Getting Benched in Baseball: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

There are good, bad, and ugly reasons for a kid to get benched in youth baseball. There are good, bad, and ugly ways to react to benching.

Most recreational youth baseball leagues have rules to insure that all youth baseball players get a reasonable amount of playing time, regardless of ability. It is when a young player gets selected to be on an all-star or travel ball team that, in many cases, lots of bench time begins.

You may be mystified by playing time decisions the first time your player goes through this experience. You may feel as if your player is being treated unfairly, or that coach decisions seem arbitrary. Read on to make sense of what’s happening and how you and your kid can react in the most productive manner possible.

Team Goals

There are two main goals for any youth sports team:

  • Develop players
  • Win games

Every organization and head coach will have their own unique take on how much to emphasize development, and how much to emphasize winning.

In recreation leagues such as Little League or PONY baseball, there is such a strong emphasis on developing players that there are mechanisms to insure reasonable playing time such as batting the entire roster and minimum fielding innings per game. Come playoff time, coaches will emphasize winning more by featuring their most effective fielders at the most critical positions.

Many coaches move kids around during the regular season to allow players a chance to learn the game and develop more skill. Other coaches care so much about winning regular season games that the role of beginning or less skilled players is minimized, which can be an unhappy experience for a first-time player. Some take a hybrid approach of encouraging development in some games, while trying hard to win towards the end of the season to get ready for the playoffs.

The expectation for all-star and travel ball teams is that the team will try to win all of its games. Of course it is still important to develop skills for all players during practices but come game time there are fewer or sometimes no rules to insure that all players get a good amount of playing time. Coaches will try to win games, and do whatever they believe is going to help achieve that. They will try to get parents and kids to understand that what they are doing is best for the team’s overall chance of winning.

It is very important for a head coach to have a parent meeting at the beginning of the season and it is very important for at least one parent to attend for every player. This is when the coach has an opportunity to explain their overall coaching philosophy, including discussion of the development/winning tradeoff and how this will impact playing time and who plays which positions. It is when parents have an opportunity to ask questions about these and other issues. The head coach must be clear on how many players will be brought to games.

The difference between a good and bad travel ball experience often boils down to how well the head coach communicates expectations at the beginning of the season and then how well the head coach follows through and “walks the talk.”

Good Reasons for Sitting on the Bench: Explicit Criteria

One thing I have found disappointing about most parent/coach meetings is that playing time criteria is not specifically stated. I usually have to figure out the criteria by observing many games and collating data.

Different coaches employ different criteria for which players play most, and sometimes this will be somewhat dependent on the mix of player skills. If the team is missing something, then players with that skill are likely to get more playing time. So a team with few pitchers who can throw strikes will obviously pitch the same strike-throwers a lot. The coach of a team with only 3 guys who play infield (2B, SS, 3B) well will probably play those three guys all game, every game. However, on better teams, pitchers and fielders are plentiful.

On teams with plenty of good-enough pitching and fielding, I have noticed that for most coaches, one skill matters more than everything else combined:

Do you regularly hit the ball hard to the outfield?

It’s that simple. Players who hit the ball hard to the outfield well over half the time will get lots of playing time. This is what I have seen with two different high school coaches running two different teams of players below the age of 12, so perhaps this is how most high school coaches run things. I have also seen coaches without high school experience run teams this way. Please leave comments below if you’ve experienced otherwise.

Hitting lessons in the off season can improve a player’s mechanics in time for the following season. Those who want to practice hitting on their own can practice in the back yard with net and tee.

My son is a competent lefty pitcher and fielder. He is a contact hitter with a high batting average which started at .300 when first introduced to kid pitch at the age of 9, rising to .500 by age 10 (more like .300 – .400 in summer play). He hustles and often gets to first safely on close plays. He’s a good bunter. But he is shorter than average and his hits reach the outfield less than 30% of the time. So whenever he’s on a really good team, he is not one of the guys that plays all the time. He contributes enough to get a reasonable amount of playing time but he won’t be one of those guys that plays all the time until he more consistently hits the ball hard to the outfield.

There’s no point saying this is unfair. It’s reality. It may seem unfair that a player with a lower batting average plays more just because he hits the ball harder but that’s just how it is on many teams. The two high school coaches I’ve seen manage younger teams don’t much use stats. They just observe who hits the ball hard.

To be fair, the reasonableness of this approach is supported by major league baseball data. On average, the harder the ball is hit, the higher the batting average and slugging percentage for balls hit into play. This becomes ever more true as the level of competition rises.

