to the windup at various levels of baseball, but the stretch percentage is very high. In a lot of youth and high school games, I would say that a pitcher could pretty easily end up throwing 60% or 70% of his pitches from the stretch. When we watch pitchers in the bullpen however, it's exactly the opposite.
Most pitchers are more comfortable from the windup, and it shows. They don't have good rhythm or comfort out of their stretch, and one of the reasons they don't is because they don't throw out of it nearly enough. Pitch quality suffers, which makes the stress of having guys on base even worse.
Make it a priority to throw at least half of your pitches in the bullpen from the stretch. As a pitcher, you should be just as comfortable in both your windup and stretch, and you should be ready to get to your stretch early and often.
4: Control The Running Game
Just because there aren't any game situations in the bullpen doesn't mean we can't work on them! One of the things that young pitchers struggle with is their rhythm, pace, and timing with runners on base. The bullpen is a great place to get a ton of reps and practice at controlling the running game.
For starters, make sure that your timing is always different when you're throwing from the stretch. Sometimes you should throw the ball just after your set pause, and sometimes you should hold the ball for three or four seconds. Vary your timing with every pitch and make it a habit.
One tool that we use with pitchers in the bullpen is we have the catcher put down the sign for the pitch and then another sign for "hold". This is especially useful for young pitchers who have never worked with guys on base, or older guys who aren't conscious of their hold times. Simply put down a 1 for fastball then a fist for hold, and we're off. This normally doesn't have to be done very long before the pitcher will begin to vary his timing on his own.
Forcing holds in the bullpen is also awesome practice for the catcher, who should be used to helping the pitcher control all aspects of the game.
It's also a great idea to work on pickoff footwork. With or without your catcher calling a pick, you should work on footwork for picks to every base during your bullpen. That footwork and the pickoff moves that you'll use in the game should be second nature. Practicing them from an actual rubber in your bullpens will help that become reality.
5: Throw It Out Of The Strike Zone
This one actually has some very complex reasons that go right to the biomechanical considerations of having good command. For our purposes here however, we'll just say that a pitcher needs to be able to work out of the zone as much as he does in it. There is great advantage to knowing how to throw a fastball 4 inches off the plate when you have a hitter 0-2 or 1-2. In or out, we cannot be getting big chunks of the plate when we have a hitter down in the count.
That's not to say that we need to be a foot off the plate either, we never waste pitches. That is where commanding the ball also means knowing how to throw it “slightly” off the plate. Slightly below the knees and a good fastball at the letters can be great pitches as well, so work on them even though they won't be called strikes in the game.
Other reasons why it's valuable to work out of the zone include pitchouts and other strategic pitches, such as outside balls to set the catcher up for a throw to first or third. We also want to “pitch around” certain hitters, and knowing how to pound the areas close to the black is very important.
Knowing how to miss the zone also teaches you and your body how to hit the zone. True command goes both ways, so don't forget to miss the zone in your bullpens from time to time.
Those are the 5 tips we have for you today, please join the thousands who follow us on Twitter!