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How to Build a MLB-Worthy Bullpen as Told by a MLB Pitcher

At its barest, a Major League Baseball team’s bullpen is just an assemblage of misfit toys; seven guys who couldn’t hack it as starting pitchers for one reason or another. However, with just the right mix, those misfits can breed success. The bullpen is a place where synergy reigns supreme. Where the unit as a whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve spent the better part of eight years in the misfit toy box that is a Major League bullpen. A ‘pen typically features seven guys, some very similar to each other and some very unique. Here’s my blueprint for putting together a winning relief corp.

Closer and Set-Up

Let’s start at the end. Any team worth its salt knows who is pitching the final innings. I’m going to group the closer and the set-up guy together because they should be a lot more similar than you’d think. Think of the set-up guy as the closer’s apprentice. Not Donald Trump’s Apprentice, but more along the lines of Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi’s relationship.

These guys can be either right or left-handed because they should dominate regardless of who is in the batter’s box. Both of these guys need some ego too. Ego usually isn’t good for a team atmosphere, but this is the exception to the rule. I need these guys acting like they’re the baddest mofos on the damn planet. It doesn’t matter whether they exude that outwardly as long as that’s what they’re thinking on the inside. On the inside, they’re freaking Brad Pitt.

Your closer and set-up man should be capable of logging 65-75 games in a season and should primarily pitch (say 90-95% of the time) when you have a slim lead or the game is tied. Very occasionally should these guys be required to pitch multiple innings. Closing out games involves a lot of adrenaline and focus. Asking someone to pitch, sit down, and then ramp it back up usually is easier said than done. For the same reason, closers and set-up guys shouldn’t deal with a lot of “dry humps.” A dry hump is when a reliever warms up in the bullpen, but doesn’t get called into the game. Dry humps eventually lead to dead relievers. So, if a closer/set-up guy warms up, they should almost always get in to the game.

Right-handed/Left-handed High Leverage Guys

Imagine if you were ambidextrous. Not “you can write left-handed, but play golf right-handed” ambidextrous, but “you can write left-handed while writing right-handed at the same time” ambidextrous! When combined, your righty high leverage guy and lefty high leverage guy should equal “super ambidextrous you”: two arms, equal ability, only on different sides of your body. Unfortunately, in baseball only one of those arms can pitch at a time. You must mix and match these guys accordingly to create the most synergy possible. Often, these two pitchers will come in before or after one another.

I’m going to need my righty to be good to great against opposing righties and average at worst against opposing lefties. My lefty is a bit of a different animal, though. This is where you’d find a LOOGY, or a “Lefty One Out Guy.” At worst, I’ve got a LOOGY in this spot. This lefty just straight murders opposing lefties, wipes them off the face of the damn planet, and hopefully can be simply below average against opposing righties. His main job is to come in and face a tough lefty late in the game when you’re in a tight spot.

Both of these gents should primarily pitch either when there is a slim lead or the game is tied. Approximately 30-40% of their outings will come while your team is behind by a run or two. The right-hander should be able to pitch multiple innings if need be. The lefty, due to his platoon splits, probably isn’t going to see many multiple inning appearances. Over the course of the season, the righty high leverage reliever should see roughly 60 games, while the lefty might see 60 appearances, but might also see 80 appearances. It would all depend on how many one-to-two batter appearances he racks up. Both of these guys would be subject to more dry humping than your closer and set-up guy. If you’re dealing with a straight LOOGY, though, he’s probably going through a plethora of baseball pants due to dry humping. No biggie, they’re all free in “the show.”

Right-handed/Left-handed Middle Relief Guys

If a bullpen was a high school, your middle relief guys would be the janitors. No one sees them really, but if they don’t do their work, the whole place looks and smells like shit. Unlike your back-end closers and set-up guys, these chaps can have zero ego. They should love pitching in the filth that is a 12-4 game in the fifth inning.

It would be ideal to have a righty and a lefty for middle relief. That way they can platoon off of each other similarly to the high leverage righty and lefty–except the middle guys aren’t quite as good. Your middle relievers aren’t great at anything, but are average at everything. They’re the “jack of all trades, master of none”-type pitchers.

Do they throw multiple innings? Damn straight they do. Do they have a lot of dry humps? Probably the most in the world. Do they sometimes warm up in the third inning when the starter is shitting the bed, but end up pitching the tenth because your closer ended up shitting the bed too? Believe it, brother! These guys have to be able to wear it. They should have the capability of facing two batters tonight and pitching two innings tomorrow. Middle relief is a thankless job, but someone’s gotta do it. The biggest asset for a middle reliever is durability. This is where you find guys with “rubber arms.” They keep the entire ‘pen together thanks to their ability to not fall apart themselves.

The Long Guy

The seventh man in a bullpen is usually known as “the long guy.” It’s a real creative name for a reliever who can pitch for a “longer” period of time in the game. Most teams see a long man as just a warm body to soak up all the innings that no one else wants to throw. A good long man, however, can be an absolute weapon.

When I spoke of the prior relievers throwing multiple innings in an appearance, I was mostly referring to two-inning stints. The long man should primarily pitch multiple innings at a time, with the capability of throwing up to four innings if need be. If one of the other relievers threw four innings at once, you’d probably just take them straight to the reliever glue factory after the game.

Now a long man doesn’t usually pitch in high leverage situations, but there are plenty of times he should throw other than the times when a starter is knocked out early or when it’s the thirteenth inning and he’s the only guy left to pitch. A long guy should also be capable of pitching the eighth and ninth innings with his team up by five or more runs. Since he’ll make up with innings what he lacks in appearances, a long guy should very rarely be subject to dry humps. Give me a long guy who can handle 45-50 games a year and 70-plus innings for my bullpen.

They come in different shapes and different sizes, but somehow if you can find those 7 puzzle pieces, they’ll all fit together to create a Major League Baseball team’s bullpen.

Who would be in your ideal bullpen? Let us know in the comments below!

Image: Flickr/Dirk Hansen

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