My son is experiencing this phenomenon again on this year’s summer team. He doesn’t consistently hit the ball as hard as the hardest hitting players on the team, so he’s not one of the players that gets played all the time. This has motivated him to practice hitting more, with a combination of tee work, soft toss, and live pitching. This is beginning to translate into harder hit balls, and may eventually translate into more playing time.

As one local travel ball coach blatantly admitted,

“If you ain’t hittin’, you’re sittin’.”

There are some coaches out there that don’t emphasize hitting quite so much. But whatever it is the coach emphasizes, see if you can figure it out. Then tell your player what he needs to get better at in order to get more playing time.

Note that many experienced coaches will have good reasons for assigning player positions that have nothing to do with ability.

For example, left-handed throwers never play catcher in the major leagues, so conventional wisdom (whether right or wrong) is to only put right-handed catchers behind the plate. Lefties also very rarely play second, short, or third at the higher levels because the body is awkwardly positioned for the throw to first. This also trickles down to the youth level. If there’s no future for the player in that position, then why play him there now?

Sometimes one player is okay at one position and poor everywhere else. For example, you’ll sometimes see a slow-moving but great-hitting slugger who plays first base a lot despite several other teammates who can play the position better.

It can be aggravating to observe a player making errors at a position that you’ve seen your kid play much better. However, don’t immediately assume that the coach is playing favorites or coaching poorly. A coach will typically find a place in the field for a great hitter, even if it means displacing better fielders. If they are not that great at fielding, then they are typically played at the position where the coach hopes they’ll do the least damage. However, the slugger who is truly poor at fielding may not get much playing time despite great hitting.

Another Good Reason for Sitting a Player: Enforcing Hustle

I added this section in a year later, because now I’m getting to see 11- and 12-year-old players. At this age, many players who have been playing for a few years slack off. They don’t try as hard. They don’t hustle as much. When there are 2 or 3 players like that on a team, it can and does spread to other players.

Many coaches believe that bench time can be part of the cure for lack of hustle. If you your kid doesn’t hustle, and then gets benched for a couple innings or even a couple games, you should be thankful. If your kid is no longer playing his favorite position because he wasn’t hustling, you should be thankful. Most players react to this form of benching by working harder at practice and learning to hustle at all times during games. This makes the team better. This makes the player better. Everyone wins.

As a coach, this is not my main tool, but it is one of several tools I use for teaching hustle, a method of last resort. I do not enjoy watching a player who does not hustle continue to play his favorite position and throw down his team, while other players are chomping at the bit to take that spot. It’s especially aggravating when it’s a coach’s son.

The Bad Reason for Sitting Out: Roster Size

The larger the roster, the more bench time there is per player on average. You can only have 9 players on the field at a time. If 10 or 11 players attend each game, nobody will sit on the bench much, unless one player is very obviously performing at a much lower level than the rest, has a bad attitude, or is being disciplined for lack of hustle.

With 13 players at a game, the situation is completely different. Let’s say the coach determines that 5 of the players are so critical to the team’s chance of winning that they will never sit. That leaves the other 4 positions to be split between 8 players. If split exactly evenly, all 8 players will be benched half the time. Chances are the split won’t be even, so some players will be sitting more than half the time.

The numbers keep getting worse as the roster size increases.

In my opinion, roster size is a bad reason to sit on the bench for someone below high school age. If you have a kid who is serious about baseball and you’re looking into the possibility of a travel ball or all-star team, the most important questions to ask relate to roster size:

  • How many players are on the team?
  • How many will be taken to games?
  • Is maximum number of players capped or can it expand over time?

My recommendation is to never join a team with a roster of more than 13 players, unless you have strong reasons to believe that players will routinely miss games (i.e. a 15 player roster with 3-5 players absent for each game is fine). A roster size of 11 is ideal, as not every player will be able to attend every game, and mid-game injuries are possible.

My son was part of a travel ball team that fell apart by not being clear and consistent about roster size and how many players get taken to tournaments. New players kept showing up on the team, causing some existing players to sit more while others were no longer invited to tournaments. Try hard to avoid these kinds of situations. Very unpleasant.

Do yourself and your kid a favor. Join a team with an 11-player roster. There won’t be any bench issues.

Some organizations with larger rosters will tell you that even if you get very little playing time, the training you get in practices is more important anyway. This is supposed to justify your investment of time and money. Don’t believe it.

If your player is not getting to hit much live pitching thrown by kids in game situations, then he or she is missing out on practicing the baseball skill that most needs improving to get more playing time. You are far better off joining a different team that has a smaller roster.

