How to Draft in Youth Baseball

There are four keys to successful drafting in youth baseball:

  • Establish clear goals
  • Gather the player data you need
  • Organize your data for rapid access
  • Work the system to your advantage

You can get what you want on draft night with minimal fuss if you concentrate on the first three.

An unfortunate reality is that many youth baseball managers rely on working the system to their advantage as the fourth and most important key to successful drafting. This leads to unfair outcomes for newer managers and for kids, and sometimes involves cheating.

In my opinion, doing whatever it takes to create a dream team is detrimental to doing what’s best for the kids and the league. So please don’t do it. Better yet, have your league develop drafting policy that eliminates unfair outcomes.

What is the Purpose of Youth Baseball?

Before delving into details, I think it is worth considering the purpose of youth baseball.

As stated in Little League’s mission statement:

Through proper guidance and exemplary leadership, the Little League program assists children in developing the qualities of citizenship, discipline, teamwork and physical well-being. By espousing the virtues of character, courage and loyalty, the Little League Baseball and Softball program is designed to develop superior citizens rather than superior athletes.

PONY league’s mission statement, while not identical, has similar goals:

To provide every child regardless of special needs the opportunity to participate in America’s favorite pastime of baseball and softball. It is our goal to provide an environment that enhances the participants’ self-esteem, physical mobility, and embodies the spirit of teamwork and community.

The way a lot of people like to sum this all up is that we want kids to have fun and develop their baseball skills.

National organizations and local leagues implement rules and policy to support these missions. Drafting policy is usually aimed to create a relatively even distribution of coaching and player ability so that all players in the league are able to have fun and develop their baseball skills.

Nothing in these mission statements suggests providing an opportunity for adults to concentrate many of the top players on one team to win a lot of games. Nevertheless, we are competitive by nature, so it’s natural to expect most managers to have among their drafting goals to create winning teams. A well designed draft system will take this natural competitive drive as input, and produce relatively evenly matched teams as output.

Baseball Drafting Goals

No two managers have the same ideas about drafting. Of course, managers will differ in which individual players and types of players they prefer. However, they also differ in overall goals. It’s important for you as manager to be very clear on what your goals are before the draft and communicate these goals in advance to the coaches that will be with you on draft night.

Even if they don’t consciously realize it, most managers will draft with more than one goal in mind. What differs between managers is how much they emphasize each goal. Here’s a list of goals, grouped in three sections:

Create a team that wins a lot

  • Obtain players with as much baseball skill as possible
  • Obtain players with as much athletic talent as possible
  • Go for the best pitchers
  • Fill positions (several pitchers, a shortstop, a catcher, etc.)
  • Avoid the weakest players in the league

Create a fun and comfortable team

  • Create great team chemistry (great teamwork, sum of whole greater than parts, etc.)
  • Go for players you know and like (including their families)
  • Go for families supportive of your coaching philosophy
  • Go for families that you know will happily fulfill their volunteer duties and beyond

Develop players

  • Draft the most coachable kids—those who listen, learn, and try hard.
  • Draft players with parents who have substantial baseball skills or who are willing to help on the field to aid player development
  • Draft players that you think are much more likely to flourish and develop with your coaching style than they might otherwise

Perhaps this list is too long—there’s overlap between some of these goals. However, for those of you who have done this before, think back to some prior drafts:

Did drafting the most skilled and/or talented players lead to the winningest team? Which players perform better—players with many years’ experience but little athleticism or talented athletes with little experience? Were all of your individual player evaluations accurate? Which player worked out better for you—the easily coachable “pretty good” player or the top athlete with “attitude?” Were the skills that mattered most the same for 7-8 year-olds as 9-10 year-olds or 11-12 year-olds? Note that I address this last question somewhat in the beginning of my Baseball Arms Race post.

Before the draft, think about which of these goals matter and how much you want to emphasize them. In my first year as manager, I knew I would need help so I prioritized getting players whose parents either had substantial baseball coaching skills or were willing to help on the field. I also tried to get skilled and talented baseball players of course but I especially emphasized pitching and tried to avoid getting a really weak player, which was possible to do by sometimes skipping slightly stronger players earlier in the draft in favor of a player with a lower score.

I like winning but I care more about making sure every player learns and develops. I was very pleased with the incredible coach and parent support I received. I was even more pleased with how much our players improved during my first season. Being clear with my drafting goals in advance definitely helped with that. In case you’re wondering, our record was 8-7. Emphasize player development and you’ll typically win some games as a byproduct.

Several years ago, my son was on a team that lost every single regular season game, though some were close. The returning players had not received adequate training from the prior-year manager. However, the manager of my son’s team cared more about developing players and having fun than he did about winning games. Every single player came back to play in our league the following season. My son learned a lot, enjoyed the season, and looked forward to having the same manager the following year. It’s not necessary to win a lot of games or even win any games to have a great season. As luck would have it, my son did get back this manager for the second year with the same team . . . which finished second in the playoffs.

