Bullpens are the most specific type of training pitchers can do to prepare for games. This makes them, in some regard, the most important piece of a training plan. The focus required to get the most out of a bullpen is extreme. That being said, bullpens are too often approached casually, with a lack of focus or competitive element, and fail to accomplish their goal of preparing a pitcher to dominate in chaotic game situations.
The rote, standard bullpen where a pitcher throws 10 successive fastballs, 5 changeups, and 5 breaking balls without velocity, movement, or location feedback, with no hitter standing in, on a perfectly sloped, non-dirt mound takes an activity that should be chaotic and challenging and makes it as easy as possible.
Quality bullpens, on the other hand, can be organized to help pitchers develop different skills while preparing them to dominate in games.
Here are a few of my favorite types of bullpens:
Battle bullpens are the ultimate bullpen competition. Combining a randomness in pitch selection that can be similar to game scenarios with a high level of intensity, this type of bullpen pits one pitcher against another in a duel for bragging rights.
How it works:
Pitcher 1 will call out a pitch and location - for instance, “fastball, up and in to a righty” - and then, as in a game of H-O-R-S-E or P-I-G, attempt to execute that pitch. Pitcher 2 responds by executing the same pitch. If both pitchers execute the pitch, no points are awarded. If one pitcher executes the pitch and the other doesn’t, 1 point is awarded to the pitcher who hit his spot.
Pitchers alternate who gets to ‘call’ the pitch. So after the first pitch each pitcher will essentially throw two pitches in a row - one that is a response and one that they ‘call’. The session continues until the pitchers are out of pitches for their bullpen. This number will be different for each pitcher, and rarely will it be a hard number. Instead, allowing pitchers the freedom to take ownership of how much mound work they need can have tremendous benefits in terms of both autonomy and auto-regulation.
The pitcher with the most points wins.
Velocity bullpens can be valuable for a pitcher still figuring out how to throw with intent or who tends to down-regulate once he steps on the mound.
How it works:
Since the focus here is on velocity only, a pitcher throws into a net or towards a command trainer without a catcher. The velocity of each pitch is measured and relayed to the pitcher either verbally or through a radar board. The goal of the session is to hit a velocity PR and sustain a new average velocity PR.
Having supportive teammates around can help drive a pitcher to new velocity heights. Yelling and cheering for new PRs can create a level of arousal that will help the pitcher better myelinate the new neural circuits he’s using to throw the baseball faster, allowing for more PRs and a higher likelihood that the improved movement patterns that allow for the increased velocity are accessible the next time the pitcher takes the bump.
Command bullpens are usually prescribed for a pitcher who lacks command, or for whom improved command is the obvious next developmental step. Pitchers throwing command bullpens usually throw relatively hard, and therefore don’t necessarily need to focus on velocity.
These types of bullpens can be thrown with regulation baseballs or with a series of overload/underload (and/or oversized/undersized) differential command baseballs. They can be thrown to a catcher or command trainer, a regulation plate, or a multi-laned plate.
In an ideal world these sessions would be thrown to a command trainer or other immovable object that makes a distinct, rather loud sound when struck by a thrown baseball. The audible sound that is made when the pitcher throws a strike will help to reinforce whatever happened within the body to deliver the ball to the intended target.
How it works:
Preferably using a sequence of differential command baseballs, a pitcher throws his bullpen with intent to throw nothing but strikes with his fastball. Usually a velocity range will be determined (around 90ish% of max velo - so if a guy is usually 88-92 his goal range for his command session would be about 80-84).
After each pitch the pitcher gets command-based feedback. Either he hears the sound of the command trainer or he doesn't. If the bullpen is being thrown to a catcher it is imperative that the catcher be brutally honest with the pitcher about whether or not the pitch was a strike.
Strike percentage is tracked from session to session to monitor change, and each session the pitcher is told how many strikes he needs to throw to beat his previous record.
Pitch Design Bullpen
Pitch Design bullpens are for those who need to work on a specific pitch. Ideally this is accomplished with the help of a Rapsodo and high speed camera. More realistically though it is simply done through old school trial and error, with lots of feedback from an honest catcher.
How it works:
In it’s more sophisticated form, Pitch Design bullpens entail first determining how a pitch currently moves and what it’s ideal movement profile would be. Using Pitch F/X data from sites like Brooks Baseball you can identify Major League pitchers who have a pitch you want to mimic and an arm slot similar to yours.
Using Rapsodo data of your current pitch, you can get a sense of how well you are spinning the baseball. Since the ratio of RPM to MPH (Bauer Units) is fairly stable regardless of how hard you throw, you can begin to determine what type of pitch you could potentially have. From there it is a matter of choosing a movement profile for the pitch, figuring out what axis the ball needs to spin on, and what seam orientation/grip you need to begin with in order for the ball to take on that movement profile.