There’s another consequence of allocating playing time according to hitting merit when the roster is large: Kids feel pressure. Some kids do well under pressure, while others don’t. I have seen quite a few kids perform worse when they realize there’s a relationship between performance and bench time. They put a lot of pressure on themselves.

At some point in life, people have to learn how to deal with extreme performance pressure. For athletes, that will certainly happen in high school. It’s going to be a matter of opinion as to how beneficial intense pressure is before that age. Personally, I don’t think the age of 10 is appropriate for that kind of pressure.

Ugly Reasons for Sitting on the Bench: Relationships, Sponsorships, Snap Judgments, Incompetence, or Bias

Most coaches want their travel ball or all-star team to win. With the good and bad reasons described above, you may not be happy, but at least you can understand the motivation: winning! A player who improves a great deal, especially at hitting, will almost surely see increased playing time, because that will increase the team’s chances to win.

It gets ugly when coaches have other motivations that have nothing to do with either player development or winning. It gets ugly because the team typically doesn’t win much and bad feelings are created. I see five major categories of such reasons:

  • Relationships
  • Sponsorships
  • Snap Judgments
  • Incompetence
  • Bias

Relationships, most typically the coach’s son, quite often play havoc with otherwise rational criteria for bench time. At the rec season level, it happens all the time where the head coach places his or her kid at the top of the batting order and in the most interesting fielding positions. This isn’t an issue when the player in question is one of the top players, but if the player is average or worse, it necessarily means that players better than the coach’s son are going to experience an impact.

I have never seen a sponsorship issue with any of the teams my son has been on. However, it turns out that sponsorship is a big issue at the high school level. It takes quite a bit of money to run a high school baseball team. In some cases, playing time is allocated to weaker players whose parents are large donors. This isn’t much different than favoritism shown from relationships. It’s just that the relationship is purchased.

Snap judgments abound in the baseball world. Some coaches will size up every player by the end of the first practice. They will then “know” where to play each player and what batting order will work best. Such coaches will largely stop observing players thereafter and never change how they view each player. Many players will therefore never be given a chance at a position no matter how hard they work or how competently they play. The amount of bench time per player also may not change throughout the season. It’s a very good sign when you see the coach moving people around to many different positions in practice and in less meaningful games. Such a coach is gathering data, trying to figure out which players in which positions produce an overall best team.

Incompetence can take many forms. The most obvious sign is that the coaching staff has the players do the same things over and over in practice without really teaching them much. Another sign is that the players are constantly getting thrown out on the base paths while unable to stop other teams from stealing. You should not expect a team to perform well at the beginning of its season. But if you’re not seeing any improvement after a dozen or so games, then the coaching staff likely isn’t so good at teaching baseball skills. Seemingly arbitrary decisions about playing time may simply be just another symptom of this incompetence.

Everyone has biases of various sorts, some subtle, some quite overt. Biases are shortcuts for trying to make sense of the world around you and may actually be helpful most of the time. However, these shortcuts don’t make sense 100% of the time and the better coaches will attempt to keep an open mind about each player, paying more attention to how players actually perform rather than how they think they should perform.

The forms of bias will vary from coach to coach. Many coaches will be inclined to believe a player will contribute more to the team if they are tall, strong, athletic, hard throwing, and hard hitting in practice. There is also the bias of trusting a player you know well over one you don’t. For coaches who don’t track stats, they may never realize that some of the short or less athletic guys are actually outperforming some of the guys they automatically assumed would be better, or that one of the hard throwing pitchers gives up so many walks that more runs are scored than several slower throwing pitchers.

Stats are a partial cure for bias. Even with stats in hand, some coaches still trust their gut more than the numbers.

Bias is the most difficult of the “ugly” reasons to be benched, because you’ll find it on almost every team and the way it plays out is not always straightforward. For example, a short player may be given a chance but is pulled out of the game after a single mistake, whereas players a coach believes “should” be good have to make many more mistakes before a coach will take action. The only antidote I’ve found to bias is to be such an incredibly great player, that you can’t possibly be ignored. This may take extra practice, extraordinary behavior, and extra hustle. I wonder if the reason that most short players in the major leagues show such incredible hustle is because it was the only way they could make it in the face of bias.

How to React to Benching

The best way to handle excessive benching is to avoid it, as follows:

  • Avoid teams with a large roster. Try to join a team with 11 players. Even most of the “ugly” issues go away. With so few players, everyone plays.
  • If your player hits the ball hard to the outfield for most at bats, you can safely join a 12 or 13 player team. The top hitters almost always get more than average playing time.
  • Under no circumstances join a team that has a roster of more than 13 players or that has a possibility of expanding to more than 13 players. If you find yourself on a team that promised a roster limit of 13 but then exceeded that limit, you should consider quitting. If you decide to quit, request a partial refund if you paid for the entire season in advance. Find a different baseball team or different sport for the rest of the season.