Gathering player data

The better you know players and their families, the better you’ll be able to meet your drafting goals. A great source of knowledge about a player is observing performance in many real games. This necessarily means that managers who are new to the league are at an informational disadvantage. If you are new to a league or it’s your first year managing, talk to as many people as you can to learn about various players and families. Unfortunately, you’ll still be at a disadvantage to those who have seen the kids play.

Conversely, players who are new to the league are a mystery to everyone. You can get hints by talking to one of the player’s parents. Has this player played baseball before? If so, how many years? If not baseball, has he played any other sports? Multi-sport athletes tend to be physically fit and are likely to pick up the game of baseball much faster than the average kid who isn’t so athletically engaged. I have observed several instances of players from other sports who, during their first year of playing baseball, soon surpassed many other players in the league.

Another source of information is player evaluations. You’ll get to see each player hit, field grounders, and catch pop-ups. If you’re lucky you’ll get to see pitching too. The several minute look you get for each player is low-quality data. Some players may be rusty, some may be sick, others may perform worse or better than normal by random chance. Some kids may even purposely perform poorly.

You will probably be able to sort out which players are very obviously near the top or bottom, with regards to skill and athleticism. But the majority will be in the middle, difficult to distinguish from each other. Nevertheless, this is all the information you’ll get for some players, so the next few paragraphs will give you some ideas of what to observe.

Look for signs of baseball skill. What player strengths and weaknesses do you see for each baseball skill? How is ball tracking? How is form when getting down to field a grounder? How are throwing and hitting mechanics?

Look for signs of athleticism. How is foot work? Are they fast? Do they move gracefully or awkwardly? Do they have quick reflexes?

Pay attention to attitude. Does the player hustle? Pay attention? Get frustrated easily? Seem enthusiastic?

Don’t get too caught up in whether they actually field the grounder or catch the pop fly—you may miss out on all the other little clues about skill, athleticism, and attitude.

In every draft there are several kids I mark as “do not draft” because of attitude. A kid who doesn’t try hard, pay attention, and/or gracefully recover from mistakes is going to be difficult to coach and teach, no matter how skilled or athletic. On the other hand, if you are particularly good at turning such kids around, you may see opportunity where I see difficulty.

The best source of player information is stats from the prior year. Making stats available for all returning players to all managers before the draft would go a long ways towards making drafts fair, but I have never heard of a league that does this. It would take a bit of work, and even if done, the data would not be consistent across players. Judgment is involved in marking errors vs. hits and steals vs. passed balls. But many stats, such as strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitch, reaching base, etc. are not open to interpretation. Such data would be objective and useful.

The best thing about stats is that it reduces bias. For example, a strong, tall power hitter that crushes the ball at batting practice may actually strike out 70% of the time during actual games and have sloppy fielding and base running due to inattention. Stats will show this. Direct observation may not, as it’s a lot easier to remember a player’s home runs and bulging muscles than his strikeouts and errors. Conversely, short, skinny kids who can’t hit the ball very far are often underrated. Stats that show getting on base 7 out of 10 at bats and scoring over 2 runs per game might help overcome short-person bias for a particular player.

Because stats are generally not available, gathering of player data is difficult and imprecise. Everyone makes mistakes, especially in judging potential. Kids who display poor skills at evaluations can surprise you with very rapid improvement, and vice versa. But nevertheless, you need to base your drafting decisions on data so you’ll have to do the best you can to get accurate data on each player.

Organize Data for Rapid Access

In many leagues, including ours, each manager turns in a score for each player. The scores for each player are averaged together to produce one group score per player. Some of your scores will be different from the group score. If this is your first year as a manager or you are new to the league, you should probably pay attention to group scores more than your own.

However, if you’ve been a manager for a while and have good powers of baseball observation, you will gain advantage by trusting your scores more than group scores. You can take advantage of this on draft night to choose players that you believe are underrated by the group.

Before draft night, you will receive a list of players with the average score for each player. Add in your score, adjacent to the group score for each player. Circle or highlight the players who you believe were underrated by the group. Then, on draft night, cross out the players as they get drafted. When it’s your turn to pick a player, you will be able to rapidly see which top players remain, according to your scores.

Work the System to Your Advantage

My first version of this article did not contain a section on working the system. But manipulating the system to create winning teams is the reality in most leagues, including ours. So then I went the other extreme, calling this section “cheating,” which is too inflammatory to be helpful. While some behavior definitely crosses the line into cheating, I think for the most part managers and coaches are just following their natural inclinations to use whatever legal means available to create a winning team.

Recall that the goal is for kids to have fun and develop their baseball skills. This goal is not supported if one team assembles several of the top pitchers en route to an undefeated season or a new manager is not given equal access to coaching staff or top players. It’s not even all that fun for the winning team, which gets less game-time fielding opportunities. Nevertheless, to be complete, any article on drafting must cover this reality.

Drafting is not fair. Search the Internet for advice on drafting, and you’ll find hardly any discussion of just how unfair drafting is beyond John T. Reed’s article. I suspect most coaches are embarrassed to admit that the main reason they so consistently win so many games each season is their experience and skill in manipulating the drafting system.

