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Of all the various coaches in Major League Baseball, perhaps the most curious is the bullpen catcher ~ a guy who clearly can catch pitches well, but who was not quite good enough overall to stick in the majors as a player. So how does a person get work as a bullpen catcher, anyway?
The most common route to become a bullpen catcher in baseball is through several years of playing catcher in the minor leagues. There, the player learns not only how to receive pitched balls well, but also nuances that pitchers appreciate and have confidence in.
Bullpen catchers usually need to possess various skills including being: very adept behind the plate, in terms of catching and even blocking balls; knowledgeable and personable enough to keep big league pitchers happy; and very accurate throwing baseballs.
Top-level professional pitchers very much dislike catchers over- or under-throwing to them during warmups. It breaks a pitcher’s rhythm and concentration. The best bullpen catchers are like the best umpires: you don’t even realize they are there, their work is so error-free and seamless.
Most MLB bullpen catchers either never made the jump from the minor leagues into the big leagues, or their experience with MLB teams was minimal. Still, all those years in the minors meant many innings behind the plate, which for many catchers resulted in a great knowledge about the hardest position in the game.
Regardless of the person’s skills as a player, these bullpen catcher hopefuls must earn respect from MLB pitchers who can tend to be quite particular ~ even finicky.
Major League Baseball clubs employ, as a coach, a bullpen catcher. Today, about half of MLB teams even have a couple of bullpen catchers. Their job is just as the title infers: catch baseballs thrown to them in the bullpen, or wherever pitchers warm up to enter game play; and accurately toss the ball back to the thrower.
The first person assigned to be a bullpen catcher on a full-time basis was Gary Waits, with the Cincinnati Reds, in 1970. He stayed on the Reds’ coaching staff through the 1978 season.
Baseball is a big copy-cat sport, meaning the practices of successful teams are bound to be duplicated by others. The Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s were one of the most successful squads in Major League history. Other teams took notice, studied what the Reds did differently, and in at least the bullpen catcher part, they copied.
Mark Cresse started with the Dodgers in 1974, after a lackluster 3-year minor-league career where he hit .177 and never passed A league-level ball. Soon he became one of the first full-time bullpen catchers in MLB history.
Cresse stayed with the Dodgers for 25 years, witnessing 5 Western Division titles and 2 World Series wins. He also played a big part in the future of the Dodgers by nurturing a kid catcher named Mike Piazza at the Mark Cresse Baseball Camp he started in 1974.
But how does a person become a bullpen catcher?
Actually, baseball has always had a bullpen catcher. Someone has to warm up pitchers before going into games, right? In fact, in Major League Baseball teams, until the 1980s clubs carried 3 catchers on their roster.
A couple split time catching in most of the games. The 3rd (or which of the 2nd and 3rd was available) ended up catching in the bullpen with little time playing in games.
Then as competition for talent became fierce with the emergence of player free agency and higher salaries, MLB clubs realized how valuable positions on their roster were. Only a set number of players can be on an active MLB roster at any time, and managers learned a way to maximize theirs.
Needed to become a bullpen catcher are the skills all baseball catchers have when accepting balls thrown from pitchers: sure, soft hands; ability to hold target (mitt) still; throwing accurately (mis-thrown balls can be problematic); knowledge of types of pitches and what they do mid-air; and a general sense to know what pitchers want or need.
That last part is an intangible skill not easily taught ~ if indeed it can be taught at all. Bullpen catchers are under the watch of the bullpen coach, and both report to the pitching coach who is responsible for the execution and success of the entire pitching staff.
So back there in the bullpen, or out in foul grounds in some stadiums, are not just a couple of guys playing catch. Professional baseball pitchers have a certain regiment they follow not only to be successful, but to avoid injury.
With so much at stake in baseball now, due to enormous salaries for players, teams not only want their “investments” protected (e.g. to avoid injury), they want to invest in whatever it takes to make those pitchers even better.
