I hear so many stories and read so many accounts of recreational youth baseball leagues with unhappy parents and significant issues. With every new story, I appreciate my son’s local rec league even more.
This post is for anyone looking for tips to help make their league better, whether as a board member, a manager, a coach, or even a concerned parent who shows up to board meetings occasionally.
Does anyone reading this have stories to share, comments or questions? Please leave them below as I think this page could become a good resource for learning what works well in youth baseball recreation leagues.
How do I know what works well? I know because our local PONY league, El Cerrito Youth Baseball works very well for hundreds of players, year-in, year-out. Here’s why:
It all starts with organization. This is our 7th year in the league and we’re on our 3rd president. All 3 presidents have had good administrative and leadership skills and done a good job of filling the most critical volunteer positions. Mostly importantly, all 3 presidents cared deeply about the league and were always trying to improve it. Good as all three of them have been, they could not have had so much success without a good organizational structure in place.
Our organization has many league positions that offer training. Take for example the Team Business Manager (TBM). Each team has a TBM to coordinate all the volunteers. But there is also a League Business Manager that conducts an annual training session for TBMs, communicates league information to TBMs, and determines who gets volunteer deposits back at the end of each season. There are other similar league level jobs for coordinating umpires, equipment, player registration, uniforms, first aid boxes, etc.
All of this is held together by the volunteer system. Every family must contribute 15 hours of labor (or alternatively, a time-consuming “exempt” job such as coach, TBM, or a major league-level position). A $100 volunteer deposit is required in addition to the $225 annual fee. That deposit is only returned to families who meet their 15-hour volunteer commitment.
The organization so critical to running the league requires a lot of volunteers. It’s not just board members and coaches. There is also an entire supporting cast of volunteers for each team, and another set of volunteers taking care of league-level jobs. Our league could not function with such a high level of organization if we had fewer than 200 players in the league. We typically have 300-400, which seems to be enough to keep all volunteer positions filled (barely!).
Having that many players also insures that we have 6-9 teams in each of the younger PONY divisions, providing diverse competition.
The smaller leagues in our area with just 1-2 teams per division must seek opponents from other leagues each year. They are also challenged to consistently maintain an effective organization.
A nationwide trend in recent years is for many of the most skilled players to opt for travel ball instead of recreation league. However, if players and their families know that a high quality summer all-star experience is available for the most skilled players, most of them will choose rec league over travel ball for the lower costs and in order to continue to be with friends.
Generally speaking, the larger the number of players in a league, the better the chance there will be a large enough number of highly skilled players on the summer all-star team. Furthermore, if the league is big enough there will be enough skilled players to form 2 or more teams, which is very important for being able to retain skilled players who barely miss making the cut for the “select” team or “A” team, or who may not want the high intensity and time commitment of being on a select team. If there is no league outlet for such strong players, many will join a summer travel ball team which may cause them to leave the league altogether.
It seems to take at least 50 players at a given age to insure at least 24 all-star worthy players to fill two teams in the summer. Our league has 30-60 players per age (through age 12) and would therefore benefit from being a little bigger in order to have enough skilled players to maintain two or more all-star teams each summer for each age. My son’s age group had three summer teams both last year and this year, and is therefore retaining most of the stronger players each year. There is not much incentive to join a travel ball team when you can play at a higher level and still be with your friends.
Good Team Drafting Policy
Every coach has the potential to draft well in leagues with good drafting policy. Unfortunately, many leagues don’t pay enough attention to enforcing good drafting rules. If there are several “super teams” that rarely lose a game in a league (one per division), then poor or unenforced drafting policy is usually the culprit. Having one team go undefeated usually indicates that too many of the most skilled players and/or pitchers were assembled onto one team, though it can also indicate a concentration of most of the experienced coaches onto one team. Coaching has less impact in baseball than other sports, though, so the usual reason for undefeated teams is an unfair concentration of the most skilled players onto the same team.
Spreading experienced coaches and the most skilled players evenly among teams has many benefits, such as insuring access to good coaching for all players, having many games be close (which promotes more learning and more fun), and creating opportunities for the most skilled players to try different positions. Conversely, a division with a “super team” usually has many low quality games as most teams don’t have enough skilled players to pitch and/or reasonably fill the defensive positions, the “super team” itself is not challenged, sometimes developing bad habits such as overly aggressive base running (to take advantage of weak fielding), and some highly skilled players on the super team may not get any chances to pitch or play infield though they would on other teams.
