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October 2, 2009 • Baseball

Working Up the Pitcher’s Starting Routine

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Watch any quality major league pitcher prepare for a start and you will discover that he is observing an established routine. Once the routine is developed over a period of trial and error and the pitcher knows that it is working for him, we will expect him to use it every time he goes to the mound.

The best routines observe a mild pace—slow and unfrantic. They also have some flexibility built into them to accommodate to such factors as weather and tightness.

At GW, we will try different ways of approaching starts both mentally and physically until the pitcher achieves comfort with one or two of them. Once there, he will be expected to stick with it until it becomes part of him.

Each member of the staff will do different things to get their bodies ready, but the basic formula will still work. We will allow each pitcher to make minor adjustments based on personal preference to fit his needs, starting within the following framework.

Pre-field preparation:

It is important to prepare the body the day and night before the start. It starts with eating the right foods the day before. We suggest the proteins and carbohydrates, avoiding, among other things, alcohol, greasy food, and fatty meats.

We try to get our pitchers to over-hydrate their body the day before and get the right amount of sleep. We want to feel well-rested and confident about achieving success.

If we are on the road, we want out pitchers to prepare their field bag the night before. It should include uniforms, undergarments, two towels, and extra clothing—taking into account every possible contingency.

For example, if it’s a hot day, we expect them to have enough in their bag to change their socks, sliders, t-shirts, etc., so that they won’t be throwing in wet stuff. Game day begins with a good breakfast before going to the field.

At the field:

Pitchers should make sure they are familiar with the opponent. We don’t expect them to try to memorize every last detail, but basic information is important. Since we call most of the pitches from the bench, the pitchers don’t have to focus in on the vulnerabilities of every opposing hitter, especially since pitching strategies often get adjusted during the game. During our teams batting practice, I don’t want them sitting on the bench doing nothing. I want them to get their bodies moving and ready. It’s important to clear the minds of everything unrelated to the game.

At 50 minutes before you get on the mound:

The pitcher should head out from the dugout to the bullpen with the pitching coach and everything: jacket, cleats, elastic cords/sand cans/light dumbbells, game ball, and a couple of additional balls (in case it is wet) and, a water bottle. The catcher will warm him up. We do not want to use our game catcher for this. An additional partner will be available for playing catch.

We like to go very early to avoid being rushed into our preparation. This will give us enough time to move at a leisurely pace when it is warm or be given extra time when it is colder. It also allows us to take some time between steps.

I like to do this routine away from the distractions of the bench and the rest of the team.

As a pitching coach, I hang out in the area and observe, but pitchers with good routines don’t need me to hover around. Since a lot of fields do not have a clock on their scoreboard, I can also help keep them on schedule.

At 45 minutes before you get on the mound:

The pitcher begins running, beginning with jogging and getting more aggressive. This is the time when it is crucial for the pitchers to get their bodies going, have a sweat flowing, rid themselves of any nervous energy or sluggishness, and begin to focus in on the game.

At 40 minutes prior to getting on the game mound:

Start a full body stretch with the partner, following the sequenced stretching regimen that we do each day. Once the stretch is completed, the pitcher can do the sand-can and elastic-cord exercises that will warm up the muscles in the arm and shoulder.

At 25 minutes prior to getting on the mound:

The pitcher should begin his throwing routine—Starting with throwing progressions (wrist flicks, arm flicks, figure 8’s, one knee, square, L), beginning easy and pacing one’s self, then lengthening to intermediate distance (100 feet is good) with the warm-up catcher. He should feel the extension on his front side, and not rush to get on the mound.

As he brings his catcher closer, he can begin hitting some targets. His pitching partner should protect him from any stray balls from the field during this and the following segments.

At 18 minutes, go to the mound area:

The pitcher begins at long mound length (behind the mound) throwing to the catcher and then throwing up to the back of the mound, forcing him to get on top and follow through.

The next stop is to “short box” from the rubber, in both the wind-up and the stretch. I suggest 2-3 of each pitch to each location: i.e., FB to middle, FB to arm side, FB to opposite arm side.

After the fastballs, the pitcher repeats a sequence of his change-up and other pitches. This is a good time to hit his spots at the bottom of the strike zone.

Most importantly, he must do some positive self-talking. Get into the proper frame of mind to walk around the mound.

At 12 minutes, warm-up with starting catcher:

I think pitchers often make the mistake of throwing too much in the bullpen to prepare. While it is more important to prepare then it is to save pitches for a long outing, I believe a good framework is about 20-25 pitches from the mound.

I suggest 8-10 (using all of your pitches) from the wind-up and then 12-15 of all of your pitches from the stretch. Preparation for throwing from the stretch is particularly critical. This number of pitches is usually sufficient, but the pitcher should take a few extras if he needs them, and a few less if he doesn’t. These pitches should be mixed as they will be in the game (a change-up after a fastball), as well as with locations.

Once the pitcher is into his throwing session, he should work the corners and have the catcher move around. I like to let the pitcher create his own sequence so that he can find his own rhythm. I want the pitchers to end this session with a “mock at bat,” with the partner standing in the batter’s box. By having the catcher call pitches and you (coach) thinking about situations with counts, you can help the pitcher sharpen his focus.

It is crucial for the pitcher to begin his mound-throwing session by gaining command of his fastball, because this is where success begins. He should not end this session until he finds his “feel” pitches, such as his change-up.

These types of pitches are often difficult to find during the game, so getting comfortable with them in the bullpen is crucial.

If the pitcher is having trouble “finding” one of his pitchers in the bullpen, he can move on to something else and go back to the pitch later.

He shouldn’t throw 10 consecutive change-ups poorly and get frustrated. Before the catcher departs, the battery should review their alternate signal system with a runner on second base.

At 6 minutes, last words from pitching coach:

The coach should give the pitcher some last-minute reminders of game plans and mental approach before the pitcher gets his stuff and heads to dugout. Before he leaves, I always remind him of his personal cue words and most effective quality. For example, I remind my right-hander, Pat Lehman, that “You always do your best when you dominate the inner third of the plate.” It has always been helpful to keep such key thoughts in the front of your mind.

I also like to ask a pitcher which of his pitches is working best. It’s good to know where his confidence level is.

Once in the dugout, he should get some more water into his body, clear his head, focus, and think like a winner. If it’s a long top of the first inning, his partner should be nearby to help him toss to stay loose.

A double-header will create a problem if there isn’t enough time between games to go through the routine. The pitcher will have to be in his routine well before the first game ends. Once a pitcher is removed from the game, he should do his cool-down throwing and light dumbbell exercises.

If he’s taken out in the middle of the inning, the proper baseball etiquette for him is to wait until the half inning is over, so that he can root on his reliever. Once the inning and the exercises are completed, he should ice down, as necessary.

How many times in your career have you had guys look terrific in the bullpen and then fall flat on their face in the game or vice-versa? It happens a lot. The better the routine, the more consistent the outing will be.

I feel a lot of it is mental. Don’t let pitchers be affected emotionally by what happens in the bullpen, either positively or negatively. Remind them that bullpens are preparation, not indicators.

Baseball fact: More runs are scored in the first inning of college and pro games than in any other inning. A lot of factors contribute to this, but the lack of a good system of preparation for the pitcher clearly tops that list.


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