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A "relief" for everyone!

The general pitching strategy in major league baseball is for the starting pitcher to "go six good innings" and then hand the ball over to the relief corps. It has been so successful that our high schools and colleges are now following suit, albeit with more limited resources.

A lot of our younger coaches probably believe that relief pitching goes back to the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1867. No way. Seventy-five years after the organization of the Red Stockings, pitchers were still being asked to finish everything they started, and except for an occasional specialist like Firpo Marberry and Wiley Moore, nobody was using relief pitchers on a regular basis.

It wasn't until after World War II that relief pitching became an indigenous part of baseball Possibly the first accolade to relief pitching was made by Lefty Gomez in 1941.

In the twilight of a Hall of Fame career, the great Yankee left-hander became a six or seven-inning pitcher. He'd hold the enemy to 2-3 runs and then Johnny Murphy would come in and bail him out. (Gomez wound up with a 15-5 won-lost record -- best in the American League!)

When asked how he thought he'd do in 1942, Gomez, a great wit, replied: "Why ask me? Ask Johnny Murphy -- he finishes all my games."

Ted Williams exhibited a great deal of insight when he was once asked to cite the biggest difference in major league baseball during his lifetime:

"When I first came up, you could count on getting your last couple of at-bats against a guy who was tiring after going seven or eight innings. Nowadays, they bring in those high-priced relievers and they start throwing bullets at you!"

Perhaps the biggest problem in high school and college pitching is that there is no way for coaches to develop a pitching staff of starters, middle relievers, set-up men, and closers. The lack of specialists forces them to improvise, and that often comes down to using their starting pitchers as relievers.

The risk is obvious. Anytime you start overworking your pitchers, you are asking for trouble with arm injuries and poor performances.

It is essential for the coach to study each pitcher on his staff to determine how much rest he needs in order to pitch effectively and safely in a relief role, and then carefully plan how to do it when the need arises.

Coaches should never go into a game without a carefully thought-out plan for relief pitching. They should never rely on "gut instincts" or snap decisions. Pitchers who haven't recovered sufficiently from their last stint or are not mentally prepared to pitch that day are probably not going to pitch very effectively.

In 1984, Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts served as a consultant to the USA Olympic Baseball Team. I was around the day he told our coaches how he would frequently pitch an inning in relief between starts.

In Roberts' time, all starting pitchers worked in a four-day rotation. On their second day of rest, they would throw in the bullpen during the latter stages of the game. The Philadelphia manager got the idea of using Roberts for an inning of relief...He had to throw anyway, so why not get a quality inning out of him?

This type of thing became common in the major leagues -- having a starter (particularly a big, strong guy with a rubber arm, like Roberts) -- come in for in inning or so of relief on the day he was working in the bullpen as part of his regular between-starts routine.

Whenever this sort of thing is planned and the starting pitcher knows he might be called upon in relief, it can be a safe and effective way to use a starter in a relief role.

While there are certainly individual differences in how pitchers (and pitching coaches) plan their between-starts throwing and conditioning, most pitchers seem to prefer a program something like this:

* First Day: A lot of stretching exercises, running, light throwing (if at all).

* Second Day: Stretching exercises, running, and 15 minutes of throwing in the bullpen if on a four-day rotation, or light throwing if on a five-day rotation.

* Third Day: Light exercise and running, light (if any) throwing in a four-day rotation; 15 minutes throwing in the bullpen if in a five-day rotation.

* Fourth Day: Pitch in a four-day rotation; light day of work and light throwing if in a five-day rotation.

A quick look at this conditioning and throwing program shows that in a four-day rotation, a starting pitcher would realistically not be available to pitch in relief on the first day or the third day between starts, but could work an inning or so on the second day.

In a five-day rotation, a pitcher might effectively and safely pitch in relief on the second or third day and still be able to start in his turn.

Each potential relief pitcher should be told how he might be used on that day so that he can mentally and physically prepare for it. While amateur teams do not have the luxury of set-up men and short relievers, coaches can at least alert the non-starting pitchers who are available for relief that day and tell them under what circumstances each might be used.

By receiving this information beforehand, pitchers can stay more alert as the game progresses and the possibilities for relief pitching start to rise.

A potential relief pitcher should have all his equipment nearby in the dugout -- his jacket, glove, and two baseballs -- so that when called to the bullpen, he won't have to waste time looking for anything he needs.