After years of accumulated improvements, I think our league’s drafting policy is very good, insuring a reasonably fair draft that usually results in any team having the potential to beat any other team. Key policies that promote fair drafting are:
- All team managers are required to have at least one assistant coach, and optionally two. If there are not enough coaches to go around, a second assistant coach will not be permitted until each manager has at least one assistant coach.
- All players are required to attend an evaluation for fielding/hitting/pitching. Coaches observe.
- After evaluation, all coaches submit a single score for every player (1.0 to 10.0 such as 4.8, 7.9, 8.6, etc.), including scores for children of managers and coaches.
- The division manager averages the scores for each player but may change a score to something else if a score seems off (i.e. coaches sandbagging scores of their own kids and/or inflating scores of other coach kids).
- On draft night, each team’s starting point total is the sum of the scores for each kid on that team. Each manager will start the draft with kids of the manager and one or two assistant coaches already on their team. It’s manager’s choice whether to start with one or two assistant coaches before the draft, but if they only start with one, then they will need to be sure to draft at least one player who has a parent with good coaching potential.
- The draft order is based on the parity system. The team with the fewest points gets first pick. After that team picks, whoever has the fewest points gets the next pick.
Note that it is possible for a single team to get 2 picks in a row (if they started with one coach while all other teams started with 2). It is also possible a team will not get to pick any of the top-ranked players. This is by design. If Angels start with 27 points and all other teams start with 20 or fewer points, then some teams will likely get 2 picks before the Angels. The Angels will still probably end up with a winning record anyway because their three starting players are so skilled. They just happened to already have three top picks before the draft started.
This system is not perfect. Pitching is a very important and scarce resource. If there are 8 teams in the division and 10 very good pitchers after which there is a big drop off, then a team that starts with 3 of the 10 best pitchers will lose few, if any games. In our league, the division president has the authority to disallow a coach to be on a team, which provides a way to avoid this situation.
Other leagues have different drafting policies that work well. One which I find particularly intriguing is the “blind draft.” Coaches get together and attempt to create equal teams and then get assigned the teams randomly, modified slightly to account for the skill level of coach kids.
Coaches are Selected Carefully
Ideally, each division will have more parents applying to manage a team then there are teams. When that happens, the Division President can choose managers based on merit and feedback from prior years in order to provide the best possible experience for players and their families. In actual practice, there are often barely enough coaches to manage teams, due to the needed expertise and time commitment.
What makes for a good manager (also known as head coach)? At least some baseball knowledge, though less than you might think, as the manager can be paired with knowledgeable coaches. The first year I managed a baseball team, I was lacking in many baseball skills, which I made up for by relying heavily on my assistant coaches and a couple parents who all knew far more about baseball than I did. I also spent a lot of time reading coaching books and talking to people more knowledgeable than myself in order to keep learning.
I think more important than extensive baseball experience is leadership ability. This means effectively organizing practices, motivating players, and communicating well with coaches, players, parents, and league officials. A desire to learn and keep getting better is also critical. All successful coaches I’ve seen have these things in common. Baseball has so many different skills to learn that an organized system is required in order to have a hope of learning most age-appropriate skills during practice. The manager who also happens to have terrific baseball knowledge will have an extra edge, of course, and this matters especially at the all-star level. But leadership and the desire to learn go a long way.
Managers in our league are required to interview with the division president and an additional board member. In addition to trying to learn about the coach’s baseball knowledge and leadership ability, this is a chance for the division manager to communicate expectations for the year. When there are more managers then teams available, the choices are usually obvious.
However, no matter how finely tuned the system, it can and probably will fall apart if there are not enough parents willing to manage a team. It seems to happen every year in our league in at least one division, and we end up with a manager or two lacking either sufficient leadership skill, baseball skill, or both, and this leads to a poor experience for players. Therefore, competent managers are generally treated very respectfully by parents, division presidents, and other leagues officials. For the league to be successful, the competent managers need to keep coming back to run a team each year.
Our league does have a feedback system for managers and assistant coaches. Most managers and coaches get good feedback but if there’s negative feedback, it can be discussed in the interview the following season. Typical issues that come up on feedback forms are too much yelling, learning very little at practice, and differential treatment of the coach’s son.
Enough Practice Time
This may seem too simple to be worth stating, but baseball has numerous skills that take practice to master.
Starting with Pinto (ages 7-8) division, our El Cerrito, CA league has 4 practices each week in the February preseason and 2 per week starting in March when the 2 games per weekend begin. With all the rain in February, it usually turns out to be more like 3 practices per week in the preseason. But 12-14 well-organized preseason practices make a big, positive difference in player skill.
