Structuring an elite level bullpen isn’t that complicated, but most people aren’t doing it. I’m a firm believer in listening to the arm when it comes to volume and intensity, but that isn’t even the topic I am addressing. What I mean to relate in this post is the order of pitches being thrown and how many young pitchers today are getting it completely wrong. Anyone serious about player development (which I wrote about here) should definitely dig into the rest of this article.
The Problematic Structure:
This is the general order of most bullpens I end up watching:
Fastball out, fastball out, fastball out.
Fastball in, fastball in, fastball in.
Fastball out, changeup, changeup, changeup, changeup.
Fastball out, curveball, curveball, curveball, curveball, curveball, curveball.
Fastball out, fastball in, fastball out.
There are some big problems here. One of which is the order of pitches in this structure. You know how you have those days where the curve is nasty in the pen, because you “figured something out”, but the next day it was gone? Or in-game, you couldn’t find it? Well that sucks, but it’s also science. In 2005, a Williams and Hodges study showed that variability in practice in skill acquisition was superior to constant practice when relating to game performance of a skill. This is about motor learning. This is about skill acquisition. More simply put, when you mix things up, you’re actually able to repeat things better. This means repetition, repetition, repetition may not truly be the answer. Another way to put it?
Repetition isn’t the best way to…repeat.
But it isn’t just that one study. This is a pretty widely accepted conclusion. Knowing that, it’s kind of crazy to work on a pitch by throwing it repeatedly until you find it; then repeatedly throwing it to “make sure you have it”. All of this is really important in pitch-design as well as keeping a consistent feel and improving feel.
The Elite Structure:
A better strategy would be to go away from it as soon as you find it- then come back to it. This ‘going away from it’ is known as interference. It might take 3 attempts to ‘find it’ at first, but overtime, the goal is to dwindle that number down to one. Now, I should note that variability (interference)- in this sense- can be variability of environment, task, implement or stimulus. I just want to focus on what we can do in a real world scenario. The best command and repeatability of any athlete we work with at DST is Austin Pruitt. I have always admired how he went about his bullpens. He does sequences- not simulated batters necessarily- but two-pitch combos:
High fastball, curveball, high fastball, curveball.
Gloveside fastball, change up, gloveside fastball change up.
Outside fastball, slider, outside fastball, slider.
I believe that this has helped him hone his craft without him knowing the scientific explanation behind it.
All this to say that you should re-examine the way you structure your bullpens, because its really easy to do. It’s also backed by science- not based on a wild theory with some evidence- but a sound reasoning based on overwhelming evidence. It will help your command. It will help you retain feel for pitches from day-to-day, and it will make you a better pitcher.