Then you do the work:
1. You throw a pitch.
2. You look at the Rapsodo data to see how it moves and spins.
3. You look at the slow-motion footage to see how it comes out of your hand.
4. You make a small adjustment.
This process continues until you have a feel for your new pitch. Then you spend the next (insert long period of time here) mastering it.
Without a Rapsodo or high-speed camera you basically just use your eyes, your catcher’s eyes, and your coach’s eyes to determine if the adjustments you are making are improving or detracting from the movement profile of the pitch. It’s a lot harder and far less scientific, but pitchers have been creating incredible pitches for years without tech.
Blended bullpens are ideal for a pitcher progressing from a command, velocity, or pitch-design focused training block to a competitive season. Essentially, competitive elements of pitching in a game are gradually blended into the focus of the previous block.
How it works:
Blending from a velo focus to a competitive focus is as simple as continuing to track velocity but beginning to throw to a catcher, mix in secondary pitches, and track strike percentage.
Maintaining the velocity gained from the previous block is important, but as the season approaches the other aspects of pitching need begin to re-enter the training plan.
Blending from a command focus to a competitive focus is equally simple. Here, while continuing to track command, differential command balls are replaced with regulation baseballs as catchers, off-speed pitches, and velocity tracking enter the picture.
Blending from a pitch-design focus entails mixing the newly developed pitch into the flow of a competitive bullpen.
Spot game is a shorter, slightly lower intensity version of a bullpen. The sessions can be as short as 5 pitches and serve to either re-introduce pitchers to the mound in the off-season or as a way to keep pitchers’ ‘sharp’ and ‘in-sync’ during the season. This type of session can be especially valuable in season for relievers who have not pitched recently and may not know when they will be pitching next.
How it works:
Spot game is similar to a shorter version of a battle bullpen. Thrown to either a command trainer, catcher, or throwing partner, pitchers take turn attempting to throw a certain pitch to a certain spot. (Pitchers can set up anywhere from 40-65 feet away from the target.)
Each pitcher calls his own pitch. A successful fastball earns 1 point. A successful off-speed pitch earns 2 points. Players typically play to 5 or until they feel they’ve thrown enough for the day.
It can be valuable to track Spot Game wins and losses throughout the season and announce the Spot Game champion at the end of the year. This can add competitiveness to pitchers’ pregame work, sessions that hold tremendous opportunity for growth but that can get to feel monotonous by the end of a long season.
Along with these different types of bullpens, adjustments can be made to the environment of these sessions to make them more competitive, chaotic, and game like. These adjustments include:
Strings: Attach strings to posts on either side of the plate, delineating the bottom of the strike zone. The pitcher’s goal becomes hit the string with his sinker. You can also attach strings in a similar matter at the top of the strike zone and tell a pitcher hit the string with his high spin rate fastball.
Living or Artificial Hitter: Have a hitter stand it against the bullpen session to simulate what a pitcher will actually see in a game. If you don’t have access to a hitter, products exist on the market that are essentially plastic hitters. You can also make one.
Holds/Picks: Make sure pitchers are working from both the wind-up (if they have one) and the stretch in their sessions. When in the stretch they need to always come set, practice checking runners, change how long they hold the ball before pitching, and throw pitch-outs.
Altered Distance: By changing the distance between the mound and the plate we are helping pitchers to develop a more robust set of solutions to the movement problem of throwing the ball with speed, movement, and accuracy.
Angled Slope: By changing the angle of the mound we are helping pitchers to develop a more robust set of solutions to the movement problem of throwing the ball with speed, movement, and accuracy. This will also mimic what they experience in games, as no two mounds are exactly the same. This can be done on a portable mound by slightly raising the front, back, or either side. (Just stick a weight plate underneath.) It can be done on a dirt mound by starting behind the rubber, in front of the rubber, or slightly off to the side of the rubber.
Deformed Mound: This is especially important for pitchers who spend a lot of training time inside on perfectly sloped mounds and a lot of game time pitching on uneven, often holy slopes. While using the concept of an angled mound is likely the best way to train against the plague of “but the mound sucked” when stuck inside, this becomes even easier to train for once we’re outside. SIMPLY LEAVE THE HOLES SOMETIMES!
Increased Fatigue: Pitchers aren’t always fresh and ready to go when it’s time to perform in a game, but they still need to be able to dominate. One way to train for this is to occasionally pre-fatigue them before bullpen sessions. Simply having them throw bullpens after their lifting or speed session can do the trick, as life stressors often take care of this issue on their own.
Short Warmup: Not every relief situation is easily foreseen, and not every relief pitcher does as much as he should to stay ready, so sometimes guys feel rushed going into games. It is important that bullpen work occasionally prepares them for this. We certainly don’t want anyone getting hurt because they didn’t warm up sufficiently, but ‘surprising’ a pitcher with the timing of a bullpen session can be a way to prepare him for something that is likely to happen during the season.
Using these concepts can help every pitcher get what he needs out of his session. They can also serve to make the bullpens more fun, competitive, game-like, and effective. Go get ‘em!