Youth Baseball Stats Part 4: Moving to a Bigger Field Changes Everything

The stats that matter most for youth baseball change as kids age. You’ll want to first read Part 3 of the youth baseball stats series if you want to get the most out of Part 4:

Part 1: It’s Hard – how to gather, interpret and apply baseball data to improve youth baseball play

Part 2: Appropriate coach pitch stats – ages 7-8

Part 3: Appropriate kid pitch stats – ages 9-10

This post discusses the stats that matter when kids move to the bigger 50/70 field and the full rules of baseball begin. In our PONY league, this starts with the Bronco division, ages 11-12.

In prior posts I discussed specific stats a coach can track to help assess individual performance. I also discussed how to use these stats to improve the team. In this article I emphasize league-wide stats that change dramatically. These changes are driven by the introduction of full base running rules (and therefore full MLB rules), increased field size, and increased physical maturity/skills.

Statistically analyzing individual performance contributions to the team is more difficult at this level. To do it well requires looking at many different stats, many of which are not even tracked with traditional scorekeeping. Most of the key stats useful at the Mustang level are also useful at this age and field size, but predicting game outcomes based on just a few simple stats doesn’t work at this level.

Full Rules of Baseball

The big rules changes for kids at this level relate to base running offense and defense, including leads, steals, pickoffs, and balks. Some players start with these skills from either participation in this division the prior year, or from participation in competitive summer play at younger ages. So perhaps 1/3 of players experience these rules for the first time, though most of the remaining 2/3 need additional reps and training.

While rules are typically pretty close to MLB rules at this age, there are still a few minor differences, which seem to vary quite a bit between leagues and national youth baseball organizations. In order to understand the context for this article, you need to understand the specific rules used:

In our PONY league, there are some base running mercy rules (when a team is ahead by 10 runs), participation requirements, and umpire warnings with balks (though by the end of the season, balks are strictly enforced). These minor differences don’t really change the nature of the game much from how it works at the MLB level.

However, the nature of the game is still a bit different due to the smaller field size and pitching distance. In our case:

  • base path distance is 70 feet (vs 90 feet for high school and up)
  • pitcher’s mound to home plate distance is 50 feet (vs 60.5 feet for high school and up)

These are the PONY league and travel ball distances, while Little League continues to have 60 foot base paths for 11u and 12u, and a 46 foot distance from the mound to home plate, the same as PONY distances for the Mustang (9-10) division.

The Size of the Field

The averages for many stats change dramatically when field size changes. If your league’s mound-plate distance or base path distance is different from our league’s distance, in this or prior articles, then your stats (and the stats that matter most) will differ from mine.

With even minor pitching distance changes, the stats change. I tracked the results of our league’s recent increase of the mound-to-home-plate distance by 2 feet. At the Mustang level (ages 9-10) the distance went from 44′ to 46′. At the Bronco level (ages 11-12) the distance went from 48′ to 50′.

A 2′ change may seem minor. It wasn’t. The strikeout rates for batters declined dramatically at both the Mustang and Bronco levels. That extra 2′ gave hitters an extra split second that made a huge difference between missing the ball completely or getting the bat enough on the ball to stay alive or hit it weakly into play.

Take, for example, my Bronco team. In 6-7 inning games, pitchers on average struck out 6.47 batters per game, while our hitters struck out on average of 6.65 times per game. In other words, a typical game had 6 or 7 strikeouts per team. This was a huge drop from the prior year, which averaged close to 10 strikeouts per team each game. Mustang saw a similar drop in strikeout rates.

Returning discussion to the field size increase from 60′ to 70′ base paths, I observed the following, both visually and statistically:

  • Runners take longer to get to 1st base, despite being a little bigger and faster.
  • With more time to field the ball, infielders were more often able to get outs, even if they lost a little time from fumbling the ball or not charging a slow grounder.
  • Stealing requires good technique—sizable leads, reading pitcher motions, good slides, etc.
  • With leads, competent base running defense requires mastering many new skills.

For these reasons, and the fact that players are more physically developed and experienced, defense is much better. Better defense means that fewer batters reach first base safely after hitting the ball into play. Outs increase and scores decline despite fewer strikeouts. However, base running defense is challenging, especially trying to stop steals of second base. With fewer hits and walks, base running and base running defense can have a large impact on game outcomes.