The same is true for the bullpen catcher. He should know in advance that he's going to handle the first relief pitcher, so that he can have all his equipment ready to be picked up the instant he is called to the bullpen.

When the call comes for the pitcher, he should sprint to the bullpen and do some quick stretching before starting to throw. If, of course, he knows that he is going to be used in the game, he can do some preliminary stretching in the dugout -- enabling him to be warm and loose when he arrives in the pen.

He should not sit down and start watching the game when he gets there. He should immediately begin throwing without a windup. That's the way to heat up in a hurry -- throwing the ball as many times as you can in as short a period of time as possible.

Only after getting warm should he begin to work on control and quality pitches. The need to heat up quickly is the reason why he should always have two baseballs available, especially if there is no backstop in the bullpen. If he throws a wild pitch, someone else can go after it while he grabs the other ball and continues to throw to the catcher.

Once the relief pitcher gets properly warmed up, he should keep his eye on the game and perhaps throw one pitch for every three thrown by the pitcher in the game. This will allow him to stay loose without tiring himself out by throwing too many pitches.

It will also allow him to see what is happening in the game, check the situation, and determine which hitter he might face when he goes into the game.

Control is very important for a relief pitcher, and it is especially important for him to keep the ball low. This should be emphasized by all relief pitchers when throwing in the bullpen. After getting fairly warm, the pitcher can work on quality pitches and control.

The decision to change pitchers calls for some subtle thinking. The coach must first consider the ability of the relief pitcher. Basic principle: You bring a pitcher in rather than take a pitcher out.

The coach's confidence in the relief pitcher should be more important than his confidence in the starting pitcher, and the biggest question is: "Who do I have the most confidence in right now?"

The starting pitcher may have more ability and normally be a better pitcher, but if he is tiring after pitching a number of innings or if it happens to be one of those days that he "doesn't have it," the relief man may be a better choice than the starter right now, and that is the only thing that really matters.

Coaches must also remember that the decision on changing pitchers is a good one or a bad one based on the situation of the game and on the merits of the pitchers involved, not on the final outcome or the performance of the relief pitcher.

Fans and the media can wait until they see what happens before making a judgement about the wisdom of changing pitchers. The coach doesn't have that luxury; he has to make the right move based on all the circumstances.

If the move is successful, it will be because the pitcher performed well. If the move is unsuccessful, it will be because the pitcher did not perform as the coach hoped and thought he would.

Regardless of the outcome, the decision was a good one or a bad one at the time it was made, and will be based on whether the coach properly assessed the situation and the abilities of the pitchers and the hitters involved.

This is why coaches often have to put up with complaints from fans or writers who, of course, are always right because they wait until all the returns are in before passing judgement on what should have been done.

Another point for coaches to consider is that, with a good relief pitcher, they may not always want to wait until they have no other alternative but to bring him in. They can bring him in before the situation becomes critical.

For example, if a starting pitcher is beginning to tire and showing signs of struggling late in the game and the team has a good reliever, it might be better to have the relief pitcher start the inning rather than let the starter go back out there and put the tying or winning run on base before calling upon the relief pitcher.

Since relief pitchers do not have the luxury of several innings to establish themselves, most of them will try to establish command by challenging the hitter with their best pitch to get ahead in the count and to put them in position to use their other pitches effectively.

By nature, relief specialists have to be aggressive-type pitchers who are not afraid to get involved in pressure situations and challenge hitters.

Very few successful relief pitchers go into a ball game and nibble around the plate and try to outthink the hitters. Most of them challenge hitters with the best stuff they have and an aggressive and perhaps arrogant attitude.

Ron Perranoski, great relief pitcher for the Dodgers (and later their pitching coach), once said: "The first pitch is the most important one in a tough situation. It is not a matter of just throwing the ball over for a strike. It is, rather, a matter of hitting a particular spot."

The ability to plan and intelligently handle the relief pitching has become a vital part of the modem game, and it will behoove the high school and college coaches to pay a lot of attention to it.

Unlike the professional managers who have a "relief corps" at their command, amateur coaches are often forced to juggle their starters and relievers on a game-to-game basis, and this kind of coaching requires careful planning and very good communication so that every pitcher will know when and under what circumstances he is going to be called upon to pitch in relief.

Good planning will be a relief for everyone!
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Title Annotation:relief pitching in high school and college baseball
Author:Stallings, Jack
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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