Leo’s Journey from Little League to College Baseball (Great Team)

This is part 5 (Age 14, 8th grade) of an ongoing series following a young player’s baseball career from Little League to College Baseball. In order to get the most out of this series, be sure to start at the beginning.

Leo started the season at 5′ 5″, 125 Lbs. Though still close to median height for his age (which is small for baseball), he was starting to fill out a little.

As expected, Leo made the 8th grade middle school team. He also earned a spot as a starter. His middle school was very large, playing in the largest size classification for his state.

A really good team . . .

You need to perform at a high level to be a starter on a big-school team. And this wasn’t looking to be a run-of-the-mill big-school team. It was looking like this could be a really good team, the kind of team that routinely outclasses the competition.

Leo was going to play a bit of shortstop and backup catcher. But, with a fastball topping out at 72 MPH, a curveball, and a changeup, his most important role was pitching. Despite being the smallest 8th grader on his team, only one other (much taller) player on the team could pitch that hard.

Note: There was nearly a one year gap between forum posts at this point in the story, which is why there’s less detail than usual at the end of the last school year (summer and fall of 7th grade in the prior post) and beginning of this one (winter and early spring of 8th grade in this post).

Leo started his 8th grade season giving up no runs in the first few games, pitching against other large schools. By early March he had given up a few runs but was still pitching very well. This included winning a game in which he pitched the first 6 1/3 innings against a school considered to be one of the best in the state. His hitting was also good given the strength of the competition, with a .350 batting average in the early part of the season.

It wasn’t just about Leo. This team was good. It was fun to be on a team that played really well and won most of its games.

What’s it like to play on a good team? Other than to keep saying Leo loved it, Wayne didn’t elaborate. So I’ll say a few things myself that I noticed my own son enjoying the couple times he’s been on a really good team:

  • As a pitcher, knowing that you can trust the defense behind you is a really great feeling and takes away pressure that you “have to strike them out.” You know that every weak grounder and popup is an automatic out. So you can take advantage by trying to induce these kinds of hits (for example, pitching low/outside often results in weak opposite field grounders). You know your pickoff attempts will be caught, and that if it results in a rundown, the result will be an out.
  • As a pitcher, having a catcher who catches almost everything, including balls that move, can really make your day. Conversely, it’s not so fun to have a catcher who frequently allows batters to reach first base safely on a dropped strike 3.
  • At any fielding position, you know that your teammates will always move correctly on every play. You don’t have to check to see if they’re in the correct position before making a throw.
  • Every player on your team is capable of hitting a ball into play. You aren’t incentivized to take reckless base-running risks because the next few hitters are “automatic outs.”
  • Many stats that are supposed to be about individuals will be better when you are surrounded by great teammates. For example, WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) is supposed to be a fielding independent measure for pitchers. It isn’t. If there are several errors in an inning, a pitcher faces many more batters and will give up more walks and hits per inning on average. And of course, poor fielding teams usually have zero chance of making a very difficult play, stopping what would have otherwise been a hit. In my own son’s experience, the better his team, the better his WHIP and ERA.

So yes, Leo’s 8th grade team played very well. Leo’s team finished the season with a 25-5 record, ranked #2 in the state. They even beat the top-ranked team once. 25 wins was a school record for a single season.

Expectations are high when your team is great. Leo had a very intense experience when his team played the #1 ranked team, the only team in the state with an undefeated record. Leo’s #2 ranked team had managed to go most of the season without playing the undefeated team. With less than a week remaining in the season, these top 2 teams played a double header.

Leo was expected to start one of these two games. There was a lot of emotional buildup before this double header, with Wayne and Leo thinking of this as “the big game.” Here is what Wayne said about that game (post 519):

We played the big game tonight….or should I say “games” (we played a double-header).

I talked to some people there about the team we faced. Come to find out they were undefeated on the season and have been beating most of the teams they play by 15 or 20 or more runs. I knew several of the players from our old travel ball days. Many of them were the same kids that won several state championships in travel ball.

My boy was scheduled to pitch the second game…. more on that later. The first game I clocked the other pitcher’s fastball as high as 78mph. I mean, my God, that boy could sling it. But our boys found a way to hit him and we won the game 9 to 5! It was a great game and we spoiled their undefeated season!

Ok, now the second game. I tell you my boy pitched the game of his life. I kid you not when I tell you the kids on this team were hitting crazy…..many tell us the best hitting team in our state, and I don’t doubt it at all. Without a doubt the best hitting team I’ve ever seen. MY BOY HAD A NO HITTER GOING INTO THE 5TH INNING!!!! He was simply freaking lights out.

Going into the 5th inning the score is tied at 0 to 0…..neither team can do anything offensively.