Why am I going on and on about field size in an article about stats? Because these field size changes not only showed up in the stats, influenced which stats matter most, and changed the statistical value of each player’s contribution to a team—they dramatically changed the nature of the game. The game plays a lot more like what happens on a 90 foot diamond, which makes the game much more complex to analyze than it was on smaller fields.

Bronco Age is Much Harder to Analyze: Many Things Matter

What mattered most at Pinto and Mustang levels can be succinctly summarized:

Pinto (7-8): fielding matters most—the team that wins makes the highest percentage of easy outs.

Mustang (9-10): pitching matters most—the team that wins walks the fewest batters.

At Bronco (11-12), there is still a significant correlation between walks and wins, as some players are still being introduced to pitching. But it is much weaker than it was in Mustang. Here are the win/loss records of my son’s teams as related to walks in two different divisions:

Mustang Bronco
Age 9-10 11-12
Mound Distance 44 feet ~ 50 feet
Games Played 39 17
Winning Team Issued Most Walks 4 (10%) 6 (35%)

~ distance increased to 46′ in 2016, after my son had moved up to Bronco

To be fair, in 4 out of the 6 Bronco games where the winning team issued more walks, the difference between the 2 teams was 3 or fewer walks. Walks still influence game outcomes as kids get older, particularly if one team issues many more walks than the other. However, walks are much more prevalent among 9- and 10-year olds and therefore have a much bigger influence on game outcomes.

Because there are fewer walks as kids get older, other parts of the game such as hitting, base running, and defense have a greater impact on game outcomes, as well as pitcher finesse and overall hustle. In other words, everything matters, just like in real baseball. Starting at the age of 11, the types of analysis typically done at the MLB level are much more applicable.

There are still a few interesting statistical insights to be teased out of the data, that highlight differences between Bronco and MLB players.

Let’s start with a look at base running, which I didn’t much cover in prior posts.

Base Running Becomes Important

Base Running is more important in youth baseball than it is in the major leagues, because the distance is shorter between bases. At the 9- to 10-year-old level in our league, base runners were not allowed to leave the bag until the ball crossed the plate, so less skill was needed to master stealing, and no defensive pickoff skills were in play.

However, when using 70′ bases, it’s not easy to steal with a poor lead or a poor jump, and it’s not easy to master how to limit those leads and disrupt runners from getting a good jump. From visual observation, it appeared to me that leads and jumps were more important than running speed. There were a few fast runners who got frequently thrown out, while some slow runners stole many bases without getting caught much.

Stats can tell you a little about base running offense and defense. For each player we can track steal attempts, success, caught, and stealing percentage (number of successful steals divided by attempted steals). We can track number of pickoff attempts, and number of pickoffs that resulted in an out. With Gamechanger, we get these stats automatically.

Gamechanger software does not have a way of tracking how many successful pickoff should have resulted in an out, but didn’t. As a coach, I roughly kept track of this. I had our players drill frequently the situation of a runner taking off for second when picked off first. We had 3 left-handed pitchers on our team, so opposing runners got picked off of first often. We were mostly unsuccessful at converting this sort of an opportunity into an out in the first half of the season, but the drills paid off. By the second half we were averaging about one lefty pickoff out per game, thanks to successfully executed run-downs.

Notice I’m not talking about too many statistics here. There’s not much to talk about. Hitting and pitching are very amenable to statistical analysis but beyond what I already mentioned, I don’t think there’s much to track with traditional score keeping software on base running.

There is still plenty to observe about base running, even though scorekeepers have no simple way of tracking these things. On offense, does each player take a big enough lead? Is each player diving back to first on pickoff attempts? Is each player properly picking up pitcher motions in order to “get a good jump?” For those who don’t know, the runner “gets a good jump” if he takes off to second the instant in the pitcher’s windup where a pickoff is impossible without issuing a balk.

On defense, coaches will need to observe whether the pitcher looks towards the runners, varies the timing of those looks, how quick the pickoff moves are, whether the pitcher fully understands the balk rules, etc. There are many additional details to observe about catchers and infield positioning as well. None of it is automatically tracked by traditional or electronic scorekeeping.

Yet another thing stats don’t tell you base running offense and defense is the morale impact. Players who have been drilled well will have greater confidence. When it becomes apparent after an inning or two that one team is unstoppable on the bases, while the other team gets picked off when their attention falters or gets caught stealing half the time . . . you can see the body language and know that the inferior base running team is very likely to lose. There’s no statistics I know of on morale, but you see it all the time at the rec level, and the lower (AA) levels of competitive summer play.

