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Explaining Baseball’s Bullpen Sessions

Pitchers retiring batters one after another is a pleasure to see. For that to be possible, pitchers have to spend many hours on bullpen sessions. In this article, we will review what is a bullpen session and why they are so important for pitchers.

What Is The Bullpen?

In case you’re unfamiliar with the word “bullpen”, here’s a quick definition of it.

In baseball, the bullpen is the area of the field where pitchers practice or warm-up. Typically, a bullpen is situated at each side of the outfield or behind the outfield wall.

During a game, no more than two pitchers practice in the bullpen at the same time. However, bullpen sessions can take place anywhere on the field with as many participants as needed during regular practices.

What Is A Bullpen Session?

Steve Nelson winding up to pitch in an indoor facility

Bullpen sessions are practice sessions for pitchers where they can work on improving their pitching abilities. Bullpen sessions typically include training that focuses on pitching mechanics, pickoff moves, pitching grips, pitch control, and mental preparation.

During bullpen sessions, the pitching coach is always looking closely to find weak spots in a pitcher’s mechanics. Commonly, a bullpen session lasts no longer than 15 minutes while the number of pitches thrown ranges anywhere from 25-50 pitches. The number of pitches thrown during a bullpen session might vary depending on each player. For instance, if a pitcher recently pitched longer than usual in a game, they should not put in an extensive bullpen session.

Pitchers tend to use bullpen sessions to work on perfecting their craft. They can use that time to improve their grip and mechanics on pitches they already use or to test new pitches to add to their repertoire.

When in the bullpen, pitchers typically don’t throw with their maximum effort. The intention behind a bullpen session is to not overwork the throwing arm. Most pitchers use bullpen sessions throwing with only around 80 percent of their strength.

Nevertheless, that method doesn’t work for all pitchers. Some of them need to practice as in a real game in order to truly master their craft. Bullpen sessions are used by pitchers to develop optimal control over their throws. As a result, pitchers learn the correct feel of breaking balls so they can be prepared for a real game.

During bullpen sessions, most pitchers learn 4 to 5 pitches so that batters have a difficult time guessing what the next throw will be. However, some of the best pitchers have learned to throw up to 7 different pitches.

Commonly, a pitcher’s repertoire includes the following pitches:

  • 4-seam fastball
  • 2-seam fastball
  • Changeup
  • Curveball
  • Slider

The repertoire will depend on the needs and skills of every pitcher. For example, some pitchers have great control over the strike zone; however, they might have a difficult time striking out batters. These pitchers might take an entire off-season using bullpen sessions to learn a new pitch that helps them strikeout batters, produce ground balls, or just be comfortable throwing one pitch in any situation.

Bullpen sessions can not only help pitchers stay sharp throughout the season, but it also helps to bring out the best in them. The pitching coach and the manager have to use bullpen sessions correctly in order to achieve the latter.

What Can Pitchers Work During a Bullpen Session?

Steve Nelson standing on a practice pitcher's mound in an indoor facility

Pitchers need to spend a lot of time working on their pitches, which includes improving location and expanding their pitching repertoire. However, a game of baseball involves plenty of different scenarios for pitchers that need preparation.

The following are all fundamental things that pitchers may practice during a bullpen session:

Practicing Throwing Mechanics

For pitchers, consistency in their throwing mechanics is vital for success during a game. Every ball thrown by a pitcher must look as similar as possible when coming out of the hand. As a result of this consistency, batters won’t be able to guess what type of pitch is coming at them.

A similar throwing mechanic on all pitches allows pitchers to strikeout batters because they can easily mix fastballs with breaking pitches throughout the game. Additionally, correct throwing mechanics ensure pitchers won’t injure their arms. Incorrectly throwing the ball can cause long-term injuries.

Thanks to muscle memory, pitchers can repeat the correct pitching mechanics the more they practice.

Practicing Pickoff Moves

Pitchers need to perform pickoff moves both correctly, quickly, and accurately. Otherwise, the opposite team could gain an advantage on the basepath.

When pitchers perform pickoff moves incorrectly and runners are on base, runners get to advance to the next base as a penalty. This penalty is called a balk and can cost a team the victory in a close game. For a list of ways a pitcher can balk, check out a previous article I wrote on how many ways a pitcher can balk.

In addition, pitchers need to practice pickoff moves in order to improve on how quickly they can get the ball into the glove of their fielder. Practicing quick pick off moves allows pitchers to surprise runners attempting to steal a base.

Practicing Fielding Mechanics

Pitchers have defensive responsibilities too. Sometimes, they can be their worst enemy or their best ally, depending on how well they can field a baseball.

Many times, pitchers have to complete an out themselves in combination with one of the infielders. Some of the most practiced fielding mechanics by pitchers are fielding ground balls and bunts.

During bullpen sessions, pitchers practice how quickly they can field the ball and accurately throw to a base to get an out. Doing so is easier said than done, as fast runners can easily reach first base with a bunt if the pitcher is not prepared to field.

Building Rapport With Catcher

Bullpen sessions also work to practice real-game situations like facing opposite-handed hitters, pitching with an unfavorable count, and any other scenario the pitching coach can dream of. In a real game, these scenarios assume high-tension moments where an excellent understanding between pitcher and catcher is essential.

Pitcher and catchers are more likely to come out ahead in adverse scenarios with the more time they spend practicing. However, some pitchers naturally have a better rapport with a particular catcher and will opt to only pitch to that catcher.

Due to the rapport between some pitchers and catchers, sometimes the back-up catcher starts the game. In these cases, managers consciously sacrifice offensive power for the excellent understanding between pitcher and catcher.

Practicing Pitching Grips

Pitchers have different ways to throw what is essentially the same pitch type. For instance, different grips on a baseball can make a curveball swerve to one side or another, or simply fall straight down. So it is essential that a pitcher uses bullpen sessions to practice these different grips and find the grip or grips that work for them.

Players also use bullpen sessions to practice the pitching grip of an unconventional pitch type such as knuckleballs, cutters, or sinkers. Bullpen sessions are a great time to practice new pitch types.

Likewise, how hard pitchers grab the ball or where pitchers place their hand on the ball influences the accuracy of every throw. So practicing different pressures on their fingers will allow pitchers to figure out how to best throw certain pitches.

Practicing Command and Control

One of the things pitchers practice the most during bullpen sessions is placing their pitches in the strike zone. Pitchers who can’t throw strikes at will are likely to concede several runs just because they give away too many unintentional walks.

However, control and command are different things, and it’s not enough for a pitcher to throw strikes. To be an effective pitcher, pitchers have to consistently place their pitches in specific points within the strike zone.

Some strikes can be dangerous for a pitcher. For example, fastballs or breaking balls high in the strike zone are often home runs if the batter connects just right with the ball. But with good command, pitchers can avoid those dangerous zones and place their throws in the corners of the strike zone.

Practicing Mental Preparation

Pitching can be mentally exhausting. Constantly mixing up pitches to strikeout batters, as well as the frustration that may derive from conceding runs early, requires mental preparation.

During a bullpen session, the pitcher and coach also deal with the psychological side of the game. The coach can advise pitchers so that they are calm and focused before their next start. Coaches can also come up with different pitching scenarios to mimic the pressure pitchers will feel during the course of a game.

When are Bullpen Sessions Scheduled?

The scheduling of a bullpen session depends if we are talking about a starting pitcher or a relief pitcher.

Starting pitchers typically have bullpen sessions in-between starts. The reason for this is that an excessive workload in the throwing arm can lead to injuries so one bullpen session in-between starts will help the pitcher hone-in on their skills and get ready for the next game.

By scheduling bullpen sessions in between starts, teams allow starting pitchers to rest their arm after their previous appearance. But, at the same time, they can have at least one entire day to recover from the practice before it’s time to climb on the mound again.

Nevertheless, a starting pitcher usually has a quick bullpen session with their catcher moments before the game. Doing so helps the pitcher warm up the arm and avoid potential injuries.

When it comes to relievers, scheduling bullpen sessions is a day-to-day thing. Relief pitchers can use a bullpen session almost daily when they are not seeing regular action in games, which allows them to keep their mechanics on-point. Otherwise, relievers can go a day without using a bullpen session or just put in a short practice.

Bullpen Sessions Are Not Enough to Guarantee Success

In modern baseball, bullpen sessions are no longer enough to guarantee the success of pitchers. There is more work to do between appearances than just practicing pitches.

For instance, the physical aspect of pitchers is crucial to get the most out of every start. Cardio and strength training every week ensures that the pitcher can throw for as many innings as possible, as well as optimizing the speed and effect of every pitch.

In short, cardio and strength training complement bullpen sessions so that pitchers reach their maximum potential. In modern baseball, every mile per hour on a pitch counts, as it could mean the difference between a strikeout or a home run.

In addition to exercises, coaches, catchers, and pitchers altogether study films of opposite teams on a constant basis. Doing so allows them to find the weaknesses and strengths of each opposing hitter. Once they find these weaknesses, they dedicate most of the bullpen session to exploit them.

Finally, pitchers also watch films of themselves, especially after a bad appearance on the mound. This way, they can identify issues with the pitching mechanics and correct them in the next bullpen session.

Importance of Bullpen Sessions

Periodic bullpen sessions are important for both starters and relievers because it helps them stay sharp. If too many days pass between appearances without at least one bullpen session, their pitching mechanics won’t be so sharp, and the rapport with the catcher begins to slowly decline. As a result, batters start to connect for more hits and pitchers increase their risk of injury.

Pitching mechanics involve many elements that need to be performed perfectly for pitchers to be successful. And those elements are better mastered calmly during bullpen sessions with the coach’s help rather than in an actual game.

Pitchers have to practice the release point of the ball as well as their arm motion and body motion. They need to repeat the correct process consistently so that batters can’t guess their throws easily. Additionally, wrong mechanics can put unwanted extra stress on the elbow and shoulder that could lead to injuries.

Bullpen Time is Precious

Bullpen sessions are an important topic for pitchers. The reason for this is that pitchers only have a few throws per session, otherwise they would be tired before their next appearance. Besides, excessive pitching puts the arm’s health at risk.

Pitchers need to manage the workload on their arms so that they can throw as much as needed during the game. This is something very important for most pitchers, especially for those in the pursuit of personal achievements or in the midst of a crucial game.

How To Improve Control and Command During Bullpen Sessions

The home plate is 60 feet, 6 inches away from the mound, so we can all agree that locating the ball within the strike zone poses a real challenge for all pitchers – even the experienced ones. And it’s even more challenging if the goal is to paint the low, outside corner of the plate.

Pitchers may struggle with command due to several reasons so they need to do more than just throw bullpens every day. Pitchers must learn the reason why they are having difficulties with their command and design a plan to solve those issues. Fortunately, pitching coaches can identify the causes of poor command and recommend drills for pitchers to perform during bullpen sessions.

Poor mechanics causes pitchers to lose control over the strike zone. Specifically, a poor posture. In baseball, proper posture and keeping the head level can solve command problems after a few bullpens.

Additionally, the pitcher’s mental aspect can sometimes be the one element that is hindering optimal pitching command. Pitchers that are afraid to challenge hitters tend to miss the corners of the strike zone in an attempt to avoid contact from the hitters.

Bullpen sessions are the best place for pitchers to get rid of self-doubt so that the next time they get on the mound their command is not affected by their emotions.

It’s important to remember that pitchers only have so many pitches per bullpen session. Nonetheless, several hours in the bullpen can improve anyone’s pitching command. The following are effective ways to use bullpen sessions to improve control and command:

  • Repeating working mechanics: The more a pitcher repeats a throwing mechanic in the bullpen, the more that mechanic will improve. There’s no time to waste on trying multiple mechanics. Ultimately, mechanics are what mainly influences an effective pitching command.
  • Working outside the bullpen: Succesful pitchers see every place as an opportunity to get better. Whether they are practicing, in a real game, or on vacations, picking up a baseball means a chance to improve. Try focusing on the correct grip next time you pick up that baseball.
  • Not wasting a single pitch: Pitchers can’t throw infinite bullpen sessions. In fact, they are very limited. Every pitch during a bullpen session must count, so pitchers must avoid trying different grips or mechanics just for fun.
  • Target practice: To improve command, one must practice command. Placing a target and focusing on hitting it with every throw will make it simple to do the same during a ballgame. Sometimes, pitchers will place the target a bit closer than home plate so that they build confidence. For a quick tip, try placing a baseball on a batting tee and aim for that baseball.
  • Believing in yourself: All pitchers have to believe in themselves and see themselves achieving great command over their pitches. Visualize and then execute.
  • Seeking perfection: Succesful pitchers work in order to locate the ball at the catcher’s target in every attempt. Although no pitcher is perfect, the constant work to be better than yesterday is what will put them on the path to success.

Bullpen Sessions Are A Fundamental Part of the Game

The use pitchers give to bullpen sessions may differ depending on their team. However, the goal is the same: bringing out the best of a pitcher. That’s what makes bullpen sessions a fundamental part of baseball.

Proper management of bullpen sessions helps pitchers deliver successful appearances, and with their success comes the success of their teams. In today’s baseball world, every little detail counts, and using the bullpen correctly gives a team an edge over its competitors.

From sharpening pitching mechanics, learning new pitches, or practicing real-game situations, bullpen sessions have a large influence on the performance of an organization.

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Steve Nelson

I'm the owner of Baseball Training World. I live in Denver, Colorado and I enjoy playing baseball in an adult baseball team in the surrounding area. Read more about Steve Nelson.