In the end my boy gave up 3 hits in the 5th inning and walked one and gave up 3 runs. In the end he/we lost the game 3 to nothing. My boy gave up three hits and struck out 4.

The sad part is my boy took it really hard….. I mean really really hard. In my opinion he pitched the best he’s ever pitched in his life and got the loss and he just doesn’t understand it. I don’t know what to tell him. I’ve told him how great he did but he just doesn’t want to hear it. Baseball is a great game, but man it’s bad when you play the game of your life and lose.

It is my hope that my boy learns from this….. maybe in the long run it will make him a better player and who knows, maybe even a better person. It’s hard to learn how to lose but baseball is like that… kind of like life in a way.

Yes, the team lost “the big game” with Leo on the mound. Baseball has a way of occasionally humbling the best of players on the best of teams (and conversely, rewarding average players on weak teams with occasional moments of glory). But Leo got over it quickly. While expectations are high on great teams, nobody expects even a great team to win every game.

Taken as a whole, it was a great season for Leo, and not just for the usual reasons.

Leo had long ago lost interest in being the star on a terrible team. This season he got to be on a team that played at a high level and won most of its games. He loved that! But yes, Leo also had a fantastic year, ending with a .368 batting average, .505 OBP, and an ERA of 2.10 against the best competition in the state—as one of the team’s two aces, he was usually called upon to pitch against the toughest opponents. In 30 innings of work, he struck out 38 batters and gave up 13 walks.

After the marvelous 8th grade middle school season, Wayne wondered whether good fortune could continue into the summer. The rules in Leo’s state prohibited the school coaches from running a summer team with the same school players. However, Leo’s good luck continued.

The same great coach of Leo’s all-star team when he was 12 (see Part 3 of this story: Injury) agreed to coach the 8th grade middle school team for summer ball. Wayne noted that this coach was one of best players his area had ever seen. He was even drafted by the Dodgers, but declined in favor of a college scholarship for football.

With pretty much the same group of players from the 8th grade team, Leo’s team was dominant in a summer season that only ran through late June. Wayne noticed that many players on most of the teams they faced lacked fundamental baseball skills such as being able to catch a simple pop-up or field a slow grounder. Apparently, school team summer ball for 13-14 year-olds was not where the top players went to play, and in fact these teams seemed to attract players who hadn’t played the game much or hadn’t played in a while. The gap between the best and worst players (and teams) was enormous.

Despite losing only one game in summer play, Leo’s team lost the final championship game to a team that added some players a grade higher to the roster just for the playoffs . . . some coaches will do just about anything to win. While age/grade cutoffs are strict in recreation leagues and most forms of travel ball, apparently they weren’t so strict for the soon-to-be-freshman summer league.

Leo’s fastball velocity continued to increase, hitting 73-75 MPH consistently and sometimes touching 77 MPH. His reputation was spreading, with players on opposing teams hoping not to face him. None of the local players knew anyone else this size (5′ 5″) and age (14) throwing so hard. Wayne mentioned this a few times, including this anecdote (post 539):

When he was batting the catcher asked him how old he was and my boy told him 14 going into the 9th grade. Then he asked how hard he threw, my boy told him he’s hit 77mph before. The catcher told him he’s never seen someone his size throw so hard (my boy is 5’5″). Funny, my boy hit a standing double and when he got to second base the SS asked him the same thing.

The 8th grade team generated a lot of excitement around town, as it was the best 8th grade team the school had ever seen. Leo’s future high school coaches were eager to build on this success. In Wayne’s words (post 538),

I am really excited about one thing….our school had a meeting the other day with all the baseball parents. Starting next week our school is going to have a “summer baseball workout program.” This is above and beyond playing. It will be 4 days a week for 3 hours a day. I’m told they are going to do arm training developed by Dr. Andrews, and they are also going to do speed and agility training. This will all be done under the supervision of the coaches. I kid you not, this is the kind of stuff we’ve paid our boy to take down through the years. I love love love the arm training that they are going to do, and I’m excited to see what it’s all about. A couple of years ago my boy was a member of a speed training clinic, and I know how great that is.

Here is my opinion on this……I think the HS coaches (and Athletic Director) know what kind of players they have down here in the 8th grade. Our team broke our school record for most wins and blew away the ERA and batting titles from former teams. Our school has a long history so this is a pretty big deal around here. I think our school/coaches feel that we have the potential to have a team that can go to the state in a couple of years and I believe they are doing all they can to get our boys ready. Also they fired the head HS coach a couple of weeks ago. Rumor is they are going to do what it takes to get a great coach with a history of winning.

A few weeks into the high school strength and conditioning program, the summer baseball season ended in late June. That’s when the varsity high school baseball coach invited Leo and several other soon-to-be 9th graders to a practice with the high school summer varsity team. Leo did so well he was invited to join the short end-of-summer season for the high school varsity team (just 7 games).

