How to Properly Prepare Relief Pitchers to Enter a Game
It can be a challenge to get relief pitchers ready to enter the game. As situations rapidly change, the need for a reliever can go from mild to urgent in the blink of an eye. Yet, good communication and clear terminology can help any bullpen run smoother. In this article, we’ll explore how pro teams warm their pitchers up and give actionable advice for your team.
Pitching Coach Terminology & Strategies
If you’re more of a visual learner, check out this video below as a substitute and/or supplement for this article. This 15-minute video discusses everything we’ll cover today in even more detail.
First: Goals When Warming Up a Reliever
There are a few things to consider when relievers are preparing to enter a game. They need to be warm, but not fatigued. They need a clear idea of what their job will be during a specific game situation, and they need to know their role on the team. Here are four goals to consider.
1. Have a reliever throw the right amount of warm-up pitches.
Just enough to be perfectly ready to go – not too many, not too few. Too many relievers throw WAY too much because their coach doesn’t explain the plan (more on this later). Or, we can have a reliever who goes to warm up yet doesn’t realize the urgency of the situation and fails to warm up fast enough. Neither of these outcomes is good.
2. Have a reliever enter a game as soon as possible after he’s warm.
We do NOT want a pitcher to get fully ready, then sit around for a long time before he enters. Throttling up and throttling down, so to speak, is a part of life as a reliever. Yet, good communication can help pitchers pace themselves to make sure they’re not ready too soon.
3. Give relievers a clear idea of what their job will be, so they can mentally prepare.
Explaining the situation, expectations and duration of his outing is ideal. This can be done in just a few quick phrases if a coach explains his terminology and expectations to the team as a whole before the season begins. Getting everyone on the same page only takes 5-10 minutes and can
4. Put relievers in a situation where they are likely to succeed
Try to define roles that fit relievers’ skillset, mentality and experience level. Putting your pitchers in a situation that fits their personality, ability, and mindset will pay off for the entire team. Once you define and explain their roles, they’ll be able to predict when they’re more likely to enter a game, which makes the warm-up process even easier.
Actionable Ways to Accomplish Goals
With some of our main goals now defined, let’s discuss actionable ways to accomplish each of these.
#1: “I need you ready in three hitters”
This means that after three hitters have come to bat, the reliever will pitch to the fourth.
Asking a pitcher to get ready in two hitters is too short – three is typically the minimum to ask.
Yet, using a tangible number of hitters is a specific, albeit somewhat imprecise way of explaining when a reliever needs to be warm. It’s imprecise because the duration of an at-bat could be one pitch—and thus a mere thirty seconds long—or it could be five minutes.
However, the average duration is about three minutes per batter, and so if you ask a pitcher to be ready in three, four or five hitters, he’ll usually have at least 5-6 minutes to get ready. Again, two hitters are too few, and one is entirely unacceptable.
This method isn’t 100% precise because of the nature of baseball and how fast situations can change. Yet, giving a reliever a target number of hitters to be ready in allows him to watch the game and throttle up or throttle down the speed at which he is getting warm. Being a relief pitcher means accepting a certain amount of variability, yet this allows relievers to take control of their own relief speed because they can see when “their” hitter is nearly at bat.
Even young players will understand this method, and if you see them get ready too fast or too slow, you can easily correct and explain that they need to properly fit their warm up into the speed of the game.
#2. “I need you ready to face the 7-hole hitter—#17, the lefty.”
This is either an alternative to explaining the number of hitters or just an addendum to it. “You’re pitching to the 3-hole hitter if he comes up, which means you have four hitters in which to get ready.” This is very specific and gives the reliever all the detail he needs to be mentally and physically prepared to be on time with his warm up. On time simply means that he’s warmed up the right amount when he’s needed—not too much, not too little.
#3. Pitch-for-Pitch Readiness
Sometimes, it’s not clear when a reliever is needed. Perhaps a starting pitcher is getting near his pitch count limit, or we’re trying to help him make it through one more inning and work out of a jam. It’s important for young pitchers to get out of jams themselves and learn how to pitch when fatigued, with runners on base, etc. Often as coaches, we’ll leave pitchers in a bit longer to wait and see if they can succeed when times get tough. But, we still need to keep the score in check and not let things get out of hand.
So, in this case, we might warm up a pitcher to 80-100% and have him go “pitch-for-pitch” with the starter.
This means that when the starter throws a pitch, our reliever throws a pitch in the bullpen—pitch-for-pitch. We can also tailor this to the situation: if we are confident the current pitcher will complete his inning, we might ask the reliever to throw one pitch every time the starter throws two, or even three. This way, he remains somewhat close to ready if things escalate, but he doesn’t tire himself out throwing for the entire inning.
This is the best tactic to use when it’s a wait-and-see situation where the goal is to get through the current inning with the current pitcher, while still maintaining a safety net.
With pitch-for-pitch readiness, a reliever can be ready to enter in as fast as one batter if needed. A few quick warm-ups plus the eight pitches on the game mound should be enough if this is done right.
#4 Talk With Pitchers About Roles. Be Honest.
Look, it’s hard to tell a pitcher that he’s not good enough to pitch in a tight game. However, telling him that “right now, we’re using you only if we are behind, but if you pitch well that can change” gives a pitcher reason to go out and compete for better, more exciting roles. No pitcher wants to be on “mop-up” duty, entering games in blowout situations, but someone does have to mop up the messy games.
Especially in high levels of baseball, relievers know where they stand and the roles they’ve earned. They also know that the better they pitch, the better the role they earn. Coaches insert the pitcher they trust most to get out of the tough situations and save the less-skilled pitchers for times when the game isn’t on the line.
Being honest while still leaving room for optimism gives relief pitchers a good idea of when they’ll enter the game. This helps them mentally prepare for their name to be called.
And, in the case of youth baseball, telling pitchers who is “up” (available or expected to pitch) or “down” (not available or unlikely) helps them stay in the game and be mentally ready. Then, by telling them the role and situation you anticipate for them, they can watch the game and get excited as the stars align for their time to shine.
As a professional reliever myself, I earned the role of setup man in my fifth season. My parents knew that I was going in the game only if my team was up by 1-3 runs late. If it was a blowout, I mentally relaxed and they drove home early. If the game was tight, I was mentally absorbed and ready to go compete for a victory. I knew, my parents in the bleachers knew, and all of my teammates knew when it looked like Dan’s situation to pitch. This a great state to be in because I could begin mental and physical prep earlier, maximizing my chance at pitching my best.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!
If nothing else, just communicate. Be open and honest. Tell your players what you expect and how you believe you’ll use them in a game, tournament, and season. If their role changes, tell them. As a coach, you’ll be planning ahead anyway, so letting them in on your plan will make the whole machine run more smoothly.
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