Despite being one of the most underappreciated positions in the sport, middle relief pitchers are one of the most essential pieces for strong ballclubs, especially in modern-day baseball. Starting pitchers rarely go the distance anymore, making it much more imperative that a team’s bullpen is formidable. It is one of the toughest jobs in baseball because of the uncertainty surrounding playing time, therefore relievers must stay physically and mentally prepared during every inning of the game.
The coach’s lineup card notifies position players when they enter while starting pitchers have a set day in the rotation they are scheduled to pitch. Contrary to those positions, relievers can be called upon at any moment, whether they have already pitched in back-to-back days or have been sitting cold in the dugout for weeks. For them, it is the flow of each game that dictates their appearances.
“I was a starter all throughout high school, so when I came to Marist and I knew I was going to be in the bullpen, I had to get acclimated to how to warm up because a starter’s routine is way different than a bullpen guy’s,” freshman John Hacker said.
Hacker had time to use weighted balls, have a far long toss and most importantly, had a set routine on a set day in high school as a starting pitcher. However, moving to the bullpen required him to be more conservative with the ambiguity of not knowing the days he is going to pitch.
“You don’t want to overwork your arm, but you want to stay ready,” Hacker said.
Another integral discrepancy between the two types of pitchers is that relievers not only pitch more often but have a different limit, in terms of pitch count and length of the outing.
“Besides closing the game, whenever I would come in as a reliever, you don’t know how many innings it could be,” sophomore Hunter Sabbers said. “I kind of just want to stay consistent and try not to overthrow or put too much into anything.”
Baseball is supposed to be played every day, though the way the sport is designed in college has series primarily taking place on weekends. Weekday games happen, however this condensed schedule style results in extended gaps of action for certain positions.
A pitcher can throw in as many bullpen sessions as they want, but nothing compares to being in a live game. Pitching is all about rhythm and it is challenging to get a feel for the opponent sitting in the bullpen game after game.
“We can kind of sense when we’re about to go in, but it can also happen at unexpected times,” junior Jack Wren said. “If you have a busy week, you’ve got to be pretty careful about what you do because you don’t want to overwork yourself, but you also don’t want to underwork yourself and not be ready.”
It is a fine balance to measure because these players want to stay fresh, yet are trying not to over-exhaust their arms. And when a pitcher finally does see live hitters, maintaining one’s composure and not trying to strike out every batter is another skill these relievers have to focus on honing.
“I warm up every game like I’m going to pitch, but there’ll be days where I know I won’t throw so I’ll get a heavier long toss in before,” Sabbers said. “The days I am not throwing [in-game], I throw with more intent to get more work in.”
Assistant coach Mike Coss will have overly-rested pitchers throw around 10-15 pitches off the mound to keep them sharp and ensure they remain comfortable on the mound. There are an abundance of pitchers within the Red Foxes staff and only so many instances where each of them can be utilized. It is vital that each pitcher stays loose, even when pitching sparingly because when called upon, they need to deliver with the limited opportunities one might receive over the course of the season.
The coaching staff does their best to set their pitchers up for success, though each individual reliever has the responsibility to figure out on their own how to stay effective through long sabbaticals of game action.
“I like throwing my Plyo balls a lot before to get my arm ready, just in case I’ll go in,” Hacker said. “And as we’re coming in, I stay ready by throwing grips – we’ll throw fastballs, changeups, sliders just so I still have a feel for my pitches in case I have to get warm.”
Relievers are just thrown into different situations, therefore it makes the warmup essential. Preparation can range from having an inning or two to loosen up to just having a few pitches to throw. Many times, the success of the outing is determined before the reliever even enters the game, as it all might be dependent on how they are throwing in the bullpen.
“If it’s urgent, you just throw a couple of fastballs, but there’s times I have longer when I’ll work more on my off-speed stuff,” Sabbers said. “This way, I know if my changeup is working today or if I have a good feel for my slider, then in-game these mental cues will help me out.”
The bullpen has signals for the three main stages of the preparation process communicated by Coss.
“Start stretching” means they have the option to do either ladders, bands or whatever is necessary to get their bodies hot.
“Walkies down and get throwing” means they can do Plyos and will begin throwing to the catcher. This is the serious warm-up when they begin throwing with purpose, and depending on the game situation, they will have to either start throwing quickly or will be able to ease into it.
“Hot” is the final signal when the pitcher should be ready to enter the game. In high leverage situations, relievers will be told to get “hot fast” meaning they will only have a few practice pitches before they have to take the mound.
It is an adrenaline rush for relievers every time they get the call to the bullpen because warmup time is unknown, innings being asked to pitch are unknown and at any given moment, they could be asked to pitch.
“Whether you come in mid-inning or you come in to start the inning, I think you just got to throw strikes and have your stuff. Nothing changes, you know, same approach no matter what,” Wren said.
The life of a reliever can be demanding, yet exhilarating. There needs to be pitchers to get the team through nine innings, especially if the starter gets knocked out early. It is far from easy, but without someone who can get consistent outs late in games, winning becomes impossible.
The position is overlooked because every team carries an abundance of them, but their role on the roster is undeniable. They may enter the game with the bases loaded and no outs or pitch two to three innings a day after already throwing. Relievers are not notified until an inning or two prior that they are playing, therefore they need to always stay zoned in.
A team’s bullpen determines the strength of the roster. Those that have relievers who can handle the strenuous role are the teams that will play deep into the summer.
Photo by Annabel Banks
Edited by Bridget Reilly and Mackenzie Meaney