The setting is a fall season game—no standings, no playoffs—between 15U teams. It’s the 4thinning. The score is 3-1. The team ahead is hitting. There’s a runner on third; the number three hitter is at-bat. He puts down a suicide squeeze. Later in the game the two coaches discuss the strategy. The coach that called the squeeze insists he has to get his team ready for eventual tournament play. The opposing coach notes to that point the other team had produced two hits, both by the leadoff hitter, and that perhaps given the insignificance of the game, having the boy hit away is the better strategy. The other coach responds by saying he teaches his players to win.
The target audience of this article is intended to be youth baseball coaches, the parents of youth baseball players, and the youth baseball players themselves. For the purpose of the article youth baseball is defined as leagues and teams serving ages 8-15. Leagues designed for those younger than age eight tend to use modified rules. Leagues for players older than age 15 should prioritize winning.
Development is characterized by providing individual players with the opportunity to learn and master the skills of the game. Inherent in this opportunity is the concept of trial and error. Coaches should create in-game opportunity for players to apply the skills sets they are being taught, assess the outcome of their execution of these skills sets—both in terms of failure and success, and receive immediate follow-up opportunities within the context of the game to apply what they have learned from experience.
Trial and error is the one concept that has been strategically extracted from almost all aspects of the lives of children, a sincere but misguided attempt by adults to spare them the disappointment that accompanies failure. However, trial and error is the most effective means to develop the types of skill sets—most based on range of motion and a sequence of physical movements—that are required for success in sports. Trial and error is the basis for human adaptation.
In terms of physical movement, the brain requires repetition to develop the degree of muscle memory that promotes the stimulation to response proximity athletes need to excel at hitting, throwing, fielding, and base-running, and in addition to construct a data bank for the purpose of subconscious recall.
The objective of this article is to encourage coaches to prioritize development by balancing the desire to win with the needs of individual players and to provide strategies for doing so.
There are four specific areas where coaches can concentrate their efforts: (1) in-game at-bats, (2) stealing bases, (3) implementing relays and cutoffs, and (4) individual players and playing time
Coaches can encourage the development of hitting skills by limiting their use of the take sign to the last inning or two of a game, and even then only if the situation dictates it, for example it is a one-run game and the strategy improves the odds of winning. After all, winning and player development are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
The first pitch
Leaving the hitters free to swing at the first pitch of an at-bat—something that coaches intent on winning generally oppose—serves two purposes. Pitchers are routinely coached to throw first pitch strikes which increases the probability the hitter will receive a pitch that is hittable. The second is that swings early in the at-bat, assuming swing and miss or pitches fouled-off, provide real-time feedback that allows the hitter to adjust for timing and swing path, both of which increase potential for more solid contact on ensuing swings. Mark Teixiera early in the 2012 season attributed his lack of offensive production to taking too many pitches within any one at-bat, and as a result of denying himself the opportunity to make adjustments frequently produced weak ground balls and pop-ups due to tentative swings at less than optimal pitches.
The 3-0 pitch
Most coaches automatically have a hitter take the 3-0 pitch. This too can be limited to a late inning approach. Permitting a hitter the leeway to swing at the 3-0 pitch allows him to predict for location and to ready himself more aggressively in anticipation. Assuming that he has a pitch of preference, one that is more than likely suitable to his swing path, the potential for successful contact is increased. If the result is a swing and miss or a foul ball, at the very least the process of trial and error is initiated in terms of within at-bat adjustments. Even a worst-case outcome such as weak contact back at the pitcher provides valuable feedback for the next at-bat.
Reserve the sacrifice bunt for later innings, and avoid the temptation to have less accomplished hitters bunt as a routine—something that coaches that prioritize winning tend to do often, especially with runners on base. A successful bunt may move runners to scoring position, but when done routinely, especially with less accomplished hitters, those hitters are denied the opportunity to engage in the trial and error process under the most intense conditions, and therefore the opportunity to improve and develop their hitting skills.
The suicide squeeze, however, given the momentary status and feeling of accomplishment when executed successfully, is a different story. It should be implemented whenever the situation calls for it.
Stealing a base requires more than that ability to run fast. A base runner must learn to read the physical cues of the pitcher, distinguish between the delivery to the plate and a pick-off attempt, master the cross-step and jump, predict pitches in terms of the game situation, batter and count, and assess the quickness, arm strength, and accuracy of the catcher. His development is this area will be delayed if he must rely on a coach’s signal to attempt to steal. Simply, he’ll have fewer chances to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Early in the process and on 90’ bases the base runner has the advantage: running is a less complex act than executing an effective pickoff. However, as pitchers mature and become more experienced they improve their technique for holding runners. Base runners become overly cautious. They shorten leads and hesitate in terms of getting a jump. Only by analyzing successful events versus those that fail—trial and error—can the runner build a skills set that effectively assesses through observation the strengths and tendencies of the pitcher and catcher. The coach that understands this process has the patience to tolerate mistakes and poor judgment, both of which will decrease in incidence if the player is allowed to go through the necessary process. Early in the game allow the runners to go at will; take control later in games in which outcome may be decided by a single play.
