By Mark Miller
They may be the most misunderstood players in all of baseball.
Maybe it’s because some don’t play every day. Heck, some might not see action for days, a week or longer.
In the rare case of a complete game by a starting pitcher, fans may not even realize they are at the ballpark. One day, four or five of them are needed; the next, just one or two suffice.
Yet don’t ever think members of the bullpen are slacking. Truth is, they work just as hard as position players or starting pitchers. With games ending 8-10 hours after arriving at the ballpark, it truly is a full work day for all involved.
“Most people think we show up at 6 o’clock for a 7 o’clock game,” said Texas Rangers closer Joe Nathan. “This is a job. We’re here playing every day. This is not something where you can just step on the field and feel good all the time. You have to prepare yourself and be a professional.”
Veterans like Nathan, bullpen coach Andy Hawkins and bullpen catcher Josh Frazier set the tone for the Rangers. Hawkins and Frazier generally start their days earliest, between 8 and 9 in the morning for afternoon contests and noon for night games. Bullpen pitchers generally arrive soon after and start getting ready right away.
“You get in a routine, something that works and you stay with it,” said Hawkins, a starter for most of his 10-year career. “It seldom ever varies, especially once you’ve had some success with it.”
“You have to start with a routine,” said rookie right-hander Tanner Scheppers, whose routine starts with cardiovascular exercises and stretches to warm up followed by lifting weights, then some light throwing. “I’ve been blessed to be around Joe Nathan the last couple of years. He has his routine down to the minute.
“He’s had such an amazing career, and that’s something a young player wants to borrow. To be pitching so well at his age and for so long he’s doing something right, so it’s not a bad idea to pay a little bit of attention to what he’s doing.”
What is the Nathan routine?
“I get my workout in, get out there and stretch, nothing too crazy,” he said. “It’s just something you find that works, something that’s comfortable and go from there.
“It’s all about being comfortable. It’s all about finding consistency and a lot of that comes from how you prepare yourself.”
Nathan is honored that younger players watch his style much like he did in 1999 and 2000 with the San Francisco Giants. His mentors were starters Tim Worrell, Sean Estes, Russ Ortiz, Kurt Rueter, Jason Schmidt and veteran reliever Robb Nen.
“It just kind of gets passed down from time to time,” said the 38-year-old Nathan, a full-time reliever since 2003. “Of course being an older guy, having been around, hopefully there are some things to pass on down to the younger players. I had guys who were like that. If I can do that for someone else leading by example they will pick up on stuff as we go. That’s the best I’ve seen.”
While the pitchers are going through their initial routines, Hawkins and pitching coach Mike Maddux watch videos on that day’s hitters to help them prepare the game plan for that day’s pitchers. Then it’s out to the field for some early throwing and early batting practice and regular batting practice where much of the training, teaching and practicing occurs. Since pitchers don’t hit in most games, they continue loosening up and shagging flies hit by the batters.
After batting practice, the team returns to the clubhouse for a pre-game meal and any final workouts. Then it’s 30 minutes of hot tub-cold tub contrasts before taking a shower and putting on the game uniforms.
About 40 minutes before game-time, Frazier crouches down to warm up that day’s starting pitcher. After game time, it’s a waiting game.
“We basically sit and watch the game until they call us,” Frazier said. “We hope we don’t get a call early.”
What happens during the game generally dictates what happens in the bullpen. Though rarely used, the long relievers must be ready once the game starts.
“Someone might get hit by a line drive or whatever so they have go down there right away,” Hawkins said. “It’s a fluid thing. It always depends on the situation which determines who goes in there. Guys have their routine and it seldom ever varies.
“They pretty much know when they will be used so they’re stretching at various times, reading the game as it goes.”
“We’ll kind of watch how the game goes, try to see if different hitters have any patterns and see early how they approach each at-bat,” Scheppers said.
When the game gets to the middle innings, it’s time for pitchers like Scheppers and Nathan to get ready.
“I personally start getting ready in the fifth inning with a little band work, arm warm up and leg stretch,” Scheppers said. “From then on we have to be ready.”
Nathan enters the bullpen about the fifth inning after spending time watching hitters on television in the clubhouse or trainer’s room. That means he misses all of topics bullpen members have previously discussed.
“It depends on how many games we’ve played,” Scheppers said. “You name it, we talk about it from to pitching to certain guys to how someone’s family is doing.”
“A little of everything. It just depends,” Frazier said. “It’s just like having conversations with your buddies. Sometimes we’re like a group of kids and sometimes we’re like a group of adults.
“We have a lot of time to kill. It’s a long season. We try to make it fun.”
In a season that starts in February and ends as late as October, it can be a challenge keeping it fun.
“It’s grinding it out,” Frazier said. “There’s not as much of a physical toll as mental. It’s a long season and the days are long.”