By Coach Kyle Nelson of Cornerstone Baseball
Pitching is different than almost every other skill in baseball. It is not a reaction. The pitcher is in total control. He decides when the ball is thrown, pitch type, pitch location, and pitch velocity.
Everyone else reacts to the pitcher.
Because of this, we often forget that pitcher practice needs to simulate the game as much as possible. This article will give you five ways bullpen sessions can become more game-like:
1.) Mix wind-up and stretch
The most important pitches a pitcher makes each game will come from the stretch. The ones under the most pressure, the ones that matter the most will come out of the stretch.
Yet many pitchers aren’t comfortable throwing form the stretch partly because they don't practice it during their bullpen. Our goal for each session is that they throw more pitches from the stretch than the wind up.
There are two ways this goal can be accomplished. First, you can create pitch scripts. Our Cornerstone Elite Member’s area has pitch scripts that meet this goal. A second way to meet this goal is to have pitchers throw each “inning” from the wind-up until the fourth ball they throw. After that, the rest of their pitches have to be from the stretch.
2.) Focus on holding runners and varying timing when pitchers are throwing from the stretch.
One of the principles of my coaching is that I cannot expect our players to perform a skill or tactic in a game that we have not practiced. We were blessed to have several catchers who could shut down the running game on their own, but as soon as they graduated, it became very apparent that our pitchers couldn't hold up their end of the bargain when we didn’t have an all-state caliber catcher behind the plate.
So we enacted two things in our bullpen sessions to make them more game-like and help our players be more natural holding runners during games. First, we have them work on varying timing to the plate. By this, I mean not delivering home on the same count after coming set. You can either have a coach counting each time they come set to deliver a pitch, or have another pitcher count to make sure they don’t deliver each pitch on the same count.
The second thing we put into place was to have our pitchers “pick off” during their bullpen sessions. Obviously there won’t always (or ever) be a first basemen there, but we have them work their first base and second base footwork instead of delivering home occasionally. You can give them a set minimum number of times to work their pick footwork during each inning of the bullpen.
3.) Realistic Innings
Nobody throws 40 or 50 straight pitches without a break. Most of the pitcher’s game pitches are thrown in 10-25 pitch chunks. We throw our bullpens in pairs where one pitcher throws a specified number of pitches, then rests when the other pitcher throws that same number of pitches. This helps simulate the actual work load of a game.
4.) Using extra catchers wisely
Another issue I was having was pitchers not being able to execute pitches with batters in the box, particularly pitches that were thrown inside. The reason for this was simple. They didn’t get the chance to practice throwing inside with a hitter in the box.
If you cannot use other players for stand-ins, use your extra catchers. Have them track pitches giving them the opportunity to see live pitches and give the pitcher the look of a hitter in the box. There is no need for them to take their gear off when they do this.
We also use extra catchers to call balls and strikes. Again, the visual of having a hitter and umpire there can mess with some pitcher’s heads when they get into game action, so it’s best if we can give them that visual during practice.
5.) Incorporate tactical/competitive games for your pitchers
Imagine this scenario. Your pitcher throws his last pitch and misses his spot badly. What does he usually say? “One more!”
I challenge you to not give him one more. If he throws that pitch in a full count with the bases loaded, he doesn’t get one more. There is a consequence for throwing a bad pitch, and there should be at times during a bullpen session.
This is not to say that there isn’t a time for skill development that shouldn’t be competitive or pressure filled, but I have greatly ramped up the competitiveness of my pitcher’s bullpen sessions.
One of the ways we do that is with competitive games during bullpens. My pitchers favorite game is called S-T-R-I-K-E-S which is a version of the basketball game P-I-G or H-O-R-S-E (we call it R-O-C-K-E-T-S for our mascot).
You can check out a copy of this game by clicking HERE.
I challenge you going forward to start incorporating these ideas in your pitcher’s bullpen sessions. What you’ll find is that they are able to compete better in games. Your pitchers will be more comfortable in ALL situations, not just some situations, and they will see the skills they develop in practice translate into real game performance.
About Coach Kyle Nelson
Coach Kyle Nelson has 15 years of coaching at every level from youth to college. He has been the head coach at Burlington Central High School in Illinois for 12 years, and currently runs the Cornerstone Coaching Academy which is an online and in person resource for travel, high school, and college coaches. He specializes in making practices more game-like, conditioning, and using techniques that maximize player and team performance.