I recently completed my first year as a youth baseball manager while my 9-year old son completed his fifth year of PONY league baseball. It was a fun year, much better than I expected.
The dynamic I found most interesting was the arms race between pitcher and hitter. It started at a very low level with most hitters striking out when pitchers actually managed to throw a few strikes. More often, hitters walked. But the hitters and pitchers kept leapfrogging over each other to get better . . .
Here’s how it went:
The PONY league is organized by age. Ages 5-6 play in the Shetland division, 7-8 in Pinto, and 9-10 in Mustang. Local PONY leagues have some leeway in how they structure rules for each division. I believe our rules are typical:
- Shetland is a gentle introduction with no score kept, no strikes, and not even any outs (though players try for outs anyway).
- Pinto is closer to real baseball, with several major differences: No leads. No steals. Coaches pitch. 6 pitches per batter maximum. And there are some mercy rules. The most important mercy rule was 9 batters maximum per inning.
- Mustang is even closer to real baseball. Kids pitch. Steals are permitted. But players cannot lead or steal until the ball crosses the plate. A similar 9-batter mercy rule kicks in when a team is 10 or more runs ahead. Pitchers typically don’t pitch more than 2 innings each per game. To protect pitcher arms, no pitcher can pitch more than 5 innings in a two-game weekend.
Being the type of guy who loves to analyze data, I enjoy trying to figure out what makes one team better than another. What is the most important “driver” for winning games at different age levels?
There are no wins in Shetland so I’ll skip to what I learned about Pinto, which had very different drivers than Mustang.
In Pinto, coaches try to make it as easy as possible for players to hit the ball. While many players new to baseball struggle to get hits early in the season, most players rarely strike out by the end of the season. There were typically only 3 or 4 strikeouts per team per game by the last few games of the season.
In our league, by season’s end the average Pinto half inning has 7.5 batters, 3 runs scored, and 1/2 a strikeout. This means 49 (or 42) balls put in play for each team per 7 inning game.
Defense is obviously critical with so many balls in play. However, players at this age struggle with defense. Even the very best players sometimes fail to get the easy out, and more typical players get the easy out less than half the time.
In fact, by analyzing the playoff winners in our league over a 7-year period, I found that by far the best predictor of playoff success was a team defensive effectiveness measure: runs given up by a team in the regular season. While hitting is very important (and especially so at the beginning of the season when beginning players strike out a lot), the difference between the best and worst hitting teams by seasons’ end was not that large and did not have nearly as much of an impact on winning chances.
It was interesting to see how a team loaded with big sluggers could lose to a great fielding team of average or below average height. It happened. A tiny kid standing near the coach pitcher was a more critical player than a big slugger if, 90% of the time, he or she could pick up little dribblers and throw them to first for an out.
As luck would have it, my son’s Pinto team experienced the benefits of strong defense in a major way. Out of 8 teams, our team came in 7th during the regular season. But we gave up less runs than all but one team. Our hitting hurt us for much of the season but attained league averages just in time for the playoffs.
We won enough playoff games to make it to the championship where we lost to the team that was the only one to give up fewer runs than us during the regular season. We lost because they played better defense during that final game. That team came in 5th during the regular season and switched to a more accurate coach pitcher just before playoffs begun.
I am by no means trying to imply that hitting doesn’t matter in Pinto. It does, and especially at the beginning of the season. If every player strikes out every time, your team will lose. If the coach does not pitch accurately, it can be hard to get hits. But it doesn’t usually happen that way. Coaches pitch to make it as easy as possible to hit, and that means few strikeouts by seasons’ end.
The team that makes the fewest errors, wins.
Not always. But mostly.
The Mustang Arms Race
The equation changes drastically at the Mustang 9-10 year old level. Pitchers try to stop the hitters from hitting. Hitters struggle to adapt.
With Mustang, it is no longer possible to summarize what leads to winning with a single sentence. There are several different ways to win a game. Both pitcher and hitter ability change drastically throughout the season. So does catcher skill, and base running offense and defense. All of these factors combine to make for varied games.
I found it both useful and entertaining to consider how the season evolved as an arms race, between pitcher and hitter.
The Mustang Baseball Season Begins
In the beginning, few 10 year-old pitchers are able to consistently throws strikes, and even fewer 9 year-old pitchers can do so. An all too typical box score for an early season game has one team getting to first base on 16 walks, 3 hits, and 4 errors while the other team loses because they only got to base on 9 walks, 4 hits, and 3 errors. With pitching so wild, few balls are hit into play. Runs are scored on numerous steals and passed balls because catchers and other fielders have yet to learn much base running defense. The team that issues the fewest walks usually wins.