Bullpen catchers are not expected to be experts in framing pitches, or other skills employed by successful MLB catchers. Much of their job involves the mental element, to build confidence by a pitcher before games, or even being a pseudo-psychologist to keep pitchers loose and not uptight.
Who Usually Does the Bullpen Catching in Baseball
The position is predominantly filled by former minor league baseball catchers, a great majority of which never made big league rosters. Mark Cresse is an early example, having never passed the A level of minor league ball before joining the Dodgers as a coach.
In reality there are no rules governing who could be hired as a bullpen coach. Some pro bullpen catchers have come from the school ranks. However, MLB teams seem to prefer those with at least minor league catching experience.
Retired MLB catchers who shifted to full-time bullpen catcher duties include Eli Whiteside, a catcher with the San Francisco Giants through the 2012 season. After a few years failing to stick with other MLB teams, in the last months of 2015 he signed on to return to the Giants as a bullpen catcher.
When he took the BC position, Whiteside replaced longtime San Francisco bullpen catcher who was moved to coach 1st base in games. Whiteside also eventually was moved, and currently acts as a roving catching instructor for the club.
The pay for MLB bullpen catchers is at least $60,000 annually, and reportedly up to above six figures (e.g. $110,000 a year).
While it does not compare well with the 7-figure salaries of MLB catchers, the pay is decent by American average wage standards ~ and the role gets you in uniform and on the field of big stadiums. For some, the glamor is worth the sacrifice.
Sure, it’s very difficult to become a major league ballplayer. In reality you need once-in-a-lifetime talent, years of developing skills, and at least a little luck. Before making Big League clubs, players drop out as their skills decline, due to injury, self-inflicted damage, or life circumstances like raising a family.
A bullpen catcher, on the other hand, develops above-average skills in stopping a thrown baseball with a catcher’s mitt, and can step right in as a coach. Right?
Not quite. In fact, the “develops” process noted above isn’t some brief summer camp in catching. Bullpen catchers at the highest levels of baseball have very, very developed skills, and significant knowledge.
There are rarely tryouts to fill bullpen catchers. They quite often need to be known by key team staffers already.
A bullpen catcher is part of a baseball team’s staff of coaches, trainers, and consultants. The duty is usually assigned to a former professional baseball player, who is asked not to play in games but be at the contests to catch balls thrown by pitchers warming up prior to game entry.
This means starting pitchers before games, relief pitchers mid-games, and any pitcher in between games to keep them in shape and their pitches sharp.
Get the gig, and there’s a decent chance you might stay long. As stated above, Cresse did the duties for the Dodgers for many years, and was a trusted adviser to manager Tommy Lasorda. Marcus Hanel was the bullpen catcher for the Milwaukee Brewers for 2 decades.
Question: Why would a team need 2 bullpen catchers?
Answer: Because they somehow saw a value in it. Intangibles, knowledge in other areas like opposition research, or maybe a BC is a particular pitcher’s personal catcher. (Remember what is noted above, pitchers get paid a lot of money, and teams will do anything to keep them happy). A drawback of multiple bullpen catchers is that it counts against rules on how many coaches MLB teams can have in uniform at games, which is 8 total including the manager.
Q.: Can bullpen catchers be entered into a real game in an emergency?
A.: No, only people listed on the team’s active roster are allowed to enter games. Bullpen coaches officially are listed as coaches.
Q.: Why were the 1970s Reds so good?
A.: It wasn’t just because of having the 1st bullpen catcher. Keen scouts (who discovered Pete Rose), deft drafting of amateur players (like Johnny Bench in 1965), some luck, and superb general management (trading for Joe Morgan and George Foster, among others), all contributed to the team’s success. In the 1970s, the Reds won 2 World Series titles, played in the World Series 4 times, and won the National League West Division 6 times.
Q.: Was the Mark Cresse School of Baseball successful?
A.: And then some. The list of former students who progressed into the major leagues includes Piazza, a MLB Hall of Famer, as well as current MLB stars Freddie Freeman and Gerrit Cole, and past stars like Jeff Kent, Michael Young, and J.T. Snow.