In many cases your best option will be to join a team with a 12 or 13 player roster, due to cost or coaching considerations. If your player does not hit the ball as hard as the top 3 or 4 hardest hitting batters, expect bench time, possibly more than you or your player would prefer.

So how do you react to benching that you or your player feel is excessive, on a team with 12-13 (or more) players?

If the head coach is applying the same criteria across the team, and you understand the criteria, then you can have discussions with your player, preferably at a time after a weekend of baseball is already over. Explain the criteria for more playing time. Discuss which skills need to improve. Some players don’t mind sitting on the bench and won’t be motivated to work harder. However, many players will want some combination of increased private practice time or lessons. This is a great way to react to bench time and will serve the player well in the long run, not just for baseball, but all of life. Practice matters.

The head coach does not need to be involved in these discussions unless the criteria are unclear. If so, the parent or better yet the player can ask the coach what they need to improve in order to get more playing time.

Unfortunately, teams are not always managed with consistently applied criteria. Some of the reasons for playing time decisions may be those listed in the “Ugly” section above.

The way to respond to ugly reasons for benching is going to depend on a lot of factors that you’ll have to weigh for yourself. Consider the following:

  • How happy is your player with the coach and the experience?
  • How good is the coaching?
  • Is your player improving?
  • How well are you handling your own reaction to the situation?

I have seen all too many situations where the player was actually having a good time, while one or both parents of the player were upset with the bench time. I know I was guilty of this myself the first time my son went through an all-star experience that made little sense to us. After a few years’ worth of these experiences, I now realize it’s best to say nothing and keep my feelings to myself unless my son is starting to bring up issues that bother him. That’s when it’s time for discussion.

So far, I have only talked about the good way to react to benching: motivation to practice more. The only involvement of the head coach is if you need to ask for clarification on what skills must improve. In many cases it will be obvious: hit the ball harder.

The bad way to react to benching is to try to convince the head coach why your kid should be playing more. The head coach is running the team, not you. You will almost surely be biased in your assessment of your own player, and the head coach is simply going to regard your input as a nuisance. The chance of you convincing the head coach to increase playing time for your kid is small. The chance of the coach becoming irritated with you is high.

There are two ugly ways to react to benching:

  • Complain to anyone and everyone who will listen about playing time decisions.
  • During games, tell the head coach your concerns or yell your disagreements from the stands.

Unfortunately, I have seen both of these behaviors. As people get frustrated, it gets hard to keep it all in. All I can say is please keep it in during games. Discuss privately with a spouse or a friend after the game if you feel you need to vent. If you feel the coach behavior is outrageous, have a private conversation with the coach at a time when there’s no game (or if the team is part of an organization, speak with someone higher up). Once a few parents start complaining or shouting from the stands, it can start a downward spiral that makes the experience negative for everyone, including the players.

If your player is not enjoying the season and you don’t like what the coach is doing, quitting is an option, though not one to be taken lightly. If coaching is poor, playing time is low, and many parents are unhappy, it may be best to leave that scene and find a better team to be on. However, there is a big value to be had in sticking things out. You don’t want your player to get a reputation as a quitter. So the “quit” option should only be taken if pretty much everything is going wrong.

If the coaching is very good, try to complete the season, and do your best to stay positive. Your player is bound to learn some things, even from the bench. After the season is over, you can provide feedback to the head coach or the head of the organization, explaining why you’re not coming back for another season. Perhaps it will motivate them to limit the roster size (or otherwise improve) going forward.

In Summary: Two Pieces of Advice

At least 99% of all baseball players are going to experience substantial bench time at some point. There are great lessons to be learned if benching is for good reasons, and even some lessons to be learned from bad or ugly reasons. I went into a bit of detail on this above, but there are two main points especially worth remembering for kids between the ages of 6 and 12:

  • Seek teams with small rosters. Avoid teams with large rosters.
  • Try to use benching experience as an opportunity to stoke motivation.

It never hurts to become more motivated to hustle and/or practice more. It doesn’t matter whether it’s baseball, or another sport, or a musical instrument, or whatever else in life. Hustle is good. Practice makes better. And those who get better from practice usually get rewarded. In the case of baseball, those who hustle and learn to consistently hit the ball hard to the outfield will eventually be rewarded with more playing time.

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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