Most pitchers headed to a college program dream of being in the starting rotation right away. Just keep in mind that out of 15-20 pitchers on the roster, 4 or 5 are likely to start the vast majority of games. Your new team is also likely to return one or more of the starters or top bullpen arms from the previous season. Starting pitchers are developed in ways that go far beyond raw stuff. The best pitchers understand how to truly pitch, not just throw. As a result, most of the new pitchers in a program will likely start off in the ‘pen.
Starting off as a bullpen arm in college is nothing to be ashamed or afraid of. Unlike high school, where you only play two or three games a week and can get by using three or four pitchers, college teams rely heavily on their bullpens. In fact, no college team can expect to have a successful season without a quality bullpen. With 9 inning games and 4-5 games a week, the outcome of most games is likely to be decided by the bullpen in the late innings.
Since most young pitchers get to college having been the stud starter from high school, coming out of the bullpen can be a totally new experience. Don’t worry, we have a few tips to help you become a successful relief pitcher at the college level.
- Throw strikes. Nothing will drive a coach crazier than having a reliever come in only to fall behind in the count or walk guys. College relievers need to be able to throw at least 2 different pitches for strikes. When you come in, challenge the hitter. Put yourself in a nine-on-one mentality. It’s you and eight defenders against one hitter. You’re a different look to the batter, and he’s not sure what he’s going to get. Be ready to pressure the strike zone immediately and go after him.
- Control your emotions. There will be a lot of new emotions coming out of the ‘pen. Some guys won’t feel ready, others will be totally amped. No matter what you’re feeling, take a deep breath and find a way to control yourself on the mound. You have a job to do and it can only get done one pitch at a time. Focus and get after it.
- Just get guys out. Your job as a starter is to get guys out and keep the other team from scoring runs. Your job as a reliever is the same thing. Don’t worry about things you can’t control, like how many guys are on base when you come in or if your arm feels perfect in the bullpen. Just focus on executing the next pitch. If you can focus on the next pitch and not let the situation get too big, you will be in great shape.
- Be comfortable with runners on base. If you are pitching late in the game when runs are at a premium, you need to be a well-rounded pitcher. Even as a reliever at the college level, you need to be able to hold runners and field your position. With stuff being equal, coaches will go with the player they feel can control the run game and field his position.
- Find a way to keep your arm in shape and fresh. This can be hard. You might have to get used to throwing long-toss before the game, and still having enough gas in the tank to pitch an inning. Most of the time, coaches will try to let you know what your role is likely to be on game day, but plans can change depending on in-game situations. Make sure that your arm is feeling good enough to be ready for anything, while still getting enough work between outings to be sharp. Don’t hesitate to ask your coach for ways to strike this balance!
- Find a way to stay mentally sharp. Again, achieving a “relief mindset” is a big challenge for pitchers coming out of high school. Most guys are used to knowing exactly which day they’re going to pitch. As a reliever, you could be warming up in all 3 weekend games and only come in to throw to one hitter. Or you could not have thrown at all one week, and then could be called on (out of the blue) in an important situation. You have to find a way to mentally “turn it on” during the game, whether it be on the bench, in the ‘pen, or while warming-up. The best relievers can turn their intensity on at the flip of a switch.
During your freshman year, you should be ready to be a reliever no matter what promises have been made throughout the recruiting process. If you want to be a starter, strive for that. But if you get put in the ‘pen, don’t be discouraged. A relief pitcher plays an extremely important role and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to come up huge for your team.