I got involved in a discussion with an acquaintance of mine from Pennsylvania who has a baseball playing son about the same age as mine. He was incredulous that 9 out of 12 of my players threw enough strikes to pitch regularly (actually could be 10 but I have one guy catching too much to risk his arm pitching). I explained to him that it’s because I spent so much time working on pitching mechanics in bullpen sessions in February, and that it was very time consuming. That’s when I found out that his league only has 2 practices per week for two weeks before the season begins, followed by no practices thereafter. Obviously, there’s not enough time to teach pitching to anyone, let alone 9 players, in such a short time frame. So you can only pitch players who already throw strikes before the season began or who somehow figure out how to do it with no instruction.
I would not be willing to manage a team with no practices during the regular season. I view games like a school teacher might view pop quizzes. We coaches find out how everyone is doing during a game, gathering information on what areas need more work. Then we drill those things in practice. We would not improve much if we could not practice between games.
Good Relationship with Town Officials
While this is perhaps too-behind-scenes to merit mention in this post, the fields used for games and practices don’t come from nowhere. Town officials negotiate cost, playing time, and maintenance activity with different sports leagues. The league had better have good relations with the officials in charge of these parks and many discussions on how best to maintain and use the fields, including how to handle wet conditions. If not, there won’t be adequate time for practices, or ill-maintained playing fields may end up in poor repair after years of abuse and neglect.
Field size and pitching-related rules must be different depending on age, and you don’t want the needed skills to be too difficult to master for a given age. I think the way our league does it (a slight variation of the national PONY rules) is perfect:
Age 5-6 (Shetland): 50 feet base paths. Machine pitch or Tee. A gentle introduction with no score kept, no strikes, and no outs tracked (though defense tries for outs anyway). Every player bats once per inning and always gets to first base. The batter starts with machine pitch but switch to Tee if the ball has not been hit into play after four pitches. No this is not even remotely close to real baseball. Kids this young are simply not developmentally ready to experience the high rate of failure that occurs in a real game of baseball.
Ages 7-8 (Pinto): 50 feet base paths. Coach or Machine pitch. No leads. No steals. Each batter receives six pitches maximum. Score is kept normally but with mercy rules to keep games from getting out of hand. The most important mercy rule is 9 batters maximum per inning.
Ages 9-10 (Mustang): 60 feet base paths, 46′ to mound (was 44′ until this year). Kid pitch. Steals are permitted, but no lead or steal until ball crosses plate. Mercy rules apply when a team is ahead by 10 or more runs. Pitchers typically don’t pitch more than 2 innings per games. To protect pitcher arms, no pitcher may pitch more than 5 innings in a 2 game weekend.
Ages 11-12 (Bronco): 70 feet base paths, 50′ to mound (was 48′ until this year). Kid pitch. Close to major league rules, but mercy rules apply when a team is ahead by 10 or more runs. The 50′ pitching distance is large enough such that most hitters have enough time to see the ball and hit it into play.
Ages 13-14 (Pony): 80 feet base paths, 54′ to mound. Major league rules on a slightly smaller field.
Every league has its own unique take on how this progression should go. I like our progression because it keeps players engaged with an age-appropriate skill level and exciting games. The extra 2 feet added to the mound distance this year means fewer strikeouts, more balls hit into play, and a decreased chance of injury to pitchers from balls hit into play. At the Bronco level, this allows more fielding repetitions, less frustration for batters, and more exciting games for players and fans. At the Mustang level I wonder if the extra two feet will result in too many walks.
Pitching is very difficult to master below the age of 10, so much of the above progression is driven by pitching. Some leagues get kids pitching at 7-8 years old but that means games with a lot of walks. At the ages of 9-10, with most pitchers still struggling to throw strikes, leads are not permitted which keeps leads, pickoffs, and balks from distracting the beginning pitcher. Age 11 is where many players are developmentally ready to take on the full rules of baseball, though on a slightly smaller-sized diamond than high-school players.
Another important reason for an appropriate progression is pitch count limits. Pitching too much at young ages often leads to sore arms or injury. Protecting pitcher arms is important.
In our leagues, pitchers at the Mustang level are limited to 60 maximum pitches per day and 5 total innings maximum for a weekend. These numbers go up to 80 pitches per day at the Bronco level and 7 total innings maximum for a weekend. I personally stay pretty far below those limits with my players as I worry about hurting the players on my team. I’m also worried about the growing epidemic of Tommy John surgeries caused by arm overuse at the younger ages. The national PONY organization is considering lowering these limits.
Engaging Players at All Skill Levels
When I was a kid I played baseball for two years, the second year including kid pitch. My strongest memory is that, being one of the weaker players, I was never permitted to pitch even once in a game despite practicing at home several times per week and being able to throw strikes. If you are a manager, is this the strongest memory you hope that one of your least skilled player takes away from his last year of playing ball?
