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A bullpen in baseball is one of the most important units in sports. Its origin and meaning have been a debate for decades now, but we can all agree on what it is – the back end of a pitching staff. Let’s go through the term ‘bullpen’ and discuss what it is and why it’s important in baseball.
What is the Bullpen & What does it Mean?
The bullpen is often referred to as the entire make of relief pitchers for a baseball club. Typically, there are five starting pitchers on an MLB roster – sometimes a few more. The rest of the pitchers are ‘relief pitchers’, meaning they come into the game whenever the starter needs to be taken out.
The bullpen is the relief pitcher unit, all of them. In more literal terms, the bullpen is the area of the baseball field in which relief pitchers warm up. That’s why the relief pitchers, as one group, are called the bullpen – because that’s where they collectively watch the game from and warm up from as well.
The reason bullpens are so important is because they often win or lose games. If a team has a bad bullpen, the manager might elect to leave his starter on the mound longer. This can result in injuries and fatigue for the starting pitchers.
If a team has a good bullpen then a manager can take his starter out with a lead, and feel confident the relief pitchers will close the game out. Bullpens are often important in the playoffs, as cold weather and pitching becomes a factor in games.
How Many Pitchers are in a Bullpen?
With five starting pitchers as the norm in baseball, a team can have anywhere from seven to eight relief pitchers in the bullpen. There are various roles in the bullpen, and not just a random mixture of relief pitchers piled into one area of the field.
Most teams have a good mix of right-handed and left-handed pitchers in their bullpen. There are also long relief pitchers, players that can go multiple innings should the starting pitcher get off to a rough start or be injured early in a game.
The setup pitcher typically comes into the game around the seventh or eighth inning if the team has a lead or a tie. The role of the setup pitcher is to get the game into the hands of the closer, the ‘caboose’ of the bullpen.
The closer is the most important role of the bullpen, coming into the game in which the opponent can mathematically tie or win the game. Because three outs ends an inning in baseball, closers typically come into the ninth inning of a game when a team has a three to four run lead.
If the closer successfully wins the game then he earns a save. If the closer gives up the lead with a tie or a game losing pitch, then the closer earns a blown save. Closers are measured on their save-to-blown save ratio.
Theories About the Origin of the “Bullpen”
The origin of the term ‘bullpen’ is heavily debated to this day, unclear as to where it actually derived from. There are various theories as to where the word came from, however.
The Herded Fans in 1800s
Back in the 1800s fans could get very cheap tickets to a game by standing in foul territory that was blocked off with a rope. Fans were said to resemble cattle in a pen, so when the area for pitchers to warm up took over that spot the name ‘bullpen’ stuck.
The Bull Durham Tobacco Theory
This somewhat ties into the herded fans theory, as pitchers would typically warm up behind a giant Bull Durham Tobacco sign on the outfield fence. The advertisement was consistent in many of the baseball parks, so ‘Bull’ from Durham and ‘pen’ from the herd combined to stick for some.
The Casey Stengel Theory
This is a little bit more crass, and straight to the point. Former outfielder and manager Casey Stengel said that pitchers in the bullpen would just shoot bull****. Nothing more or less.
The Metaphor Between Pitchers and Bulls
Deep thinking is required for this theory, but it’s still possible the term bullpen actually comes from the rodeo. In the rodeo, cowboys are on top of the bull inside a small pen before being released. Some believe the bull is a metaphor for the opposing team ready to knock out the cowboy (starting pitcher) out of the game.
The Jon Miller Theory
Jon Miller is a famous baseball broadcaster mostly associated with the San Francisco Giants and a few years of Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN. Miller claims that there was an actual pen full of bulls in left field where the New York Giants played in the 1800s.
The Giants were in New York back then, and when playing home games at the Polo Grounds the pitchers would apparently warm up right next to the bulls’ pen. Don’t confuse it with the Jose Mesa Theory, in which he claims the bullpen suggests that relievers (like bulls) sit in a holding pen before being sent off to slaughter.