Bullpen catchers are the men in a baseball game who have the responsibility of warming up relief pitchers in the bullpen. Most of these catchers are anonymous to baseball fans and the sports media, never get a baseball card made of them (even when the mascot sometimes does!), yet they impact the overall experience at a baseball game in ways most people do not recognize. While their primary duty is to warm up relief pitchers during a game, there are many other things bullpen catchers do to while serving in what some consider to be a “thankless” role for the team. Here are just a few things they do to contribute:
- Many teams carry only two catchers, with another fielder being the “emergency” catcher. Ideally the manager of the team wants to have all of his reserve catchers ready to be used in case of pinch hitting, pinch running (although there are VERY few catchers who are used as pinch runners!), injuries, or simply helping the pitching coach evaluate a pitcher’s performance. The bullpen catcher frees up the manager to keep all of his catchers available to be used during a game by replacing the need for one of the reserve catchers to be in the bullpen.
- Occasionally the bullpen catcher will be called into duty before a game to catch the Opening Pitch by the honored person. Often, he is called to escort and warm up that person to make sure that he or she makes a decent attempt at throwing in front of the crowd.
- During pre-game batting practice the bullpen catcher will share the load with the other catchers of warming up pitchers who need to throw on their respective “off days.” Every pitching coach gives his pitchers a specific throwing schedule and routine. It is in these practice sessions that pitchers work on their mechanics and fine tune their deliveries. Other exercises include the “Towel Drills”, “Flat Tosses”, “Long Tosses”, and other exercises specific to pitchers.
- After working with the pitchers, many bullpen catchers are then asked to throw the remaining part of batting practice or work with the hitters on “Flip Toss” or other hitting drills.
- A bullpen catcher, if he has caught for many years, also can be a de-facto “psychologist” in the bullpen. Relief pitchers have the stereotype of being crazy, mentally unbalanced, etc. While this is not necessarily a true stereotype – although I have met my share of a few wild men in the bullpen (!) – the ability for a pitcher to trust his bullpen catcher’s feedback is an important part of a pitcher being ready to enter a game. Barry Zito and Huston Street, in an August 2006 article by an MLB.com writer, are cited as trusting the experience of their bullpen catcher in order to help them get ready (http://oakland.athletics.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20060817&content_id=1615561&vkey=news_oak&fext=.jsp&c_id=oak)
- In between innings, if the bullpen is located along the foul lines of the field, will often warm up one of the outfielders. Two balls are carried by the outfielders in between innings, and one is shared between two of the outfielders to stay loose. The other is tossed between the left fielder (or right fielder depending on which side the bullpen is located) and the bullpen catcher to help the outfielder stay loose.
- If a bullpen is located along the foul lines, and one of the other catchers is catching a particular pitcher, the bullpen catcher will stand behind the pitcher to protect him in case of a hard line drive hit toward the bullpen.
A bullpen catcher may also serve in multiple roles off the field:
- Give post-game lessons for kids when the other players are in the clubhouse.
- Appear in uniform for various local charity events or events with emphasis for kids.
- Help the team with its marketing efforts, especially in the lower levels of the minor leagues.
- Work with the pitching coach to determine ways to help pitchers improve.
- Help set up the locker room before opening day. Yes, this actually does happen!
- Help the general manager with on-field and off-field promotions
In all, the bullpen catcher does a tremendous amount of unrecognized work. Furthermore, he sometimes ends up catching (and returning) more pitches and warm-up throws (between pre-game practice and in the bullpen) than the starting catcher does! If you want to make a player’s day, find out who your team’s bullpen catcher is, send him an autograph request, and chances are you will get one back faster than any other request. And if you happen to meet your team’s bullpen catcher in July, August, or September please remember that it may take him a few extra seconds to raise his arm to shake your hand. All those throws do take a toll!