A good recreation league will attempt to engage players at all levels of skill and athleticism. Obviously you can’t play a 7-year-old at 1st base who hasn’t yet learned to catch a ball, and nobody wants to see a 9-year-old pitcher on the mound who throws 80% balls. But a league can and should try to develop all of its players, not just the all-star bound players. This includes giving some playing time to some of your less skilled players at the positions they most desire to play, especially if they work hard to get better at that position and have a chance to at least be modestly successful there.
Our league has built-in rules to make sure this is not completely ignored by coaches obsessed by winning. For example, like most youth leagues, the entire roster bats (not just 9 players).
At the Pinto (ages 7-8) level, all players are required to play at least one inning of infield each inning. Everyone must sit on the bench 1 inning before a player can sit on the bench a 2nd inning, and everyone must sit on the bench for 2 innings before a player can sit on the bench a third inning. While it is still possible to “hide” a weaker fielder at catcher or in right or left field for most of the game at that age, the team improves when every individual’s fielding improves. Making sure that even the least skilled players are able to play at least one position in the infield at a reasonable level also improves the team.
Once kid pitch begins, the rules are a little more lenient but all players must play at least 4 full games each year. The catcher position becomes very important and more balls are hit to the outfield, especially at the Bronco level, so outfield skills become more important as well. Because of pitch count and maximum inning limitations, every team needs at least 5 pitchers to get through the rare week with 3 games and it’s a big advantage to have at least 7 players who can pitch.
At the age of 9-10 it is difficult to get all 12 players pitching as there will be some players who simply can’t throw close to a reasonable percentage of strikes no matter how much time you spend with them. But coaches who put a lot of effort into teaching pitching mechanics should be able to to add 2-4 additional pitchers to the few guys who already pitch. Furthermore, by the age of 11, players are able to pick up pitching mechanics faster, on average.
Despite all these rules, some coaches can and do care more about winning than development and do attempt to hide less skilled players as much as rules permit. But for the most part, managers in our league spend a lot of effort developing the less skilled players and do attempt to get them some playing time in a variety of positions in at least the early part of the season and scrimmages. I think it’s a cultural thing that starts at the earliest ages and continues on as the kids get older. Some families believe we should push the envelope even further in the direction of making sure players at the lower skill levels get enough interesting playing time.
At the same time, it’s also important to keep the most skilled players challenged and engaged. The most skilled players usually look forward to summer all-star play, which is discussed below. But they also want coaches who are able to further increase their skills.
Professional Trainers for Coaches and Players
Our league has always had at least a little training for managers and coaches but in recent years we’ve added a budget for managers to bring in baseball professionals to help with training at practices. So far, this is mostly being used for pitcher training, but sometimes also for catcher or hitter training. This pitcher training is especially helpful as even teams that have some experience in how to teach pitching mechanics often don’t have enough time to spare for it. Teaching pitchers one-on-one takes considerable skill and is very time-consuming.
The skill level in our league has been increasing faster since we started to incorporate this training. It also makes the league more competitive with travel ball, which has helped slowed down attrition of the most skilled players to a trickle.
PCA: The Positive Coaching Alliance
Our league used to have a reputation of excessive yelling from coaches and parents at games, and some other related behaviors that were unpleasant enough for some families to take their kids to other leagues. Approximately a decade ago, our league began to require all coaches undergo PCA (Positive Coaching Alliance) training, with parents encouraged to also follow these principles. We even have a parent PCA volunteer position on each team, and an overall league PCA coordinator. I believe the results have been very positive and are part of the reason our league is so fun and is retaining families in the league longer than it used to.
PCA is an entire coaching philosophy that encourages teaching life lessons in addition to trying to win games. If you’ve never heard of PCA and think some coach and parent behavior could be better in your league, I strongly encourage you to learn more about PCA.
Part of what keeps families re-enrolling their players each year is everyone wanting to be with their friends. Besides the games and practices, community is built in other ways. Our league has a number of fund-raisers that also double as community builders:
- Opening Day parade and related festivities
- Going to an A’s game
- Golf Tournament
There are other smaller community events and the way our volunteer system is structured encourages people to work together. Finally, our draft system scrambles the teams each year, which means that after a few years, you get to know nearly every family with players of the same age, and quite a few that are one year older or younger.
What is a section on weather doing in this post, considering that it’s an uncontrollable variable? Having just experienced our first season with more than a negligible number of rained out games, I now understand why baseball is played quite a bit more in California and other dry and/or warm states than states in the Midwest, Northeast, or other weather-challenged areas. Rescheduling games is a drag, and playing on wet fields (which we generally don’t) can cause them to quickly develop ruts and bumps.
