One of the most daunting challenges the first time Little League coach faces is… how do I arrange my batting order to be the most effective and useful to my players?
The Good News: It’s not that important at first
For a team of 8-year-olds, you don’t need to maximize productivity to win. Your two goals are to help your players have fun and help them learn how to play baseball. Winning is incidental. If they have fun playing AND get better, it doesn’t matter what the score is. So, don’t agonize over who your leadoff hitter is and which playing to bat cleanup. Productivity in a coach-pitch game approaches randomness. Any ball that is put in play could result in a run and in some hilarity in the process. Concentrate on two things: having them swing hard and cheering the effort.
Equality of opportunity: The Continuous, Rolling Batting Order
One of the biggest challenges facing the kids who end up at the bottom of the batting order or not in the starting lineup in a 9-player batting order is getting enough plate appearances to get better. A Little League team gets better as a group far faster if the “bottom” players work their way up to being “league average” players than if the four best players improve incrementally.
In a team of 12 players, having all 12 players in the batting order is a “continuous” batting order. Every players bats, regardless of whether they’re in the field or not. This is far less complicated than a 9-player batting order and avoids confusing players and coaches with “substitutions”. I’d suggest that you use a continuous lineup until you reach 12u in Little League if your league allows it.
The odd word in my suggestion is “rolling”. In a rolling batting order, the batter on deck at the end of a game leads off the next game. The order of hitters is always the same, but it simply starts with whoever was on deck last game.
There are a few benefits to a rolling lineup:
- Equal plate appearances: Every batter is going to come to the plate nearly the same number of times over the course of a season. Absences will be the only thing that affects how many times a player comes to the plate.
- Improvement for all: Since the players who sit at the bottom of a normal order don’t get as many opportunities to bat, they have fewer opportunities to improve. By getting them an equal number of at bats, they should improve far more quickly than if they got one less at bat than the top of the order in every game. The last batter, in particular, is likely to get 20% fewer plate appearances than the first batter. That last batter needs those plate appearances to get better.
- Reduction in stress for players: A player’s spot in the lineup is going to affect their personal opinion of their play and put stress on them. Those at the top of the lineup might be helped or even hurt by being at the top of the order, especially if the order isn’t the same every week. Getting moved up or down is going to occupy their attention and may cause “concern” in their parents. If the batting order is the same all season (or most of it), no questions arise.
- Reduction in stress for the coach: One less thing to think about. One less thing for parents to be concerned about. You’ll always know who your leadoff hitter is for the next game.
What are the drawbacks of using that continuous, rolling lineup?
- People are going to think you’re crazy. It’s not what they see in the major leagues, college, high school or even most youth leagues. If criticism bothers you, you probably shouldn’t be coaching because not matter what you do, someone will criticize it.
- It does not maximize run scoring potential in the first inning. If you start with your 8th best hitter and the 12th hitter is the “cleanup” hitter in the first inning, you might not see the results you’d hope for in the first inning. On the other hand, once the game is rolling, you’d have the same randomness about who is leading off each inning anyway.
- Your best players don’t get more plate appearances than the rest of the team. I think that development of the entire team is going to give everyone more plate appearances and those bottom of the order hitters stop being automatic outs and play “league average”.
How should it be structured?
With the continuous, rolling batting order being established when you play your first game, it’s important to be happy with the order you’ve chosen. Should it be random or skill-oriented?
When coaching at the beginning levels, it’s hard to tell before you’re played any games who is going to hit well other than a few players. You’ll likely have a couple that parents and growth rates have prepared a little better than the others. You’ll likely have players improve at vastly different rates. I’ve used an alphabetic batting order to remove any glory or stigma from where a player hits in the rolling batting order. Probably the biggest drawback is sometimes your best player is preceded or followed by a player that hinders them. A slower runner in front of a player that could hit for extra bases or having the next batter be a player who grounds out or strikes out frequently. You can’t rearrange these orders, so random might be frustrating.
By taking player skill and expected performance into account, you can make portions of your batting order more likely to produce runs than the rest. I like to construct it so that there are two parts that are productive, rather than stringing together all of the lesser players. Since you might have any player hitting leadoff, I prefer to avoid more than two players that are more likely outs. As the season goes on, the certainty of unproductive performances by those players is going to go down, which should smooth things out as well.
Phases of the Season
I follow the guidance of the Driveline youth baseball development course and divide my season into three phases: On-boarding, Exploratory and Performance. Each of these phases is normally about a month in our March to May (plus a few days of June) schedule.
In On-Boarding, we’re trying to get everyone acclimating to how we organize practices and games. We also do our “baselining” to determine the skills everyone has started with, so that we can measure and track them over the season. By tracking them, players can see their improvement over the course of the season even if game performance is more random. During On-Boarding, we determine the batting order we’re going to use in a continuous, rolling manner.
In the Exploratory phase, it’s all about trying new things out and helping the players improve. In these first two phases, we really emphasize improving effort and ignore box scores and game results. Winning is nice, but it’s not our focus. We want to get better and have fun doing it.
Depending on the level of play, we might continue to use that continuous, rolling lineup in the Performance Phase. The first few seasons that they play baseball, it’s probably reasonable to simply continue rolling the lineup over from game to game. This past season, with my 11u team, we reset to the top of the order for our playoff games. I kept the order almost the same and it still contained all of the players, but it started at the top. (One player was moved down from 5th to 6th, but moved back the next game as I realized I shouldn’t try to fix something that wasn’t broken.)
This has worked for me over a few seasons. I tried it with a 13u team, but it’s hard to tell if it worked or didn’t because we had so many absences that the lineup felt random every game. It was fine for 10u and 11u in Little League. Last year, we went 4-6 in the regular season, 0-3 in pool play (yikes!) but then swept our three playoff games to the championship. The “bottom of the order” was productive in those playoff games. There were no “easy outs” on our team and some “dead” innings by the other team. In the championship game, we knew we just had to survive the top of the order and cruise through. Those three games in the playoffs weren’t very close.
If you’ve got a young team and especially if it’s your first season coaching, I’d love to have you try it and provide feedback.