So it’s just a matter of training pitchers to throw strikes, right? Nope. Part of the reason there are so few hits is because there are so few good pitches. Each team has 2-4 players (out of 12) that are already able to hit at the beginning of the season. Throw them strikes right down the middle, and they’ll hit the ball into play. And that’s exactly what happens next.
Some of the 10-year old pitchers playing their second year of kid-pitch quickly get back into the swing of throwing strikes, and a few 9-year olds start throwing strikes as well. So we start to see some of the better hitters get hits. The net result is still a decline in number of runs scored as the number of walks decreases and strikeout rates increase. But coaches encourage the players to swing more as the pitching gets better.
The temporary advantage of strike-throwing pitchers quickly evaporates as some players learn to hit good pitches. Runs scored increases.
An increasing number of players get the hang of hitting slow or medium velocity pitchers. But most players still struggle with fastballs over 45MPH or so. This sounds slow compared to major league speeds, but the mound is much closer (44 feet) so there’s less time to react. 45MPH is hard to hit, 50MPH is very hard to hit, and 55MPH is unhittable. The 1 or 2 pitchers on each team who can throw strikes with the highest velocity get the most pitching time, and coaches do what they can to teach other pitchers how to throw harder.
At this point, perhaps halfway through the season, pitcher results are straightforward. The harder you throw beyond 45MPH, the better the result, so long as you don’t walk too many batters. The very hardest throwing pitchers can even get away with walking a batter or two per inning because everyone else mostly strikes out.
But then comes a big surprise. There are typically only 2 or 3 players per team who can hit high velocity pitchers at the beginning of the season. The rest of the players look terrible at the plate as they so often miss with each swing. However, one by one, additional players start putting the ball into play, sometimes reaching first base safely. Some of the smaller “contact” hitters even get more hits that make it past the infield, because hitting a 48MPH baseball will go further than hitting a 35MPH baseball.
The scores start to get much higher and the coaches and players alike get more confident in the hitting. It’s just a matter of getting used to the timing, right?
Remember the word “timing” because that defines the rest of the season.
The Dreaded Changeup
There’s a famous saying in baseball:
Hitting is timing. Pitching is disrupting timing.
The first time facing a team whose pitchers have changeups, it’s a catastrophe. For example, in our team’s first such game, not a single one of our players got a hit, and we struck out 16 times in 7 innings. In our prior 3 games, we had been averaging a season-high 9 hits per game.
The changeup is thrown with the same motion as a fastball, but with a different grip. When thrown well, the batter can’t tell the difference between the two pitches until the pitch is over half way to the plate, by which time the swing has already started. A batter expecting the timing of a fastball will swing too high and too early. You know a great changeup has been thrown when a batter starts his swing and then lunges at the ball to try to hit it as it unexpectedly drops. In that first game against changeups – our team had a lot of players lunging at the ball.
For us, that no-hitter was a call to arms. I devoted an entire practice to both pitching and hitting changeups. At the start of the practice, I delivered a long talk about the “arms race” between pitcher and hitter and how our only chance to keep up was with changeups. We taught the players to wait on the pitches and to hit opposite field on outside pitches, which is not all that different from how to hit changeups. And of course we worked on throwing changeups.
Though the practice did help our players hit changeups a little better, our team never did return to getting 9 hits per game. But our pitching improved tremendously.
I found that not only did changeups help, but so did alternating between hard throwing and soft throwing pitchers. Players in the 9-10 age range are used to 40MPH – 45MPH pitches. Put in a 35MPH pitcher and a few batters in a row will hit weak grounders until they somehow get the timing down. So then you put in a harder throwing pitcher again. In cases where a player’s pitching mechanics improved so that 42MPH became the new velocity instead of 35MPH, opposing teams were able to get many more hits. High velocity was only helpful when it was a couple standard deviations above the norm, which for 9-10 year olds turns out to be high forties.
The most versatile pitchers are the ones who can throw a good changeup. In our second to last game of the season, we were able to win against the hottest hitting team in the league because they struggled mightily against our changeups.
Here’s what that team had to say about our pitching in a post-game write-up:
The lone loss [of the last 5 games of the season] was a late Sunday afternoon affair at the paws of the scrappy Cubs, who cobbled together walks, a few timely base hits, rowdy base running, and a series of mesmerizing but diabolic, parabolic change-ups to lull the Phillies into a dream-like state that turned nightmarish in the penultimate phrame.
Some players continue playing in the summer on an all-star or travel ball team. It would be great if everything learned in Mustang applied at this more competitive level. However, yet again it changes. Pitching and hitting are both much better. With all the balls hit into play, fielding becomes much more important.
The arms race between hitter and pitcher does continue, but now leads are permitted and steals can start any time. This launches a new arms race between base running offense and base running defense that sometimes overshadows the pitcher/hitter contest. And that’s a whole story unto itself . . .