The new bullpen coach

03/19/2013 7:12 PM

05/16/2014 9:34 PM

Doug Henry is the new bullpen coach for the Royals, which brings up a question: What exactly does a bullpen coach do?

Well, his first job is to pay attention. Relief pitchers aren’t always locked in on the game. They might only start to focus on the game once their time to pitch approaches. The bullpen coach pays attention the entire time. The pitchers are given scouting reports. Everybody knows what each opposing hitter has done up to this point. But the bullpen coach needs to pay attention and know what the hitter is doing

that night.

Maybe the report says the guy at the plate is hitting weak groundballs to the pull side of the field whenever he gets a fastball on the outer half, but the guy has made an adjustment and is now driving that pitch to the opposite field. Doug needs to know that and make sure the relievers are aware of the change in the hitter’s approach.

Doug also needs to make sure the right reliever is ready at the right time. Every reliever has a role. If the starter gets whacked around right away, the long reliever will be the first guy in the game. Starting with the first pitch, long relievers need to stay alert and loose. They have to be ready, if needed. Doug makes sure that happens.

Doug not only keeps track of what the opposing hitters are doing, he watches the pitch count and has a fair idea of when the starting pitcher might be pulled. Once the starter makes it through the fifth inning, the long relievers can relax. It’s likely they have the day off. Now the middle relievers need to get up and stretch in case they get the call. And Doug makes sure

that

happens.

Depending on the manager and how he uses his relievers, the guys at the backend of the pen — the setup man and the closer — start to get loose in the later innings. Making sure the right relievers are ready in case they get the call — they may only have time for five or six warm-up pitches — is a big part of Doug’s job.

Henry says having roles in the bullpen helps immensely. You don’t have six guys thinking they might be going in the game every time the phone rings. A pitcher has a good idea of when he will be used, and that allows him to properly prepare for the situation he will face.

If there were no roles, guys wouldn’t know when to get up and loose. Relievers can’t stay loose the entire game. They would wear themselves out even if they didn’t pitch. And if they are not already up and loose, relievers can’t get ready in a half-dozen pitches when the call comes.

Having a decisive manager helps. If the manager gets a guy up, then doesn’t use him — known as a “dry hump” in baseball slang — the manager can wear a pitcher out before he ever gets in a game.

According to Doug, a reliever who warms up more than once will lose some effectiveness. And if a manager has a history of getting guys hot and then sitting them back down, the relievers might start cutting back on their warm-ups. “Maybe I should save something. What if I have to warm up again later?”

(Henry says manager Ned Yost is good about this. If Ned gets a pitcher up, he probably will pitch.)

Pay attention to the bullpen — see who’s up and moving around — and you’ll have a better idea of who is about to come into the game. And you’ll also know Doug Henry is doing his job.

Hochevar in relief

Monday night, Luke Hochevar pitched a scoreless inning in relief. He gave up two hits — one was well-hit, the other was a bleeder — and struck out two. After the game, Luke said, “See? I can pitch from the stretch.”

One of the other theories on Hochevar is that he throws too many pitches with a similar velocity. When a pitcher moves to the pen, he usually has to cut down on the number of pitches he throws. There’s no time to develop a fourth or fifth pitch. The pitcher is not out there long enough. I asked Luke whether that would be true in his case. Will he throw fewer pitches?

The answer was “yes.”

According to Luke, he will keep his fastball, curve and slider and throw fewer changeups. Throwing fewer pitches might allow Hochevar to maintain separation of speed on each pitch. I asked if that might that be helpful, and Luke said, “Why not?”

Hochevar is determined to get something out of this move to the pen. If he goes to the bullpen and mopes, if he sees it as a negative, Luke thinks he won’t get much out of the experience. If he tries to find something positive in the move, if he feels like it might make him a better pitcher; Luke thinks good things are much more likely to happen.

After Monday’s game, Ned Yost said Luke having to identify his three best pitches and focus on them should carry over and help him as a starter. It’s a different approach to pitching, and if a starter can learn something for what works for a reliever, Luke Hochevar wants to learn it.

The crack of the bat

Rusty Kuntz walked into the dugout on George Brett Field while batting practice was going on and I asked him if he could tell who was hitting without looking at the field. Rusty said he knows when Billy Butler is at the plate. The ball makes a different sound coming off the bat.

I’ve heard guys who have been around the game a long time say that the ball sounds different when some people hit it, but I never knew what they meant. I asked Rusty to elaborate, and he said that when some guys hit a ball, the sound is more of a thud. He demonstrated by hitting his left palm with his right hand formed in a fist.

When Billy hits, the sound is higher-pitched and more of a crack than a thud. Rusty demonstrated by slapping his left palm with his right hand held open, as if he were clapping. According to Rusty, that higher-pitched crack is a result of hand speed. Once Rusty pointed it out, I could hear what he meant.

So next time you come to the park in time for batting practice, listen and try to hear the difference. If you can’t, pretend you can and drive the person next to you nuts.

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