Leo’s Journey from Little League to College Baseball (HS Sophomore)

This is part 7 (Age 16, 10th 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.

Will Leo advance from JV to varsity?
modified pixabay image

Wayne had been looking forward to Leo’s sophomore year with great anticipation. This was the year he expected Leo would shine and move up to varsity.

As baseball pre-season practice began in early February, Leo was almost a different person. At 16, he was driving and dating. And while he still loved baseball and could still throw hard (clocked at 83 MPH to start his 10th grade season), he didn’t have that burning passion to be the best that he used to have a few years back. As Wayne wrote (post 853):

He still loves the game but it doesn’t seem the same…..at least so far. Right now he’s so bent on driving and girls and stuff that that’s pretty much all he can see. Yeah he loves baseball but it seems to be at a different level than in the past. All he wants to do is go to practice….he doesn’t seem to have the desire inside himself to be the best (like he’s had all his life). I get the feeling that it’s just fine with him to be on the team. I can remember a time when he would not accept anything other than being the best player on the field.

Leo attended mandatory practices and workout sessions and did a reasonable job with them, but nothing more. Wayne wondered if Leo would follow the path of players who stop working out outside of team practices—such players rarely become impact varsity players, if they become varsity players at all.

At least Leo was still playing. Wayne was happy about that. Less than 1 in 5 of the ball players Leo had played with over the years were still even playing, and some of those former baseball peers were very, very good.

Wayne found out the reason Leo didn’t make varsity. He was being punished. The coach wanted him to earn his way back after doing something he disapproved of, even though it wasn’t related to baseball. Wayne did not describe the incident that caused the coach to make this decision. This wasn’t the first nor the last of Leo’s questionable behaviors or of his somehow being in the wrong place at the wrong time. While Leo clearly had enough baseball skill and talent to advance in the game, it was becoming clear that his character and grades might hold him back.

Having to earn his way back to varsity was by no means the worst possible consequence for an infraction. The opportunity to play varsity was still there.

With the new season came a new pitching coach. He had recently coached at the college level and seemed to be a very good coach. He worked his pitchers hard. Leo hated it. He didn’t want to work that hard. On the other hand, Wayne thought (post 860):

Personally, I freaking love the guy. They run 4 miles many days after practice and this guy is tough to boot. I’ve never spoken to him and never will (I always stay out of the way) but watching him at practice is a joy. Nothing gets by this guy.

There seems to come a time in the life of every baseball-obsessed parent when they project their own dreams and desires onto their kid in an unhealthy way. Perhaps this was that time for Wayne? After all, Leo was a sophomore . . .

click to skip explanation box and resume the story

Is it Better to Play JV or Varsity as a Sophomore?

Sophomore is the year that some stars get moved up to varsity, while others stay with JV. Parents may feel it's time for their player to be exposed to the tougher competition or to receive the honor or whatever. The player may or may not want what the parent wants. The player may want to stay down at JV, get lots of at bats, play 3-4 different positions, and dominate as a pitcher, as opposed to coming off the bench to pitch and not being permitted to hit at the varsity level. Or sometimes it's the opposite, and the kid wants to play up while the parent thinks it's best to stay down for the extra playing time.

In the end what happens in the sophomore year matters less than some parents imagine. While every part of a baseball player's high school career is important and builds incrementally, whether the player dominates at the JV level or comes off the bench occasionally with varsity as a sophomore is not going matter much in the grand scheme of a baseball player’s career.

It's the junior year that matters most, and where you hope everything goes as well as possible because that is when a player should be reaching out to college baseball coaches and figuring out what college to attend. Early part of the junior year is the ideal time for a player to be putting up peak numbers, especially at showcases.

As the season started, Wayne seemed obsessed with Leo’s lack of desire to play varsity. The coach indicated that he would very likely call Leo up to pitch one varsity game in the first week. Then, according to Leo, the coach texted him very late the night before the game. Leo said he didn’t see the text in time and therefore went to the JV game instead of the varsity game.

But what was worse, in Wayne’s eyes, was that Leo didn’t seem to care at all. Leo said he didn’t want to play varsity, and Wayne got the strong impression Leo was souring on baseball altogether.

Wayne was paying far more attention to his own idea of what was best for Leo than what Leo actually wanted. Leo wanted to play catcher and shortstop. He wanted to hit. And he wanted to completely dominate on the mound, not struggle against one of the top varsity teams in the state. Playing for JV, Leo got that. Wayne was not seeing it that way.

At times during the year, Wayne would step back and decide he was wrong to be so obsessed with Leo making the varsity team. For example, in late February, Wayne wrote (post 897):

Been doing a lot of thinking today and I’ve figured something out.

I’ve been wrong.

The one pushing my boy to be on Varsity is me and when I stop to think about it no one else is but me.

Last night he had the time of his life playing with the JV. It was like the old days when he was 10 and 11 years old where he was having fun playing.

So if he doesn’t want to play Varsity that is just fine by me. It was a complete joy to watch him have fun last night. I think along the way I was guilty of doing what many of us do….I forgot that this game is about fun.

I’ve said it before on this thread that I’ve made just about every mistake there is to make and this was a big mistake.

I’m going to enjoy this year and help him have fun and if the phone rings and the Varsity wants him I’ll ask my boy if he wants to play up or not. It’s up to him. I just want to see him have fun and enjoy the greatest game in the world.

Some dads get obsessed in the other direction. In response to this particular note, one dad wrote (post 899):

This “parenting” thing sure don’t come with any instruction manual, and we’ve all made plenty of mistakes along the way, so don’t feel too bad….cuz as they say, “been there, done that” myself.

Funny thing though…..this year, I was just the opposite of what you did. I did everything I could to convince my youngest to just stay down and play JV for one more season, as I didn’t/don’t see him getting much playing time on the varsity level, given the “senior” roster they have this season, and he would’ve been one of the “top kids” on the JV squad, with pretty much unlimited playing time.

He on the other hand, wanted to play on the varsity team, because most of the kids he played with when they were all 10 through 14 are seniors this season (he has one of those weird baseball vs. school birth dates), and he wanted to be there for them as their “last season together”.

Well, needless to say, he is on the varsity team (and doing well I’m happy to report)…..and having a great time with “all of the guys”. Still not sure how much actual playing time he’ll get once the regular season rolls around, but if there’s not that many innings for him…..I think it will be a great learning experience for him, as he learns the value of being a good teammate from the bench.

This will be the first time that he’ll really have had to “sit” in his short career, but there are lessons to be learned in baseball, whether you’re in the starting lineup or not….

And as you’re finding out, as long as they’re having fun, who are we to get in their way? Sit back, enjoy, and let your “son” find his own path…..I’m continually surprised how given just some guidance, yet the freedom to choose, that they make the correct choices that are best for them (and all concerned for that matter), more times than not.

So did Leo get to play all of his favorite positions in JV? Yes! He played as second baseman and pitcher for the first game, and was then the catcher in the next game.

That game he played catcher was eventful. He played the position very well, throwing out a couple of base stealers. But the most dramatic moment was when a runner coming home from 3rd collided with Leo. The runner did not slide, but seemed to intentionally put down his head and ram Leo like a charging bull. Leo spurted blood just under the eye and was taken to the hospital for 4 stitches after the game. The opposing coach congratulated the scoring runner as he walked to the dugout, while Leo was covered in blood. Some coaches really really want to win . . . Wayne found out later that the collision resulted in a grade two concussion and a chipped tooth for the runner.

Though Leo quickly rebounded from this incident, Wayne still worried about his lack of desire for varsity. It all came to a head a week later. In Wayne’s words (post 904):

My boy got hurt sliding into second base . . . heard a pop and he couldn’t put weight on his ankle. We take him to the hospital. When we get there the doctor looks at [Leo’s ankle] and says he thinks it’s dislocated and fractured but will have to do x-rays to confirm.

We’re sitting in the room and I’m pissed. I tell my boy . . . “you know you wouldn’t be hurt like this if you were playing up on varsity instead of pissing around on this JV team.” [Wayne realized later that this made no sense—he said it out of anger]

He looked at me as honest as a prayer and said these simple words . . . “but I love playing on the JV team.”

I asked him why and he said “because it’s a lot of fun . . . I get to pitch, catch, play SS and bat third. If they move me to varsity they won’t let me bat and I’ll only pitch.

Talk about feeling small. I felt small.

Turns out Leo broke his ankle. That kept him out of baseball for the rest of March and the first week of April. Meanwhile, things started to get a little weird with high school baseball.

One weird thing was that the JV coach put Leo in as starting pitcher after he hadn’t thrown a pitch in a month, with an ankle that wasn’t yet 100%. You just don’t do that. You want someone recovering from injury to do some bullpen sessions for a week or two until they’re 100% again. Predictably, Leo wasn’t 100% and was pulled after walking a bunch of hitters in 1 1/3 innings of work.

But that was the least of the weird stuff going on. While Leo was still loving playing with JV, his friends on varsity were hating what was going on there. It was essentially the same team as last year as only 2 seniors had graduated. But the coach was not playing some of the better players and the team was losing most games, some by blowout scores. Only one player on the varsity was hitting above .240. How could this be happening? This was a team that made the playoffs last year!

Several of Leo’s friends on varsity said that this was probably their last year of baseball. They hated it now. It’s not that they hated baseball, but they hated baseball with this coach. Many people will tell you that someone who wants to quit based on an unhappy coach experience doesn’t want it bad enough. If you love the game enough, the setbacks and indignities you suffer won’t matter. Maybe so, but some players (who perhaps “don’t want it bad enough”) are going to respond to certain coaches by wanting to give up the game. And when a kid doesn’t want to play anymore, there’s not much anyone can do to reverse that. Some of those players who quit maybe were not super passionate about baseball at the time they quit, but perhaps they might have developed a burning passion for the game under a different coach.

From Leo’s point of view, staying with JV was the way to go. Except for that one bad pitching outing on his recovering ankle, Leo was having a stellar year, leading JV in every statistic, including hitting stats. He played all the infield positions except first base. As a pitcher, he was almost untouchable, throwing in the low to mid 80s with a decent curveball and a passable changeup. Yet he was still with JV. Wayne couldn’t understand and still felt frustrated by how the coach was doing things.

For years, Wayne had looked forward to the sophomore season in high school, a season when star players sometimes get the opportunity to shine at the varsity level. He got so frustrated that he even looked into transferring to a different school, but found out there were restrictions in his state that said you couldn’t play sports for a year after transferring. So that option was out.

Keep in mind that the source material for this story all comes from Wayne. At this part of the story, Wayne’s desire for his grandson to play varsity was so strong that it makes it hard to sort out what exactly was happening with Leo, because it’s being reported from the point of view of Wayne, the disappointed grandfather.

One father noted that most parents with a kid playing baseball in high school will experience anxiety of various sorts (post 952):

[Wayne] is not alone in this. All of us do the same thing. If anyone reading this hasn’t felt like this, you’re either a liar or a saint.

With 7 games left in the season, Leo was hitting .425 and had an ERA of .95, according to the stats handed out by the coach. He played even better for the last 7 games, and then the JV season was over. Some of Leo’s stats broke records for his school’s junior varsity baseball program. The team ended 24-12, which was a record season for this school’s JV team.

The varsity and freshman teams both lost most of their games. The few games the varsity did win came mostly against smaller, weaker, schools.

The season was totally maddening for Wayne. It made no sense. A coach who previously seemed to like his boy suddenly didn’t, even though it hurt the varsity team. Huh?

Then came the revelation.

After the season ended, Wayne talked to the coach. Turns out Leo had lied to Wayne.

The head-butting catcher-incident had occurred a couple days before Leo was to pitch for varsity. His face was a bloody mess and it had rattled him. Rather than talk to the coach about it, he had ignored a voicemail and two texts from the coach telling him he wanted him to pitch that varsity game. He had not mentioned receiving and ignoring all this communication to Wayne. Not long after the catching injury, he had his month-long ankle injury. So the combination of poor communication by Leo and time out from injury caused him to drop off the coach’s radar. Leo could not be relied on for the varsity team.

It might have been a mistake to approach the coach at all. At this age, it’s probably best for players to solve their own problems. But Wayne did get to find out what happened with Leo, which he might not have discovered otherwise. It gave Wayne a chance to talk to Leo about what happened, and explain how admitting to a mistake is almost always wiser than trying to cover up.

It was a learning experience for Wayne as well. In general, it’s rare for a coach to “not like” a player. Every coach will have their reasons for passing over certain players. You may not know what the reason is, and you may not like it, but it’s not likely to have anything to do with how much a coach likes or dislikes a player. And it may very well have nothing to do with reasons you might suspect, such as short-person bias, favoritism, or bad judgment. It may be that the coach saw or experienced something you don’t even know about. Wayne had considered many possible reasons why Leo was being held back, and all of them were wrong. Once he found out the real reason, he agreed with the coach.

But yes, Wayne was disappointed. At perhaps the peak of Leo’s post-puberty baseball career, Leo missed an opportunity to shine at varsity. As Wayne could see at travel ball tryouts shortly after the season ended (post 975):

I know my boy’s days are limited as his high school days come to a close. I think that’s partly why I was so upset over how things went with this year (his sophomore year). I knew without a doubt that my boy was going to be a great Sophomore player. Right now he’s ahead of most of the kids his age (talent wise). I knew his 10th grade year was going to be his year and it’s the year I’ve been waiting on for so very long. To have it all blow up like it did just sucks to be blunt.

I’m starting to see now….. I’m seeing kids who weren’t all that good and just hung around the game…they are getting bigger and better. There is one kid on our school team that shot up to 6 foot and his arm went with him. He’s never been a good player and mostly played the bench his entire life. Now he’s throwing fastballs at the speed of light and hitting balls to the moon. He’s only one of a few players I’ve noticed that are doing this.

My boy is still a very good player but it looks like he’s through growing. He might be 5′ 9″ tall and even though he’s throwing about 85mph now…. he may never throw harder. Maybe he’ll hit a little harder with age and muscle growth but he probably won’t run much faster either.

So next year, his Jr. year…. he may very well be just one of the players on the team instead of the standout he’s been all his life.

Reading between the lines of Wayne’s narrative, Leo actually had a fun year with JV. Not only did he put up good numbers, he was throwing pretty hard for a sophomore at 83-85 MPH.

Could Leo hit 90 MPH by senior year? It was not out of the question. 90 MPH is the magic number for a right-handed pitcher. Most varsity high school hitters struggle to hit 90 MPH fastballs. More importantly, 90 MPH is a surefire ticket onto a college baseball team for a right-handed pitcher (lefties can get away with 2-3 MPH less than that).

A pitcher throwing 85-88 MPH will usually be able to earn roster spot as a college pitcher as well, but only if he proactively contacts colleges and demonstrates good grades, a good work ethic, and exemplary character.

Over 200 messages (posts 989 through 1232) delved into Leo’s potential future. Showcases, baseball performance numbers, grades, character, work ethic, how to contact coaches, talent vs. hard work, etc. were discussed and debated in great detail in this part of Wayne’s forum thread, with a little bit of news of Leo’s performance on his summer travel team mixed in. But given that Leo wasn’t about to become a consistent honor roll student or incredibly hard worker, it probably boiled down to one simple question:

Would Leo throw 90 MPH in high school?

However, this wasn’t what Wayne was thinking about when Leo’s sophomore year came to a close. In Wayne’s mind, the sophomore year was supposed to be Leo’s year to shine, and he didn’t get to do so with the varsity team.

Disappointing as this season was for Wayne, the next season was worse. Far worse. And it wasn’t just worse for Leo or Wayne.

It was worse for everybody.

Part 8 of Leo’s story: HS Junior (Age 17, 11th 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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