By Andrew Margolick
(Note: For purposes of this column, the reference to the bullpen relates to pregame or in-game situations, not side sessions in practice)
A recent conversation on the driving range went something like this:
Andrew: “Man, I am spraying the ball today.”
Legitimate Golfer: “So what?”
Andrew: “So what? It’s not a very good start”
Legitimate Golfer: “Are you loose? If so, who the hell cares where the ball is going. Don’t overthink the driving range.”
The same conversation can and should be had in bullpens across America. Many pitchers - both starters and relievers – over-think the bullpen and let it affect their mindset. The bullpen is nothing more than an area to get loose. Generally, performance in the bullpen has very little correlation to performance in a game. The reality is that you get no credit for popping the glove, working on the black or spinning the ball well in the bullpen. You can look like Sandy Koufax (for you youngsters, he was pretty good back in the day) in the bullpen and still watch your first pitch of the game get drilled into the stratosphere.
I have strong opinions about this because I found that, if anything, the better I threw in the bullpen, the worse I threw in the game. It took me a long time to not let a good or bad warm-up influence my first inning. I was a notoriously bad first-inning pitcher and, in hindsight, I believe it was because giving too much credit to the bullpen. The visual alone should tell you that the bullpen shouldn’t have a bearing on a game. Finding a mound between the lines that is the same as the one in the bullpen is as rare as finding a politician who can answer a question in 30 seconds or less.
Please understand that this is not to say that you should half-ass your bullpen work. Remember, we’re pitchers, and by nature, creatures of habit. The bullpen should be among the first places where you start to get into your routine. We’ve discussed this ad-nauseum in previous columns, but to reiterate: the goal of any pitcher is to be relaxed in any setting, be it a home game with friends and family in the crowd or the final inning of a state championship game.
Go into your bullpen session with a plan. As an example, I liked to work from long to short, beginning behind the mound and finishing at 60’ 6”. I would throw fastballs until I was fully loose, throw four or five of each of my off-speed pitches and finish imagining the first batter. The results don’t matter; what does, however, is getting your grip, release point and balance in check. If you can accomplish those three things, along with being loose, you’ve used the bullpen for its rightful purpose and are ready to go to battle.