The single biggest systemic drafting issue is abuse of the coach pre-empt rule. All leagues recognize the need for coach assistants to help run practices. So managers are typically allowed to pre-empt 1 or 2 players whose parent will be a coach, before the draft even begins. It’s hardly coincidence that most pre-empts are players who would have been early draft picks. A team that is able to assemble the 3 players with greatest pitching skill and overall ability on the same team before the draft begins will usually have one of the best win/loss records for the year. Conversely, a team whose manager pre-empts players of average ability will be disadvantaged.

Some managers cross the line into outright cheating, by hiding or falsifying information. Examples include asking certain players to not try too hard at the player evaluation, or skip the optional pitching portion, or perhaps even miss the evaluation altogether. Another form of cheating is turning in artificially low scores of players pre-empted onto your team, while boosting scores for players pre-empted onto the other teams.

Some age-based leagues combine 7-8 year olds in one division, 9-10 in another division, and so on. Many such leagues have the 9-year olds return to the same team. This opens up an entirely new set of ways to manipulate the system, such as stacking your team with top 9-year olds to set your team up to be dominant the following year.

Excluding pre-empts and other systemic forms of unfairness, veteran managers still have advantages over new managers on drafting night due to experience and, more importantly, better information from having observed most of the leagues’ players over the years. Apparently, experiential and informational advantages aren’t enough for many veteran managers, as unfair drafting is the norm, not the exception.

Update: A year after writing this I observed a player evaluation as a Bronco 11 to 12-year-old manager. I saw a new source of cheating. Quite a few players took it upon themselves, with no urging from parents or coaches, to purposely perform poorly in the evaluations. Some of them were sons of coach pre-empts attempting to help lower their team’s points. Others were free to be drafted, but they wanted to try to make it look like they were bad because they thought in would increase their chance of getting drafted by a certain coach who knew how good they were. How do I know this? With some kids it was obvious just by watching. Several kids actually bragged about how clever they were . . .

John T. Reed passionately discusses unfair drafting and proposes changes at his site, and in more depth in his baseball coaching book, which I reviewed on Amazon. While his style of writing is somewhat abrasive, many of his observations ring true.

In Reed’s opinion, blind drafts are the way to go. First have managers collaboratively create balanced teams. Then assign each manager at random to one of these balanced teams (with adjustments for coach players’ skill).

Our league had a typically unfair system for many years that involved retaining half the players on each team from the prior year, with typical consequences. Drafting was improved in my first year as manager.

Our league’s new system uses a “parity draft” to redraft every player in the division each year. In a parity draft, teams do not get one pick each round. Instead, the team that gets the first pick is the one with the lowest number of points. Each player’s rating is between 1 and 10. So if one team has the lowest point total of 19 to start with because the manager and two coaches’ players are rated 5, 6, and 8, they get first pick in the draft. If another team starts with the highest total of 28 points, they may have to wait a long time to get first pick as some teams will get 2 picks before they get their first pick.

In my opinion, our league’s new drafting system is an improvement over the prior system as it does allow teams with less pre-empted player ability to get 1 or maybe even 2 early draft picks. However, it is still susceptible to the pitcher issue. If one team assembles a manager and two coaches whose 3 players are the top pitchers in the league, they will win most of their games and likely the playoff championship game as well.

John T. Reed’s blind draft proposal strikes me as a way to organize a draft that makes for more evenly matched teams, but I’ve never heard of a league that drafts blind. I also suspect that managers who get to pick their players will feel more invested in their players and better about their team than in situations where most or all players are assigned.

I think a fair alternative might be a slight modification of the parity draft system used by our league. At the ages of 9 and up, top pitching talent is the big issue. So how about in divisions with 8 teams, identifying the top 8 pitchers, and insisting that no two of those pitchers can be on the same team?

Another modification I would make to any system is to insist on making prior year stats available to all. I know it would add extra work each year, but I think it would go a long way to supporting fairer drafts. I wrote a three part series about the collection and interpretation of youth baseball stats as well as an in depth review of the Gamechanger scorekeeping software which makes stats reporting easy.

Lastly, I would like to see managers new to the league or moving up to the next age division for the first time paired with more experienced coaches, in order to make sure players have equal access to manager and coach ability and experience.

Last Words

You can still draft well in the face of unfairness. Be clear with your goals, gather as much data as you can, and organize your data for rapid access on draft night. Get a good coach or two to help. And yes, it helps if the player that comes along with the coach would likely be an early draft pick.

However, if you’re a veteran manager, I encourage you not to pre-empt two coaches with the top two pitchers in the league. It’s a better experience for the kids throughout the division if you can have the veteran coaches and top players spread throughout the division evenly.

If it’s your very first year as manager, it may be unrealistic to expect to end with the best win/loss record. However, prepare well and you will end up providing an experience for your players that is fun, competitive, and developmental, regardless of the win/loss record. That’s what we all say we want for youth baseball. So let’s do it!

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

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