Coppola: Bullpens, Arms & Adjustments

By William Coppola

In the movie Forest Gump, one of the most famous lines was: “Life is like a box of chocolates, you don’t know what your gonna get.” If we apply that thought to baseball we can easily replace the word “Life” with bullpens. The whole experiment of pitch counts and it’s guarantee to save arms is still evolving. One of the negatives we are seeing, is a great deal of overused bullpens.

The average number of pitches thrown per game is rising. Today each team throws an average of 146 pitches per game, up about 11 pitches per game from 20 years ago. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you think about the fact that starters are frequently taken out after only 88 pitches and are given a magic number of 100 as their limit, the rest falls on those arms in the bullpen.

Who’s arms are being saved here? Try doing this, get your best friend to have a catch with you in the backyard for three days in a row. Throw as hard as you can 15 times after your warm ups, then have your arm rubbed down and stretched. Then put some ice on it. Then every three days repeat the process (weather permitting). Do all of this for six months and tell me how your arm feels. I’ll wager if you are right handed you will be eating left handed.

I am not blaming anyone with misusing all these talented pitchers. Baseball teams from player development to the big leagues have done an amazing job of rethinking the way pitching is done today. It has evolved into a pitch count game because of the way hitters now approach the game. There is a different mindset with batters looking at more pitches. That makes for more walks and strikeouts which increases pitch counts therefore there are more pitches being thrown in games.

As frustrating as it is for teams with the arms that are being taxed to the limit, there is an up side in that there is more hitting. More home runs, more men on base with power hitters coming to bat. More times than not, a 4 run lead in the 8th inning is not a sure thing win anymore. The game is always evolving and the picture is becoming clearer now that it has become a hitters game. Sure there are and always will be great pitchers who can dominate any good hitting team but overall the hitters have figured out how to dominate today.

Eventually pitchers will figure out how to make it harder on hitters again, it is how this game works. Pitchers and hitters have been adjusting to each other pitch to pitch, at bat to at bat, game to game since Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Elihu Phinney’s cow pasture in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. We will see the pendulum swing back to the pitchers one day. Teams will try new things.

Just look at what the Tampa Bay Rays are trying now, starting the game with a bullpen guy for three innings and using 2 more for three innings each. Very imaginative on their part. I like the fact that they are trying something different for the right reason. That being, they don’t have a decent fifth starter.

The crazy thing here with trying to make changes to the game is that when it starts to work for one team all the others will follow suit. So ironically when you come up with a plan that helps your pitchers you eventually will see it hurt your own hitters as the other teams go in the same direction.

Are you confused yet? I know I am and I just wrote all of this. Baseball will always be the best game on the planet. It will give us thrills and happiness and then frustration and anger and just like that box of chocolates, “you don’t know what your gonna get.”

THE WRITER WILLIAM COPPOLA IS A FORMER PLAYER, COACH, UMPIRE AND NOW A PART TIME SCOUT
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