Courtesy of USA Baseball Sport Development
While every kid who dons a uniform in their local Babe Ruth League dreams of becoming a Big Leaguer, few truly understand what it means to be a professional. With that in mind, we’d like to offer a glimpse into a day in the life of a professional baseball player, to help you understand how much work truly goes in to getting to – and staying at – the highest levels of the game.
Whether it be a starting pitcher on a regimented five-day routine, or a reliever coming out of the bullpen who doesn’t have the luxury of knowing when he is throwing, every guy on the pitching staff will find – from experience and feel – what works best for them individually while staying within our organizational philosophies and expectations on a daily basis.
For a normal game at home, here’s what a day in the life might look like for the professional pitcher:
2:30 PM: EARLY WORK
One by one, the pitchers will make their way out to the bullpen with their glove on their one hand, but no ball in the other. Each will get on the mound to go through a drill package of dry work (meaning without a ball actually thrown), where their entire focus is placed on their delivery. A pitcher’s ability to repeat his delivery is a vital aspect necessary to perform in a game, so when they take the ball out of their throwing hand, they can put an emphasis on what their body is doing, understanding what they feel like when everything is in sync. Everything from leg lift to stride length to glove/hand separation can be stressed, all depending on which area a given pitcher needs to clean up the most.
3:00 PM: STRETCH/RUN/THROW/FLAT GROUND
On the surface, this “warm-up” part of our pitchers’ day may seem like just a tiny blip on the radar. But in reality, this is one of the most important parts of the professional baseball pitcher’s day. The season is ridiculously long. For all involved, it is incredibly taxing physically, and possibly even more so, mentally. Players will never feel as good as they do on the very first day of Spring Training, when their bodies are fresh, and their minds sharp. As the year gets going, there’s always something that brings players down from that healthy 100% they feel at the start of the season. With all that in mind, the players go through what they call an active warm-up, designed to not only loosen up and prepare the body for the day, but also to build an endurance that will keep them strong and mobile for 140-plus games.
A staple to the pitchers’ days is the throwing program. But this is not just a game of catch to warm up; nor is it just throwing the ball around to get loose. Rather, it is a drill that will translate every single day on the field. The ability to play catch is the single most important fundamental skill of the entire sport, and it is the foundation for the pitchers to be successful. So, when they go through the throwing program every day, they take pride in how they go about it. Some days, some guys with stretch their arms out and long toss at greater distances for longer periods of time, while others might keep it more abbreviated with shorter times or distances based on how they are feeling that day.
The pitchers end their throwing program each day with flat ground work. Partnered up, at 60 feet away, one guy becomes the catcher in a squatted stance, with the other throwing from his game delivery, both from the stretch and the windup. This is literally pitching without the mound. With an effort level at 60-70% of maximum effort, they can place their focus on things like feel of delivery, balance, body control, release point, command, and spin. Since it’s not on a mound, working on a flat ground is less taxing on the arm, which allows for this drill to be done just about every day for steady development throughout the course of the season. Flat grounds can be whatever a coach and pitcher want them to be from a focus standpoint, so with a little time and thought, each pitcher can create their own individualized routine.
3:30 PM: TEAM PFP
The moment a pitcher releases a pitch, they are no longer a pitcher, but rather the team’s fifth infielder. There is far more to the position than just throwing the ball off the mound, and the pitchers’ fielding practice (PFP) is their opportunity during the day to work on the non-pitching aspects of the position. While, yes, that is by far the most important and the one that will need the most work, the other parts of the game that pitchers should be expected to master will enable them to develop into a complete pitcher. That means being able to field their position, against comebackers off the bat, as well as bunts out in front of the plate. That means being in the right place at the right time; backing up bases on base hits, or covering first on groundouts. That also means controlling the running game, mixing holds and looks from the set, in addition to developing a quick pickoff move. A pitcher who can get outs as a fielder is just as valuable to help his team in a win as one who can’t is a liability that hurts his team in a loss.
3:40 PM: TEAM FUNDAMENTAL
A team’s overall success largely depends on how well they execute the basic fundamentals of the game. Even though the eight position players that make up the defense in the field will handle the majority of balls in play, there is a significant role for pitchers as defenders as well. Pitchers give up hits. Pitchers give up extra base hits. So, when position players are working to perfect the cutoff and relay fundamental, pitchers are expected to perfect their backup position. Just being in that correct spot may save a free 90 feet for the opposition… that may save a run… that may save the game. Different situations call for different bunt defenses, and if a pitcher can play his part in taking the free out whenever it’s given, that’s one less they have to really work for when on the mound. In addition, just like a bunt is a free out to be had, a rundown can be viewed in the same light, and there will be times when a pitcher has to get involved in the play. Teaching and practicing each one of these fundamentals to pitchers is a necessity if we are to expect them to execute them successfully.
4:00 PM: BULLPEN/SHAG
Since the pitcher’s mound is where they will be when the lights are on, obviously there must be significant time dedicated to working off it to best prepare them for game time. Every pitcher is different, so their routines off the mound should reflect their own individuality. Starting pitchers can have a regular routine in between starts, since they know what the schedule is as to when they will pitch. Relievers are a different animal. Because of their unknown status, they can’t get into that same consistent routine as starters, they still need to find a way to get on the mound to get their work in. Sometimes that might mean throwing five pitches. Other times they may need 20.
The starting pitchers try to throw a regular side session in the bullpen usually just once in between outings. This is their “game” when they are not in the game, thrown with an 85-90% intensity and effort. Many times, these bullpens are scripted, 20-30 pitches total with sequences to use all of the pitchers in the pitcher’s repertoire, both from the stretch and the windup. Sometimes if a pitcher is struggling with one particular pitch or location, that can be a focus for that particular side session, essentially creating a new script. Based on how they are throwing, and what they need to improve on, a bullpen session can stress different things at different times.
A light side session, also referred to as a touch and feel, can be done once or twice in between game outings, as the intensity and effort level are lighter than a regular side, as many pitchers use these merely to get a feel for the mound. Scripted or not, a light side might last only 10-20 pitches. Sometimes they will be thrown with the catcher set up in front of plate to put an emphasis on being down. With breaking balls, it offers an actual target to throw that chase ball in the dirt that every pitcher hopes to lure a swing out of a hitter. For many pitchers, these touch and feels are the equivalent to a hitter working on a tee, just to get their delivery where it needs to be for them.
With just one or two pitchers working off the mound at a time, the rest of the staff will find themselves roaming the outfield, reliving their glory days of doing more than just pitching as they shag balls off the bat during BP.
4:30 PM: STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING/SHAG
Depending on the role, and depending on the day, pitchers will go through various strength and conditioning elements geared towards building or maintaining their endurance throughout the course of the long season. That might take the form of a lift one day, running the next, and agility drills the day after. Additionally, with the same idea of staying healthy for 140 games, they will also do a prehab routine of sorts with exercises designed specifically to build the small muscles of the arm and shoulder that are needed to perform at a high level.
7:05 PM: GAME TIME
When the first pitch rolls around and the lights are on, for pitchers, the game is all about trust. A trust in the work that started some five-plus hours before the game even started; a trust in the days, months, and years spent honing their craft to be able to play at some of the game’s highest levels and get opposing hitters out. The game is a time to just go out, and play with the confidence built in everything leading up to 7:05. The game is a time to go out and compete against another team, another player, knowing full well that our preparation has put us in the position to be successful when we set foot in the batter’s box, regardless of the situation or score. The game is their reward for all the work they’ve put in to get to where they are that night.
Then, after the game, it’s rinse, rest, and repeat – for 139 more days, all spring and summer long.