Pitching Bullpens: Plan and Focus

Have you ever seen a pitcher who has plenty of talent — live arm, sound mechanics, good movement — but can’t seem to convert it to performance in a game?

Most often, the problem is with command. He may have good velocity, but gets too much of the plate or is too high in the strike zone. The movement on his pitches may be excellent, but erratic. He may have a hard time getting into a groove for an inning or two. Perhaps he has alternating bouts of wildness and getting hit hard.

Nine times out of ten, the issues keeping an enigmatic pitcher from fulfilling his potential can be found — and corrected — in his bullpens / practice routine. In fact, how a pitcher approaches his bullpens is often a direct correlator to his perfomance in games — regardless of talent level.

Ask the pitcher with “good stuff” but a bad E.R.A. this direct question: what is your plan and focus during a bullpen session? Chances are, the answer is a blank face. He may answer something vague, such as, “to get my arm feeling good”, or, “to work on my curveball”, or, “to get my mechanics down”. Not much of a plan for success.

Even if the answer is, “to work on my control” or “to hit the catcher’s glove”, it might sound like he’s on the right track, but that’s not enough to translate into success in the game. Whenever a pitcher takes the mound — be it in a practice session, in the bullpen, warming up between innings, or in the game — he must have a specific plan, and he must focus on executing, or following through with, the plan.

For example, many pitchers spend their pre-game and between-innings warmups “getting their arm loose”. That’s not a plan for pitching in a ballgame. You get your entire body (not just your arm) warmed up and loose and THEN you get on the mound. Once you toe that rubber, you begin executing the plan.

But what is the plan? For every pitcher, it’s different. It can be complex, but it’s generally better to keep it simple. One of the easiest plans is to begin with a predetermined pitch count, then assign a specific number of pitches to several tasks. As an example, let’s say you’re going to throw a 20-pitch bullpen. You can plan to throw five sinkers on the inside corner, five sinkers on the outside corner, five change-ups on the outside corner, and five curveballs on the inside corner. How you mix them is up to you — you can go five of each at a time, or go through one cycle of all the pitches, whatever. The point is, that you’re not rearing back and firing somewhere in the vicinity of the catcher. Rather, you specify exactly where you want to put a pitch, then focus on executing the task. Re-read that last sentence, and notice that there are two parts: the plan and the focus on execution.

If you have a good plan, but go through the execution without focus — called “going through the motions” — then you won’t appreciably improve your game-time performance. In fact, the focus on the task at hand may be more important than the plan. You need a plan, of course, but a mediocre plan executed with intense concentration will be more effective toward improvement than a perfect plan that is poorly executed. What the pitcher thinks about in order to execute is again up to the individual. Some pitchers may need to think about the release point, others the timing of their leg lift and fall, still others simply focus on the catcher’s target. The key is to think about the execution, and if you fail, try to figure out why you failed, and make an immediate adjustment — right then and there, on the next pitch. Continue to tweak until you get it right. That’s what practice is all about.

A pitcher who plans his practice, and focuses on its execution, will be much better prepared come game time — and will enjoy regular improvement in his performance.

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