Leo was soon to experience his first games among high school varsity players, though likely on the bench for the most part. After Wayne shared his feelings about this, one longtime contributor to Wayne’s forum thread voiced his ideas about what to expect at the high school level (post 550):

If our experience is any guide, here’s what your boy will likely notice about the step up.

1. HS players are surprisingly prone to making infield and throwing errors. Just try not to be one of them.

2. Focus is much more important on defense. They’ve played a few more years and should know instinctively where they should be on any given play, so your boy should study up, as there are a few set places for the SS to be on hits to the outfield.

3. He may have to play some outfield, and balls hit at that level go farther and slice or hook far more than he’s used to—so get lots of practice.

4. Even though HS players are teenagers, the game is much more about the team and less about “me” than it was before. Sniping at teammates is toxic and picking up teammates who screw up is the norm, as well as the rule. If you do something less than perfectly and a bad result ensues, take responsibility, even if a teammate could have bailed you out with a better effort.

5. Find ways to help the team—catching in the bullpen, warming up outfielders between innings, picking up the bases after the game–no one is too good to do that.

6. Tell him to trust his skills. Even if he starts out 0 for 10, he’s got enough ‘game’ to belong there, and owes no apology to anyone. Sure, the pitching is better, but that just means (a) load earlier to be able to catch up to the fastball, and (b) learn to recognize off speed pitches (they aren’t thrown that often and rarely with great accuracy)—but don’t compromise on basic swings mechanics to try to get to the ball earlier—that’s a fool’s solution.

7. Be ready when the opportunity to play presents itself. Part of that means to not screw around when warming up—even pre-game throwing should have a purpose, such as getting the footwork and release points down.

8. Neither boast nor make excuses. Sure, talk with teammates after plays and figure out what was done right or wrong, and try to come up with a solution to do that play better next time. But otherwise, let your gameplay speak for itself. Ballplayers are pretty shrewd at judging other ballplayers, and if you haven’t got game, all the BS’ing in the world isn’t going to convince them otherwise.

9. When pitching, don’t be intimidated by the size and apparent skill level of hitters. Even at this level, if you can keep the ball at the knees and mix up your pitches a little (and not walk batters), you’ll do okay. Few HS hitters can hit a ball that is at the knees on the outer half of the plate over the fence, so—even if he gives up a few singles–with some decent defense the opponent will have to link together three hits to score, which doesn’t occur that often.

Wayne loved getting this advice as he was hoping that Leo could build upon his recent good fortune. Unfortunately, when Leo played in the first varsity game in early July, he had arm troubles and pitched poorly. According to Wayne (post 581),

Since I started this thread a few years ago I decided to be open and honest and post the good with the bad.

Today was a very bad day….very bad.

We had our first varsity game. This past week my boy has told me that his arm is a little sore….I didn’t think that much of it at the time…. (Just to be safe he took the past 6 days or so off from throwing). The coach put my boy in to pitch in the 5th inning….he gave up 10 runs in one inning. His fastball was a good 10 MPH off its normal fastball. He was throwing in the low to mid 60’s when his normal fastball is in the low 70’s and occasionally 75+.

After the game he told me his arm hurts and he was afraid to tell his coach (he still hasn’t told his coach).

It’s the weekend of July 4th and we can’t get him to a doctor for at least three more days.

Just to be blunt I’m nervous and maybe even a little scared. You people have no idea how much my boy loves baseball and I just hope his arm is ok. We’ll see what the doctor says on Tuesday and I’m hoping he just has a tired arm or maybe some inflammation.

After an anxious few days of uncertainty, Leo had a medical exam. Wayne found out that Leo had a strained and separated growth plate. Leo had to do some therapy and stop throwing for a month, which was about as good a result as they could have hoped for. While the month-long layoff was a bummer, especially because Leo missed the rest of the varsity scrimmages, no permanent damage was expected. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise, as resting his arm was what his body needed.

A month later, Leo was cleared to throw again. Leo rejoined his high school team doing physical conditioning and other forms of off-season training. A few days later, he was throwing as hard as ever, and a month later he enrolled in a 10-week pitching program with the same pitching coach he had worked with over the past few years.

Despite the month-long break from using his arm, it was hard to view Leo’s past 8 months of baseball as anything but a great success. Leo played very well on a very good team. It went so well that it was easy to imagine a very bright future in high school sports. Perhaps more than just baseball . . .

While it was obviously a given that Leo would make the high school freshman baseball team, Wayne was soon to find out that anything beyond that was not a given—it requires more than just baseball skill to earn a spot with junior varsity or varsity.

Would Leo have the attitude, work ethic, and academic success to advance beyond the high school freshman baseball team?

Part 6 of Leo’s story: HS Freshman (age 15, 9th grade)

 

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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