Some teams rethinking bullpen sessions

Advancements in body measurements, awareness have led to tinkering with longstanding tradition

March 13th, 2017

If you're a baseball romantic, the bullpens between the Spring Training back fields are a thing of beauty. Six perfectly sloped red-dirt mounds and six perfectly clean white home plates separated by a swath of perfectly glittering green grass. When the bullpens are humming, six pitchers simultaneously pound the mitt of six catchers, putting on a show for fans who gather. But the bullpens can be as dangerous as they are mesmerizing.
For decades, pitchers have thrown a bullpen session on their first day in camp, and have continued to throw one every other day in an effort to whip their arms into shape. They have thrown on back-to-back days, or even three or four days in a row. The tradition has continued, despite what we now know about rest and recovery, because it is just that: a baseball tradition.
However, in an effort to reduce the staggering number of arm injuries incurred in the first few weeks of Spring Training and to ensure durability throughout the season, several teams have changed course. The Cubs, Indians and Mariners have had their pitchers throw a bullpen session every third day for at least the past two seasons. The Dodgers have also followed suit, and more recently, the Mets have as well.
Mariners starter Drew Smyly says he often takes flack from an unnamed pal on the Giants, who jokes about the Mariners' "spa schedule." Smyly fires back.
"I love it," says the lefty, whose past two teams, the Tigers and Rays, threw bullpen session every other day. "In my experience, the extra day means a ton. I know my arm feels way better this spring versus years before."
"There was a perception that you needed four bullpens before throwing a live batting practice," says Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway. "But if guys are throwing before they get to camp, they can go bullpen, two days off, bullpen, two days off, live BP, and it works great to make sure the bullpens are effective and the guys are recovering."
Explaining the history
The Giants still run the every-other-day schedule, and they have their pitchers throw three or four bullpen sessions before throwing live BP. San Francisco pitching coach Dave Righetti recalls throwing four days in a row in the mid-1980s, so in some sense, every other day is already a step back. The Giants do not mandate that their pitchers throw off a mound before reporting to camp -- , for example, never does -- so Righetti uses the every-other-day schedule as a chance to watch his pitchers throw and assess their deliveries after an offseason away from throwing.
"The old-school method was to throw, throw, throw and get sore and it would be over with," Righetti says. "Now, you give them a break between bullpens. Every other day is truly a recovery day."
Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio says a bullpen session takes about seven minutes and can be anywhere from 25 to 50 pitches, depending on whether the pitcher is a starter or a reliever and on how much he likes to throw. 's pregame throwing routine between 38 and 41 pitches; 's are 46 to 48.
And when measuring how much rest a pitcher needs, Mariners pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre says the extra throwing done during Spring Training fundamentals drills also needs to be taken into account.
"We spend way more time now on [pitcher fielding practice], throwing to bases, the running game and long toss than we did when I was pitching," Stottlemyre says. "We are proponents of long toss, and we can't expect our guys to throw productive long toss if they're 'penning every other day. The two days off gives them them a good long-toss day and a day to recover, and with all the other throwing we do, it just makes sense."
Perception is everything
Perceived effort presents another issue with bullpen sessions. Pitching coaches can tell their pitchers to throw 65 or 70 percent, but it is nearly impossible for a young pitcher to hold back when he's trying to make a good first impression. Even pitchers with job certainty have a hard time controlling their adrenaline, which makes extra recovery between them all the more important.
"I can't throw a 70 percent bullpen to work on things and just hit my spots," says Indians lefty . "It's just not a skill I have. When you have a pitching coach and a manager you're trying to impress, a couple of Hall of Famers standing behind the mound, a ton of fans watching, you're going to show off."
Pushing the every-other-day bullpen session routine on an entire pitching staff also assumes a degree of similarity between pitchers that simply doesn't exist. The 13 pitchers on a big league club all have different body types, arm actions and release points. Some are command pitchers and some are power pitchers. All have different anatomies and shoulder structures.
"You don't have 100 pitchers in your organization who throw the same way, so it doesn't make sense to have 100 guys doing the same thing," says Cubs senior vice president Jason McLeod. "We're looking to maximize the ability of every guy we have, and every guy is an individual. I think you're better in the long run if you tailor an approach to the different pitchers in your organization."
Cubs pitchers have the freedom to dictate what they want their program to be. Long toss and weighted balls are fair game, and it's also OK to not long toss or throw weighted balls. And if a pitcher actually wants to throw more frequent bullpen sessions, that's OK, too. Case in point: , a command-oriented pitcher who relies on touch to cut up the strike zone, likes to be on the mound every other day to keep a constant awareness of his release point and his feel for the ball.
"In the past, the team told you what to do, but now it's at least 50-50 with what you want to do and think is best for you," Hendricks says. "There has been a big change in that respect, and that is not the norm."
But it is the norm with the Cubs, Indians and Mariners. And you'll note, two of those three clubs were in the 2016 World Series.