Pitching at the Bronco Level

Pitching continues to be very important. However, it is not quite so dominated by walks and strike percentage, as I already mentioned earlier.

As a Bronco coach, I tell my players that I require 50% strikes during games for regular pitchers. Taking this to heart, as well as benefiting from many bullpen sessions, 9 out of 12 players this spring rose to the occasion and were able to throw 50% or greater strikes (8 of them over 54%). Only 2 out of 8 teams in our Bronco division had this many pitchers throwing 50% or greater strikes. More typical was 5 to 7 strike throwers per 12-person team, but that’s still a reasonable number of pitchers to have on a team.

Strike percentage continues to be an important metric for the following reasons:

  • Less than 50% often means trouble, and less than 45% definitely means trouble (too many walks).
  • Higher strike % generally indicates more control, which opens up many possibilities in terms of location and secondary pitches.
  • Higher strike % usually correlates very well with first strike %. On average, throwing a first pitch strike results in poorer batter results. The batter either starts with an 0-1 count, or swings at the first pitch, which both lead to worse results on average for the batter.
  • Higher strike % usually means lower pitch counts, as every pitch taken for a ball is an extra pitch. The lower the number of pitches per inning, the longer a pitcher can stay in the game.

However, all that being said, it is not as important a metric as it was at the 10 and under age. This is because hitters are better after a couple years of exposure to kid pitch. The pitcher on our spring team with by far the highest strike % at 67% (wow!) had above-average velocity but threw many pitches right down the middle of the strike zone. His WHIP was an unimpressive 2.50, substantially above the team average WHIP of 2.00. He gave up few walks, but opponents had a .395 batting average against him, as opposed to the .294 average against our team as a whole.

While we obviously don’t collect formal data on ball trajectory, you could visually see that the pitches thrown from our 67% strike thrower had no tailing action. Balls which come in flat like that, right down the middle, at slightly above average velocity are exactly the kinds of pitches 11- and 12-year-olds are looking to hit. Note that his results did begin to improve in his last couple outings as he got better at hitting the corners.

As implied in the last 2 paragraphs, I care about WHIP, the Walks and Hits per Innings Pitched I discussed so much in the last stats article. The 5 players on the team to pitch over 10 innings during the spring season were the 5 players with WHIPS of 2.33 or better. The player with the lowest WHIP (1.29) was the only player to pitch over 20 innings during the season.

WHIP is supposed to be better at measuring pitcher performance than ERA. I think it is, but it is still not completely independent of fielding. My son, the one with the 1.29 WHIP, played with a team this summer that did not field or catch as well as the spring team. There were other reasons besides the fielding (trouble getting used to “bump” mounds, facing better hitting, etc.) so this is not exactly a controlled experiment. But his WHIP started out incredibly high at the beginning of the summer. The last 2 tournaments of the summer, his pitching was better and the fielding behind him was better and it did cause his WHIP to come down some, but the average for the summer was 2.09. The only other time he had a WHIP above 1.85 was his first few games of pitching at the age of 8.

Some of you may be puzzled at this point. Fielding errors don’t hurt WHIP, right? Well, it is literally true that a play marked as an error will not count against WHIP. However, errors are marked differently by different scorekeepers, some of whom are beginners, and that may hurt or help the WHIP. Furthermore, the standard for marking errors is whether an average fielder would have been able to make the play. What is average for one team or league can be quite different than another team or league. And what about the great pickoff move that should have achieved an out, but didn’t? Most importantly, what about all those extra batters the pitcher must face due to all the errors, whether or not they are marked as such? A pitcher which has to face twice as many batters on a poor fielding team is, on average, going to have a WHIP that is about twice as much as the WHIP on a team with great fielding.

The way I now think of WHIP is that it is a useful measure of a given team’s performance with different pitchers. In other words: With which pitchers on the mound does your team perform best? WHIP answers that question.

Pickoffs become a factor at this level. Left-handed pitchers have a big advantage with pickoff moves to first base, because it is easy to be deceptive without being called for a balk. The lefty can start his pitching motion but then cause his foot to swerve over towards first base, land it (at least 45 degrees) in that direction, followed by a throw to first.

We had 3 left-handed pitchers on our team and this made a big difference as we earned an out nearly every game during the second half of the season from a lefty picking off someone at first. The player with the 2.33 WHIP was a lefty who stopped a couple of potentially big innings with pickoffs, so his ERA was a bit better than one might expect for having such a high WHIP.

