Bullpens. What are they? Why are they important? When should they be implemented and what is the end goal of each session?
These are all great questions and questions I don’t think are very well defined in baseball, especially at the youth, middle school and high school levels. It’s important to understand the reasoning behind any bullpen session but more importantly, these throwing sessions need to be tracked!
What Are Bullpens?
Bullpens are throwing sessions that are used to help pitchers work on control, command and pitch selection using various intensities. It’s a way for pitchers to practice their craft, getting comfortable from that specific distance and all the intricacies that go into developing your “Pitching IQ.”
As a staff, we need to do a better job with our athletes tracking sessions consistently so we can observe any trends that occur over time. We need to see if our athletes are actually improving on their control and command (both have different meanings and will define these later on), so we can have objective measurements and design programs that help improve these components.
We use a simple formula with google drive spreadsheets that allows us to input all of the athlete’s bullpen data at once which then gets automatically updated to the individual athlete’s folder. It then automatically sends an email with their PDF attached to their desired email address. We can have multiple athletes in the database. Pretty cool!
When to Add in Bullpens?
From a training model, youth, middle school and high school athletes that have started training in September/October, we usually add in bullpen sessions in January. Usually 1 bullpen each week. This gives them plenty of time to throw with intent and create quality throwing patterns, before they start to refine their patterns to the mound. Remember, pitching is refined throwing.
Athletes that start their training in December or January, we usually don’t add in bullpens until February and we can go 1-2 bullpens each week.
From a training model for college and pro athletes, we will start their bullpens a bit later and depending on the number of innings pitched from the previous year. Some athletes won’t start their actual throwing until after Thanksgiving in November, so we can’t jump right into max effort bullpens. It will all depend on the individual athlete. Lots of factors play a role when bullpens start!
Flat Ground vs Mini Mound vs Mound
We use flat grounds, mini mounds and standard regulation mounds for various bullpen sessions. All of our athletes will start on flat ground at a shortened distance, then progress to a farther distance, then back to their regulation distance.
Our younger athletes will transition from flat ground to a mini mound and then to the regulation mound. This mini mound doesn’t have as steep of a slope as the standard mound does. The standard mound has a downward slope of 1 inch per foot and the mini mound has about 1/2 inch per foot, so it’s a great starting point for the youth players!
When we feel the athlete is capable of throwing off a mound and they have proven to us they can control and command their pitches, we add the regulation mound.
Yes, there is increased stresses on the arm off a mound compared to flat ground and so does long toss and weighted balls, but we need to place stresses on the body in order for the body to respond, adapt and make changes to the tissues and how the nervous system fires.
We need to prepare the arm to accept force loads and train with various implements and intensities, so the body understands what that intensity feels like in a game situation.
What is the End Goal?
You can have different end goals for each bullpen. The style of bullpen should be varied and implemented at appropriate times throughout the year.
- Getting comfortable throwing to a target (off-season –>pre-season)
- Getting comfortable throwing off a mound (pre-season)
- Working on control at sub-max or max effort. Control is ability to throw to the strike zone (off-season –> pre-season –> in-season)
- Working on command at sub-max or max effort. Command is ability to throw to specific regions of the strike zone when needed. (off-season –>pre-season –>in-season)
- Use constraint training for control and command such as the use of different weighted balls. (off-season –>pre-season)
- Working on different pitches based on what the athlete throws for control and command at various intensities (off-season –>pre-season –>in-season)
- Prepping for a game/scrimmage (in-season)
- Adding one or many external stimuli to simulate an actual game i.e., add batter, create noise, use auditory cues to mess pitcher’s timing to try and get them to balk, add situations (off-season –>pre-season)
Bullpens are an important component to a pitcher’s development. With the ability to vary multiple elements (volume, load, intensity, set-up, distractions, external stimuli), you can see just how many ways there are to train a pitcher using the bullpen session!
Do your research, monitor your athletes, track their numbers and understand when and why you are implementing a bullpen. Have a plan. Have a goal. Have fun!