I once asked pitcher Luke Hochevar if the difference between starting and relieving was the difference between running a marathon and a sprint. Hoch thought it was a pretty good comparison.
Starters can warm up as long as they like. They have the luxury of knowing when they’ll pitch and can get ready at their own pace. Relievers get the call and might have eight pitches in the bullpen before they go to the mound. That’s one of the reasons bullpen roles are helpful: relievers have an approximate idea of when they’ll be used and can move around, stretch and play some catch before they get the call.
Relievers also throw fewer types of pitches; they don’t have time to develop the feel on four or five different pitches. I asked Wade Davis what pitch he’d eliminate now that he’s back in the pen and he said he’d drop the changeup. But if he got in a long at-bat with someone and needed to show something different, Wade might break it out again.
Danny Duffy is going to drop his curve—for the most part. He’ll keep the fastball, slider and change. When I asked Danny about the curve he said he’d "keep it in his back pocket" and use it the same way Davis plans on using his changeup; Danny might use it if he finds himself in a long at-bat and needs something else to show a hitter.
Relievers can get away with throwing fewer pitches because they’ll see each batter once; they don’t need three ways to a batter out—they need one. On the other hand (man, there are always exceptions, aren’t there?) if they see the same batter three times over a series, they may have to switch things up. If they threw fastballs, then off-speed on Tuesday, on Wednesday they might start with off-speed stuff, then go back to the fastball.
If a reliever has three pitches he hopes at least two of them are working and there’s not much time to find out. One time Hochevar started warming up and threw his first curveball off the back wall of the bullpen. On that particular night he had no feel for the pitch and no time to find it. When we see the catcher go out to the mound and talk to the relief pitcher they’re usually confirming what sign system they’ll use with a runner on second base—but sometimes the reliever is telling the catcher what he’s got working that night. If the reliever can’t find his curve, they’ll have to work through things in a different way.
advantages to being a reliever: if you know you only have to throw one inning, you can let it go—throw your best stuff. A guy who throws in the low nineties as a starter might throw in the upper nineties as a reliever; he doesn’t have to pace himself.
For more on pitching out of the pen, I went to an expert…
Doug Henry; bullpen coach
I caught up with Doug the other day because I had a few questions about how things are done down in the pen. Here’s what Doug told me:If the dugout calls and says they want a guy "close" that means the pitcher can finish warming up within eight pitches. Every time a pitcher comes in a game he’s allowed eight warm-up pitches from the game mound, so that works out pretty well. Although some pitchers will claim they didn’t have enough time to warm up, Doug’s only seen it happen three or four times in his career. He thinks some guys use it as an excuse. A relief pitcher does not want to warm up too much—he doesn’t want to leave anything down in the pen. They’re trying to hit that sweet spot between not warming up enough and warming up too much. That may be why we see a guy throw and throw and throw—then he stops and watches the game. He’s "close’ and will finish his warm-ups on the game mound. As I said earlier, relievers often have three pitches and hope to have at least two working when they come in a game. If they don’t have two pitches working, they still have to pitch. Doug agreed with catcher Jason Kendall; you can use the fact that a pitch isn’t working. Hitters keep expecting it and it ain’t coming. Nobody—including the pitcher—knows what he’ll have until he gets in the game. A manager can make the right move and it backfires because the pitcher just doesn’t have it that day. Between the time the starter leaves and the game gets to the back end of the pen—the eighth inning set-up man and the ninth inning closer—the manager looks for good matchups. Matchups can be lefty-on-lefty-righty-on-righty type stuff, but they can also be situational. If you need a groundball for a double play, you might bring in a guy with a good sinker. If you have a runner on third with less than two outs, you might bring in a guy with strikeout stuff. Matchups are often done on "gut feeling" because the sample size can be so small. Former Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer once told me when the sample size between a hitter and pitcher is small, look for trends; not only hits, but a lot of punchouts or lineouts can be a clue. If a guy has faced a pitcher nine times and punched out five of those times, that’s a good match-up for the pitcher. A manager also has to know which relievers are available. If some guys pitch two days in a row, they might need the third day off. But if a guy faced only one hitter two days in a row, he might be available on the third day. Like I said, bullpen roles are helpful; but those roles will change as the season progresses; some guys will step up and some guys will fall back.
Next time you’re at a game, keep an eye on the bullpen you’ll know who’s warming up and what’s probably going to happen next. If a lefty is warming up and a left-handed hitter is on-deck, you’ve got a pretty decent idea of when the pitching change will be made.
Let’s finish where I started; with Luke Hochevar.
He showed up on the back fields wearing a cast on his right arm—which is good. If it had been on his left arm the Royals would have had a problem. Anyway, Luke said the surgery went fine and he’ll soon be back in KC, doing his rehab.