“We can’t get good at something solely by reading about it. And we’ll never make giant leaps in any endeavor by treating it like a snack food that we munch on whenever we’re getting bored. You get good at something by doing it repeatedly. And by listening to specific criticism from people who are already good at what you do. And by a dedication to getting better, even when it’s inconvenient and may not involve a handy bulleted list.” Merlin Mann
It’s getting to be that time of year again. The report date for pitchers and catchers is rapidly approaching. Pro guys are tightening things up to go and compete for jobs, college players are getting game ready to start their seasons, and high school/youth players are transitioning from their winter sports to get ready for their spring baseball schedule.
For pitchers, now is about the time when you’ll see a bunch of work on the mound, or in baseball terms, a “bullpen session.” As a pitcher myself, it’s always so exciting to get back up on the hill where I belong, and see my work from the previous months of throwing and training pay off.
Looking back at all the bullpen sessions I’ve thrown and seen in my career as a professional baseball player, there are a couple of things I can point out that jump to my mind.
1.) When I was an amateur, I had the arm strength, talent and pitch quality to throw a pro level bullpen, but I didn’t have the knowledge, feel of my mechanics, or idea about where to dedicate my efforts for the duration of a particular session.
2.) I quickly learned and observed that high level professional pitchers, big leaguers in particular, for the most part, have a precise idea of what they want to accomplish each time they get on the mound to practice. Throwing is something they did in their backyard with their dad. Pitching and executing was what they did to feed their families.
After spending tons of time studying theses guys, asking them questions, and implementing some of their ideas into my own game, I began to see a much steadier increase in development. It wasn’t until I used this precious time on the mound for dedicated focus on my weaknesses, and not to just get an arm workout, that I finally realized what separated the amateurs from the professionals and the professionals from the great ones.
Here are 5 things I’ve picked up that will help you have a productive practice session on the mound each and every time.
1.) BE COMPLETELY AND PROPERLY WARMED UP EVERY TIME YOU GET ON THE MOUND, NO EXCUSES- This one is near and dear to my heart, because I’ve not only injured myself on a couple occasions from being improperly warmed up, I’ve seen other pitchers get injured or perform poorly due to sucky warmups or no warmups at all. It doesn’t take much, just get the right muscles firing and woken up, get a sweat going, and you’re all set. Here are a couple of variations that I’ve used and had success with. They are both quick, to the point, and able to be performed anywhere.
2. HAVE ONE WEAKNESS TO WORK ON AND A CERTAIN NUMBER OF PITCHES TO DO IT IN It’s very easy to fall into the trap of pitching to your strengths in practice, because it gives us confidence. The great ones, however, know what their good at, but also know that bullpens are times to dedicate their efforts into something they might not be comfortable with. They won’t throw their signature pitch, because they know in order to develop another one, it takes time and precise focus on weakness. It is also easy to get caught up and lose track of how many pitches you’ve thrown. Set a number based on where you are at in your offseason or seasonal throwing program and stick to it give or take 2 or 3 pitches.
3. GET LONG AND BRING IT BACK IN HARD- I’ve always had success with long tossing before a bullpen session or even a game if I’m starting. I feel myself not only getting physically loose, but when I long toss correctly and stay on top and through the baseball, it will normally translate to faster hand speed when I bring it back in to 60 feet. Once I get to a distance where I feel I’m giving close to full effort WITHOUT compromising my mechanics, I’ll start bringing the catcher back in slowly to 60 feet. (For me, it’s usually right around 200 feet. Sometimes I’ll go longer or shorter based on how I’m feeling. My main goal is not to see how far I can throw it, it’s to get my effort level, hand speed, and mechanics to sync up to get ready for my mound session.)
Once my catcher comes back to about the 90 feet mark, I do two things. 1.) I really start to let it rip. 2.) I throw my change-up at full speed to make sure I’m staying on top and keeping the same arm speed. Staying ontop and through the baseball to create that hard tight backspin is my goal here at 90ft.
Now, my catcher comes in to 60 feet. I’ll get him down and simulate a few of each of my pitches before we take the mound.
4. ALWAYS ESTABLISH YOUR FASTBALL ABOVE ANYTHING ELSE. THE ONLY EXCEPTION IS IF YOU ARE A KNUCKLEBALLER. If you get nothing more out of your bullpen other than gaining a solid command of your fastball, I can always count that as a productive session. This is the number one pitch in baseball. A good one can get players to make their high school team, get into and play in college, get drafted, and even make it to the major leagues, so it must be our number one priority. Without a fastball, you’re nothing….Unless your name is R.A. Dickey, Tim Wakefield, or Phil Niekro!
My suggestion would be to throw about 5 fastballs for strikes in the middle of the plate to start you bullpen off. This will calibrate your release point, give you some confidence that you are driving down the right line, and set you up for moving the ball in and out. After you’ve got a grip on the middle of the plate, move the catcher to the glove half of the plate. <<Notice I said half. Many pitchers make the mistake of trying to be too fine and precise, too early. Throwing the ball to your glove side for consistent strikes ensures you are getting through the baseball correctly. If you are flying open with that front hip, shoulder, and glove, there’s no chance that you establish this part of the plate as your own. Drive the ball with your lower half to that side, don’t try and rip it open to get there.
5.) FINSH WITH ONE OR TWO SIMULATED HITTERS- This is at the end of your bullpen session. At this point you should at minimum have made progress on your weaknesses and established your fastball down in the strike zone to both sides of the plate. It’s a bonus if we have full command of everything, and we should strive to do so, but it just won’t always happen.
Ideally, now you have a hitter step in and take a few pitches, but if not, have your catcher call a sequence of pitches to simulate a lefty and a righty batter. Throw all your pitches. Execute your pitches. Call it a day.
In closing, remember that every time you pick up a ball it’s to become a better baseball player. Have a plan about what weaknesses to attack in that particular session. If you just go out and sling it around without a purpose, I promise you wont be in the game very long. Everytime you take the mound whether it be in practice or a game… it is a privilege. So be warmed up properly, have an idea about what you want to work on, long toss a bit before, gain command of your fastball first thing, and end with a hitter or two to simulate a game situation.