Implementing the relay and cut-off
Understandably, coaches want the ball in the hand of their most accomplished defensive players when the ball gets to the outfield and runners are in motion—generally the shortstop or second baseman.
However, for outfielders to develop their skills and fulfill the responsibility of their position they must learn to throw directly to bases, especially to second. The play to second base in response to the batter-runner extending a hit from a single to a double is not designed to be a relay play. The time it takes to exchange the ball diminishes the odds of having a play on the runner. Professional shortstops and second basemen rarely if ever handle the ball as a relay on these plays. The outfielder makes a direct throw to the base.
In youth ball—observe any pre-game warm-up—coaches almost to a man insist that outfielders “hit the cut-off man” when throwing into second. As a result outfielders are conditioned to approach batted balls less aggressively, to have no reason to read the progress of the batter-runner, and to deliver throws of less than optimal velocity that do not take advantage of the potential of their arms. Further, they are denied the opportunity to practice and perfect strong, accurate, and one-hop throws to the bag or the plate.
During pre-game warm-up and in practice, coaches must insist that outfielders when fielding batted balls in front or catching fly balls that are centered throw directly to the bases at second and third and to home plate. The cut-off man should be kept out of the line of the throw. The cut-off men—first and third—can be implemented later in the process to reinforce an effective line of sight and encourage keeping the throw down—which if the coach insists on one-hop throws shouldn’t be an issue.
At the highest levels of the game, infielders learn by repetition when to insinuate themselves into the relay play and whether or not cutting the ball is under the conditions the better play. It’s not automatic. (See the article: Baseball and defense–the cutoff and the relay.)
Individual players and playing time
Teams and coaches that seek the best environment for players tend to belong to travel leagues and participate in multiple tournaments. Doing so translates into significant expense. To meet the budget, organizations charge player fees that can exceed $3000 or more—usually for multiple seasons (spring, summer, fall), and carry a roster with more players than for whom there is beneficial playing time.
To determine in practical terms the playing time available, multiply the number of games by the number of available outs. Assume half the games are home, half are away. A schedule of 24 games in addition to three tournaments, another 12 games, translates to 756 outs—21 a game (7 innings). Barring unforeseen circumstances—the mercy rule, rain, cancellations, etc.—756 is the minimum number of at-bats available for the season. Assuming a roster of 13—and that playing time is fairly equitable—each player could be guaranteed at least 58 at-bats. Of course, hits, walks, errors, extra-innings, and runs scored will add considerably to this number. Add five additional players to the roster and that guaranteed number drops by more than 25%.
Coaches that prioritize development can add to the number of guaranteed outs by whenever possible opting to be the visiting team. Winning or losing, the at-bats in the last inning are guaranteed.
Further, to provide opportunity for all players to develop defensive skills at the position they play, or at least consider their position of preference, coaches must be willing to move or sit more accomplished players, acknowledging that by doing so the probability of winning may decrease. The alternative is to prioritize winning and keep the better players at their position throughout the game. The less accomplished players are then rotated among two or three less demanding positions. The opportunity for them to develop their skills through in-game experience is not a priority.
Coaches that prioritize winning make choices that keep better players and their parents happy—and more likely to continue with the program. Roster members not so highly valued fill roles, including balancing the budget, and are viewed as replaceable.
Coaches that prioritize development will carry a smaller roster, limit the number of players on that roster that aspire to any one particular position, collect data with regards to playing time, use that data in a way that is transparent, and develop player skill sets in a way that promotes position by position flexibility.
On a final note, baseball is a game of repetition—trial and error. For the purpose of development, a team should play no less than three games a week, all offensive players should receive 10-12 at bats per week, and pitchers should start at least one game in a seven day period, and depending upon innings and pitches thrown, appear in relief in one additional game.
Time to prioritize winning
Players that have developed their skills to the point they are still playing at the Varsity level and beyond will adjust quickly to the priority of winning. It’s a simple mindset supported by specific strategies that coaches communicate very well. As coaches they understand that winning is synonymous with opportunity: It attracts collegiate coaches and athletic scholarships, professional scouts and possible inclusion in the amateur draft, and if everything falls in place, the chance to enjoy a singular career and earn a comfortable living.
However, until the individual youth player rises to that level of play, the priority should always start with development. And while the concept of winning is inherent in the concept of competition, at the development level it should be a program running in the background.
As a coach, simply resist the temptation to use players as chess pieces. Instead, implement strategies that allow the players to play freely and as they envision themselves doing. No youth baseball player closes his eyes at night and dreams of his coach giving him the take sign.