The one thing your league can control is the starting and ending dates for the season. Do your best to avoid the rainy season.
Our League’s Biggest Challenge: The All-star System
Having a good all-star system is critical because skilled players want to participate in a higher level of competition and learn higher-level skills. If the all-star system does not serve that need well, then players will leave to join a different league, or more often, a travel ball team.
In our league, the exodus of skilled players begins as a trickle at the age of 10 and often turns into a flood by the age of 12. The result is a league that typically has 6-9 teams at the Shetland (ages 5-6), Pinto (ages 7-8), and Mustang (ages 9-10) levels, but typically 4-6 teams by Bronco (ages 11-12) and 2-3 teams by Pony (ages 13-14).
There are other reasons besides all-stars for attrition, of course, such as loss of interest in baseball, or frustration with a particular coach, or difficulty mastering skills needed to become an average player. My experience of our league these past 7 years is that there are always some players leaving because they find baseball too hard, but most of the rest leave because of something connected to all-stars.
A common pattern among more skilled players is that the first time they don’t make the select or “A” team, they simply leave to join travel ball or a different league where they believe they’ll be more appreciated. But there are several other reasons players or their parents can become dissatisfied with all-stars:
- All-star players may believe the head coach has not taught high-level skills or run the team very well.
- Some of the most highly skilled players may feel that the skill level of most of the other all-star players isn’t high enough.
- The head coach may treat his own kid differently than other all-stars with similar skill levels (playing time, positions, batting order, etc.).
- Expectations about roster size and/or bench times are sometimes not communicated well. Families are often very surprised and upset at how much their players are sitting on the bench.
- Families may believe the process for selecting all-star players was not fair.
- Some coaches prefer to run a socially cohesive summer team that has the same players return each year, while the league may mandate that roster composition change each year as player skill levels change over time.
- Coaches may believe the process for selecting the head coach for all-stars was unfair, and many families may also believe that. In some cases this causes an entire team’s worth of players to leave together with the coach to form their own travel ball team, or perhaps join an existing travel ball organization.
We’ve had our share of all of the issues over the years but we made some big changes a couple years ago that improved the all-star experience:
- The league is now very clear that all 12u players play together, all 11u play together, and so on. It previously varied from year to year whether a team could select players a year younger to join an older team.
- The player selection process requires a tryout. An unaffiliated outsider with baseball expertise is a major input into the selection process.
- The selection process occurs in March. It used to be May. With many parents aiming to set their summer plans by the end of April, many opted to tryout for a travel team in April rather than put off the uncertainty until May. With March tryouts, most are now willing to wait and see if their player made the all-star team.
- The all-star families are surveyed at the end of the summer season. The league responds to the feedback.
- As mentioned above, the league has established a budget for bringing in outside baseball professionals to train players and coaches. This is helping player skill level to rise throughout the league. It also creates the perception that our league provides coaching at a level that is competitive with many travel ball teams.
Team performance at the all-star level has been improving. The rate of attrition due to all-star issues has slowed in our league since these changes, and we even had some players return after leaving for a year. So clearly we’re moving in the right direction. However, I suspect we could be doing even better.
My son’s age cohort (currently 11u) is doing particularly well at retention compared to other ages, with over 50 players remaining and a record-high 8-team Bronco division. I suspect the main reason for this is that there are an unusually high number of skilled players, enough for 3 teams worth of all-stars. This makes for an impressively high level of play during the rec season. But more importantly, it means that players who don’t make (or don’t want to be on) the select team usually have options for the summer to play at a fairly high level with their friends.
I put this all-star section last because it has been the subject of more controversy and dissatisfaction in our league than everything else combined in recent years. Perhaps it’s the nature of the beast, as nearly every parent believes their child deserves more . . . or maybe we just haven’t developed the best system yet. I am very curious to read comments (please leave below) from other leagues. If you’ve got an all-star system that leads to very little grief, please tell us about it!
I do think we’re getting better though, thanks to insisting on feedback at the end of each season. Collecting formal feedback about your league is very important for all-stars as well as the regular season, so that you can keep getting better every year.
We love our league. It’s not perfect, and like most families we don’t agree with everything. But we have never considered switching to another league. We have only briefly considered going the travel ball route before the age of 13, despite the many available options in our area. A baseball recreation league, when run very well, provides a great experience at a moderate cost, and keeps players coming back year after year.
If most players in the league stick with it for 4 or more years, you know your league is doing a lot of things right.