The stats that matter most for youth baseball are different than the stats that matter for the major leagues. This is especially true at the ages of 7 and 8 for coach pitch or machine pitch baseball.
This post continues where Youth Baseball Stats Part 1: It’s Hard left off, as I explore how to gather, interpret and apply baseball data to improve youth baseball play.
As I discussed in Baseball Arms Race, what drives team success changes at different ages. Our league is based on the PONY system, which segments divisions by age. The 5-6 year old “Shetland” age group does not keep score or even track outs. It’s just kids getting their feet wet with baseball and having a good time. Even a stats-loving guy like me can’t see any sense tracking numbers for Shetland.
The Pinto division for ages 7 and 8 begins to resemble baseball. Pitching is done by coaches or machines to make it as easy as possible to hit. Leads and steals are not allowed. There are no walks and there’s a maximum of 6 pitches. There are also some mercy rules to keep one team from racking up too many runs (most important mercy rule: 9 batters maximum per inning). But other than that, it’s baseball, with both teams trying to win.
With Coach Pitch, It’s all about the Fielding
Most veteran coaches learn after a few years that fielding is what matters most for this age group. Not being a veteran coach my first time through, I learned this statistically. I went through the playoff records for the prior 8 years of our league’s Pinto division and noticed that the best predictor of playoff success was runs given up during the regular season, which is a reasonable measure of defensive effectiveness. Fielding is hard for most players at this age so the team with the best fielding will win most of its games.
Hitting matters too, but with coaches trying to make it as easy as possible to hit, most kids are able to get their bat on the ball by the end of the regular season. Entering playoffs, hitting is not much of a differentiator between teams.
The team that makes the fewest errors, wins. Not always. But mostly.
So how do you measure fielding? Traditional scorekeeping does nothing more than assign errors. This doesn’t provide much information. If you can get an observant parent on your team to do the work, there’s a better way.
In my son’s first year of Pinto, our team was the worst fielding team in the league. My manager asked me to track fielding carefully. He wanted me to find something, anything, to praise our kids for that occasional good play. I did some of that. But I also developed a very comprehensive system for tracking what went wrong.
At first I took a lot of notes by hand but I eventually developed a preprinted grid I could fill in. For each ball in play, I marked the type of hit (Fly, Liner, Grounder), whether an out was possible, who fielded the ball and who received the throw from the fielder. I also indicated a number for the fielder position (1 for pitcher helper, 2 catcher, 3 first baseman, etc.) as kids are moved to different positions each inning at this age.
Here’s an example of a filled-in grid (names changed). You may have to click in the upper right corner to pop it out to see it more clearly, and you may have to hit refresh if it doesn’t display the first time:
The most important part was a column for each type of error that I could mark, as well as a comments area if the play didn’t fit so neatly into one of my pre-printed check boxes.
The list of possible issues for the fielding player I had were:
- Left position
- Ignored force
- Didn’t call for it
- Scared of ball
- Slow to react
- Missed glove
- Popped out of glove
- Slow to get ball
- Slow to throw
- Didn’t throw
- Bad throw
- Bad catch
- Stunned by ball
A typical error would have more than one of these issues checked. After a game, I could then tally up team totals. In the example above, there were 13 times a player was “slow to get ball.”
I quickly found that a big problem on our team was being slow to react and slow to pick up a ball. Our manager used this information effectively. He taught our players ways to be more ready for a play. We literally practiced picking up a ball off the ground. We also found that most of our errors occurred on easy grounders. So we increased our grounder drills.
Though the most useful aspect of collecting this data was team totals, fielding data also helped inform the manager where players might have the most success. A kid who almost always struggled to pick up a ball off the ground was not going to be able to make an out from third base or shortstop—or even the pitcher’s helper position. A kid who never missed catching a ball should be playing some first base. And so on.
My favorite measure of team defensive effectiveness was “easy out conversion rate.” An out that should be very easy to make for one of the better fielders in the league is an easy out opportunity. In our league, the easy out conversion rate was around 45% to 50%. Our team rate was around 20% when I first started tracking this stat but as we adjusted our drills, that number started going up. By the time of the playoffs we had attained the league average of around 45% to 50%.
We did not win a single regular season game in our 8-team division but came close a few times in the last few games of the season. However, we did well in the playoffs thanks to fielding improvements. We were part of a tough 4 team pool. We won one of our games, and lost two close games to the 2 teams which both made it to the final championship game. Clearly, our team had improved.
One team that year was undefeated in the regular season and made it to the championship game where they finally lost their only game of the season. This team had an astonishing easy out conversion rate of around 85% to 90%. Their hitting was average, so far as I could tell.
The following year, half the players returned to my son’s team, while half were new. Again we tracked fielding performance in detail, improving where we needed to. We ended up giving up the second fewest runs in the regular season, but came in seventh out of 8 teams because we struck out too much for most of the season. Our hitting came around just in time for the playoffs.
We ended up making it all the way to the championship, where we lost. The team that beat us was the only team that gave up fewer runs than our team during the regular season. We lost because they played better defense.
Does Hitting Matter?
I said almost nothing about hitting. There are no walks at this level. Given high error rates, putting the ball into play is what matters most. Little dribblers often get you to first. Either you strike out or you don’t.
It’s very easy to tally strikeouts per player. Our manager gave extra hitting instruction to players who struck out frequently. By the end of the regular season, everyone was putting the ball into play. It worked out pretty much like this across the division.
Hitting does matter and you do need to work on it. Developing good mechanics and learning to hit line drives are very important to prepare for future years and can make a difference at this level as well. However, at this age group, the most important hitting stat worth tracking is strikeouts.
Fielding takes a long time to learn for 7-8 year olds. It’s difficult to figure out which fielding skills to drill most. Taking detailed fielding notes can help with that.
As for hitting, putting the ball in play is what matters most. Not all players can do this at the beginning of the season. However, given that pitches are made as easy as possible to hit, most players can be taught to regularly put the ball in play by the end of the season.
All that changes the following year, when kid pitch begins . . .