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How minor-league bullpen usage prepares pitchers for the big leagues

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It’s a process, and somewhat different from the majors.

Cubs prospect Dakota Mekkes pitching for Myrtle Beach in 2017
Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans

Every once in a while, I feel the need to talk about bullpen usage. While you can lobby as long as you want regarding MLB bullpens, my commentary will be mainly about minor league bullpens, as those are the games I follow the closest. As such, today’s is about how a prospect is developed in the Cubs pipeline in an effort to reach an MLB per diem.

Minor league bullpens are a large part of why I prefer nightly MiLB games to MLB ones. For instance, if a minor league arm is summoned to South Bend from extended spring training or Short-Season Ball, it’s a promotion. He’s likely done well to earn the call-up. As a reward, he probably faces the toughest hitters he’s ever collectively seen. Everyone in the dugout and front office knows this. He might initially misfire.

It’s expected that he’ll get about four or five outings to prove his worth. If everything entirely goes sideways, the team might re-examine. In the Midwest League, development is the thing. The pitcher, whoever he is, will likely be brought in to start a clean inning. Perhaps it’s the sixth, and he’s asked to go as far into the seventh as 25 pitches will take him. After all, the goal is to get his feet wet.

Prior to reaching Double-A ball, Cubs relievers won’t pitch in back-to-backs except in extreme circumstances. Possibly in the playoffs, or in games necessary to clinch a playoff berth. As such, if a pitcher (in the Dominican, Mesa, Eugene, South Bend, or Myrtle Beach) pitched yesterday, they sit today. Likely, they sit the next day, as well.

Minor league squads often roll with seven- or eight-man bullpens, as well. So, if three guys of eight pitched yesterday, the other five are prioritized for today. The guy who has gone the most days between throws will likely be the first in. The minors are about rotating the bullpen outings. If a guy is in a slump, they keep using him, until he gets shipped elsewhere. That may or may not happen.

One of the things to notice as these progress is that teams often confer with a reliever. If he’s been off two days, but his arm seems “a bit off,” he’ll get another day. Perhaps, even, an MRI. It is true players have a bit more say in their play than before. It used to be players were considered replaceable drones. Now, teams seem more in tune with valuing a degree of buy-in from the player, and keeping him healthy.

Some baseball fans long for the days when player health was assumed. They might think attention to holistic desires is being too soft on players who they may well consider overpaid. MLB organizations have morphed beyond where the player is merely a pawn with little say in his role on the team. Perhaps, in some cases, it may have gone a bit too far. However, the Cubs recently hired Bob Tewksbury in the mental skills department. Player happiness is valued more at Wrigley than at some archetypical soulless organization from days gone by.

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As the pitcher reaches Double-A, the pitcher hitting reduces bullpens by one. Benches add another bat, usually a competent middle infielder, useful in pinch-hitting and double-switching depth. With more mature arms, and necessity, back-to-back use happens much more often. Relievers don’t have as much say, or notice, in their appearances. (American League sides have a huge edge here, with the Designated Hitter being an AL pipeline constant.) Nonetheless, in the upper minors, a player still likes to know if he’ll likely be needed.

At the major league level, roles remain preferred for players. No, it isn’t absolutely essential for a player to be informed well in advance if, and when, he’ll be needed. However, if a boss in a normal gig might be interested in having you stay two hours overtime on a Thursday after your shift, sooner might be a better informing method than at the last minute.

In spring training games, pitchers know, largely, when they might be used. A pitcher will often be summoned from minor league camp “just in case.” They would most likely be used if a regular pitcher can’t complete an inning, due to ineffectiveness or injury. Otherwise, they likely won’t even get warmed up.

Should specific pitchers have specific roles in the bullpen? No. Of course not. At least, in the mind of Cuban National coaches, who pull starting pitchers in almost random, haphazard fashions. Should that be the case in MLB games? Bullpens are constantly in a state of flux. Will “openers” remain a thing? Or be legislated out?

My thought is that an MLB team is better off with 12 useful relievers than six, and 17 would be better than 14. A way to get to that point would see to be allow young pitchers to fail in low-stress scenarios, and let them learn from the failure. Perhaps in MLB, and perhaps with a return to Triple-A. If the bullpen rotation (as in, Iowa-to-Chicago) remains in order, pitchers can, potentially, develop into useful relievers with options remaining, and years before arbitration. For some, no method will ever work along those lines.

Regardless how devout of a rabid fan you are, far more discussion goes on behind the scenes than you might think happens. Players wash out in one or two cities, to be useful or thrive in a different scenario. Did one side fail? Was the failure needed for eventual success? The book on developing pitching isn’t closed.

Regarding pitching usage, my hunch is as much as not, it is confidence. Some players can unlock three more miles per hour with a new coach. Others become better at hitting their spots. Looking at the charts regarding pitch mechanics are useful, but have a degree of “looking in the rear view mirror” as well. When it’s all you have, you ride with it.

However, to get the most out of a reliever, that’s what the team ought to get about. If a reliever is best as a specialist, find enough other quality arms so he can do that. Has he shown the ability to regularly get six outs? Let him keep proving it. Pitchers will fail, on occasion. Patience doesn’t boo the failure. Intelligence limits recurrence.

Pitching is hard. Hitters at the MLB level get solid hits on good pitches. If we, as fans, can come to grips with occasional bad outings, without the reflexive need to expunge the player, we become better fans. Not all relievers are cut out for high-leverage use with regularity. Not all close games will be won. Teams that get most of the wins they should, and add a few more, end up where they should in the standings.

If a reliever gets confident, he has more value, whether in game or in trade. The team that gets that number higher in July than it was in April is accomplishing their task. Perhaps using pitchers in an unfamiliar spot is wise, or required, occasionally. Condemning someone for a task they aren’t ready for is rarely wise. The minor leagues attempt to prepare the pitcher for MLB. However, the hitters are better, and the stakes are higher. As a fan, patience is a virtue.