The last thing I want to mention with pitching is that, in my observation, the majority of coaches ignore pitching stats. Most coaches seem to care about throwing hard strikes far more than anything else—the harder the better. I have even heard coaches say things like “He throws so hard, I can’t understand why pitchers who aren’t as good as him are getting better results?” Notice how “good” is equated with “velocity.”

I was not a coach for my son’s summer team this year. On this team, the player with by far the lowest velocity was hardly ever pitched. Yet, his WHIP was best on the team. Other teams were so used to 47 to 55 MPH from 11-year-olds that they simply couldn’t deal with arcing pitches below 40 MPH. Most hits were weak pop-ups, weak grounders, or foul balls. Players are also tempted by slow pitches to swing at pitches out of the strike zone.

One of my favorite tactics as a manager is to alternate fast and slow pitchers. While change of speed is most effective on a pitch to pitch basis, it is also at least modestly effective on a pitcher-to-pitcher basis as well.

I am not trying to say slow pitchers are better than fast pitchers. What I am trying to say is look at your stats to see which pitchers get the best results. Don’t keep a player off the mound who pitches slow or has a funny windup. Keep players off the mound who throw few strikes or who generate worse results for the team than most of the other pitchers.

Hitting at the Bronco Level

Contacting the ball is no longer good enough at the Bronco level. Many players with high OBPs and batting averages at the age of 10 on fields with 60′ base paths experience much lower OBPs and batting averages at the age of 11, when they move up to 70′ base paths, despite lower strikeout rates. So contact %, which was an important stat at the 9- to 10-year-old level, becomes less relevant once players move up to 70′ base paths.

Quality of hits matters far more than it did at the younger ages on the smaller fields. This is where the size advantage begins to matter much more.

While the OBP and OBP + ROE metrics I discussed in the last post are still somewhat relevant, the batting average now becomes a much more important measure of batter success. However, most helpful of all are spray charts, which visually display hit type, strength, and location. Using these charts, coaches can diagnose hitting issues for the offense, while directing field shifts for the defense.

Gamechanger software allows scorekeepers to locate exactly where each ball went, and what type of hit it was (grounder, hard grounder, line drive, pop-up, fly ball). If you can’t keep in your head all your game observations, you can examine spray charts for tendencies, and then take appropriate measures in batting practice.

Fielding at the Bronco Level

Talent is not distributed equally in baseball or any other activity. Nevertheless, by the age of 11, most players who practice diligently can field reasonably well. Though beginners almost always lag behind more experienced players, after 20 practices or so they are generally not too far behind. With good coaching, most new players can be played somewhere in the field to good effect.

What all this means is that the easy plays are usually made. This is quite different from the younger levels, especially ages 7-8 when easy out opportunities were typically executed less than half the time.

Since most teams will successfully field most easy grounders and pop-ups, what tends to make one team better than the next in terms of fielding is more difficult plays.

Some difficult fielding plays require talent:

  • Athletic plays on difficult grounders from infielders
  • Catching pop flies that are hit far away from a fielder
  • Making hard and accurate throws from the outfield
  • Catcher with a strong enough arm to throw out runners attempting to steal second base

There are also many types of fielding plays that any player can execute with good coaching and frequent drills:

  • Pickoffs
  • Rundowns
  • Where players move on a ball hit into play
  • Where players move on a steal
  • Ball in play that goes right in between 2-3 fielders
  • Catcher fielding dribblers
  • Etc.

Unfortunately, fielding is where I find traditional stats least useful. Coaches need to rely on visual observation to identify the causes of errors, though it’s possible for obsessive note takers to track every type of error, as I demonstrated in the stats article for 7- to 8-year-olds.

Parting Words

Veteran baseball coaches often talk about how everything changes when kids “move to the big field,” which refers to the 60.5/90 diamond. The Bronco stats for the 50/70 field discussed in this article have much more in common with “the big field” than they do with 46/60 fields. Hitting the ball weakly into play mostly results in outs, and therefore hitting the ball hard becomes much more important. More is expected of pitchers than just avoiding walks.

The biggest remaining difference is the running game which is more active on the 50/70 field, partly due to the smaller field size, but also due to lower skill levels.

Nevertheless, this is much closer to real baseball. Real baseball is much more complex to analyze than baseball at young ages on smaller fields. Starting with the 50/70 field, much of the conventional wisdom applicable to “the big field” applies, while much of the statistical complexity also applies. In other words . . .

Welcome to real baseball. Well, almost . . .

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *