Coaching 102: Little League Batting Orders

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.

Benefits

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.

Drawbacks

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?

Random

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.

Skill-oriented

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.)

Proposal

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.

Coaching 201: The Captain’s Program

Imagine a leadership training program disguised as a baseball team

Gathered in the outfield after the championship game, the Captain stood and pointed to each player, citing their contributions throughout the season. Each player beamed with pride as some highlight of his performance was detailed. The victory had truly been a team victory, with contributions by everyone and the Captain let them know how much that was appreciated.

How old and experienced was that Captain? Was he the aging veteran, with a dozen years of major league experience? No? How about a college or high school senior who’d played for year in the same program, leading drills as a Captain, drawing on the example of the senior Captains from years before? No.

The Captain was 10 years old. He’d never had an example of a Captain to emulate on his prior teams. He did have some coaches who’d done similar citations of performance during the 16-game season. He’d often spoken at the gatherings, identifying some good play or extra effort by his teammates, but this final game was different and the words just flowed.

How did he get there?

The simple answer is that he became a good leader the same way he became a good player. Practice. Repetition. Coaching. The slightly more complicated answer is… through the Captain’s program.

When I started coaching Little League, I’d already had 14 years as a Scoutmaster. I was used to being able to provide direction or guidance to one young man and having him lead all of the others in getting tasks accomplished. In Scouting, everyone expects leadership to be taught and the structure is already designed. It only requires proper implementation. So, in Scouting, we produce lots of good leaders.

Youth baseball doesn’t come with any leadership structure. If there is one, it’s usually an autocracy run by the adult coach. I’ve rarely heard of captains in talking to other baseball coaches and gotten raised eyebrows when I bring one of mine to the home plate meeting with the umpires. The coach who got me involved in Little League had suggested that each team bring a captain to those meetings, so I always did. That lead me to wonder how to make that role more meaningful.

Structure of a season

The first part to understand about how Captains are used in this system is to understand the structure of the season and then how Captains are selected for each part.

During the COVID shutdown, I decided to maximize my unexpected free time. Since I wouldn’t be coaching baseball, I decided to take the Driveline course in Youth Baseball Development. In that course, they recommend breaking the season into three phases, each about a month long: On-Boarding & Baselines, Exploratory and Performance.

In the On-Boarding & Baselines Phase, you spend a month implementing your system and determining the beginning skill level for your players. The On-Boarding within a Little League season is bound to require also training the assistant coaches in your system. So, for the first phase, the head coach selects two Phase Captains and then one Game Captain for each game. The Phase Captains serve in that role for the whole month-long Phase and do so at practices and games. A Game Captain is named by the head coach for each game. This way, more players get to serve as Captain.

In the Exploratory Phase, the assistant coaches select the Phase Captains. They will have a slightly different view of the team than the head coach and have had an opportunity to see several players serving as Game Captains in addition to the original Phase Captains. During this Phase, the Head Coach continues to select Game Captains, to ensure that as many players as possible serve and that likely candidates for Phase Captain in the final Phase serve.

When you reach the final month of the season – the Performance Phase – it’s time to turn over the selections to the players. They’re seen a few serve as Phase Captains, and many as Game Captains, so should have an idea what they’re like as appointed leaders. It’s important to be hands-off in this, so that they can make the choice. Any imposed solution will make the players feel powerless instead of empowered. Sometimes, they choose the most talented, sometimes, the most popular and also sometimes, the ones who help teammates the most.

Roles of the Captains

It’s important that you give the Captains some actual duties, rather than just ceremonial ones. My list started with going to the home plate meeting and calling out the lineup, which led to giving each Captain a pocket-sized copy of the lineup. Then, other things got added. Some in these lists are specific to our style of warmup and the gear we have, others are more universal. How strictly you monitor and pay attention to detail on these tasks is going to depend on their age and maturity, plus your own preferences. I’m easy-going and often busy around game time, so there is a lot of leeway for my 11u teams.

When you arrive (slightly more than 30 minutes prior to game time):

  1. Get your pocket copy of the batting order from the head coach (put it in your pocket)
  2. Ask if the coaches need help with raking, removing tarps, lining the field or getting the chalk roller out of storage
  3. Help get the J-bands set on the fence and the wrist weights and plyos nearby
  4. Make sure a bucket of balls is available for throwing
  5. Help get the team warming up with the bands/weights/plyos
  6. Warm up throwing the ball

Before the game

  • Phase Captain 1 – Lead dynamic warmup with assistant coach
  • Phase Captain 2 – Go to home plate meeting with head coach (one coach and one player only)
  • Game Captain – check with each player whether they warmed up with the bands/weights/plyos, especially anyone who arrives late

During the game

  1. Call out batting order when we come in from the inning and after each batter
  2. Call out fielding lineup for the inning when we head to the field
  3. Make sure the next inning catcher is getting ready while we are at bat
  4. Lead your teammates in cheering the team on
  5. Decide who you think deserves to be named player of the game

After the game

  1. Let the head coach know who you think is player of the game (all Captains)
  2. Make sure tags, counters or indicators (balls/strikes) left in the dugout are placed in the bucket (Phase Captain 1)
  3. Make sure team gear gets picked up (Phase Captain 2)
  4. Help with the raking and tarps, as needed

Communication

I did not email my players directly, which allowed the parents to monitor the communication and to be in the loop on the tasks to be performed. I emailed the task list the day prior to the game, so that parents could print it out for their player.

The use of these task lists be a little tricky, as some parents will be tempted to intervene and handle the tasks FOR the player instead of reminding the player to complete those tasks. Here, you have to make sure that the parents understand how precisely the listed tasks must be performed. The major goal is to have the PLAYER perform it, regardless of the quality of execution. The last thing the rest of the team needs is another adult bossing them around or doing what Captain is failing to do.

Once we got to the Performance Phase, my emails no longer listed the detailed tasks. Each email talked about how I’d like them to motivate specific players. These addressed things that the team needed the player to do (have confidence, hit the ball hard, throw strikes) as well as some methods. One of the most effective ways to express and instill confidence in a player is for the Captain to quietly praise them or say, “we’ve got your back.” The loud cheering helps pump everyone up, but those quiet moments often make a bigger difference. Having those things come from a peer who is a Captain instead of an adult Coach is really powerful.

Does it work?

It worked with Boy Scouts. It worked this season with my 11u team.

The Captain described at the beginning of this post served as a Captain for the entire season – having been selected by the Head Coach, then by the Assistants, and then by the players. He’s a talented player who grew in his understanding of his leadership role as the season went along.

Another player was selected as Phase Captain for the first two, then not voted for the Performance Phase by his teammates. He was a little bummed, but kept contributing as a leader as well as on the field. He liked being a Captain and has a better understanding of leadership.

The player elected in his place for the Performance Phase was not among the couple highest performing players, but is a great communicator. He talks to everyone and shares my generally rosy outlook on life (I don’t have a player on the team, so this isn’t me shining his apple!) They chose him because he was such a good teammate. He also grew in the role.

Additionally, all the players named Game Captain (everyone had it at least once in the 16-game season) took their role as a Captain seriously. They performed the duties with varying level of detail and diligence, but all within the range expected for 10- and 11-year-olds.

I expect this will be a continually developed process. I spent 14 years learning to do it as a Scoutmaster and got better over time. I expect that it’s going to continue to change and improve over multiple years of youth baseball coaching as well.

As always, I invite your thoughts and suggestions. If you want advice in developing something along these lines, my Little League season is over and I have 6 months to prep for the next one (because I don’t coach fall ball, so I can spend that time with my lovely wife). If you have advice on how to improve it or a completely different way of teaching leadership or handling your Captains, we could even go so far as to have a guest post discussing your viewpoint.

Which coaching conference suits you?

Looking at the various emails, links and ads that I’ve seen over the last few months, I’m trying to sort out where I’ll go for a coaching conference this off-season.

Who Am I?

I’m just a beginning coach. I coach at nearly the lowest level of youth baseball and I’ve only been doing it a year.

The highest level I played regularly at was the “F minor” in 1979, which was the city rec league – no tryouts required. I sat at the end of the bench as an 8th grader the next spring on our school team. Once I got to college, I started a string of 35 years playing on as many adult softball teams as I could. I settled on a men’s “C” league team for 25 years, plus a few Congressional “beer league” coed teams.

When I bought Dusty Baker’s You Can Teach Hitting, I went from a mediocre hitter to a very good one. It didn’t last because I got older and the league continued to have a supply of guys in their 20s. However, I had become a student of hitting.

About five years ago, I got invited to play in a 48+ men’s baseball league. Again, I started as a mediocre player. I’ve been down to Florida 3 times for our league’s “spring training”. I got coaching from the Twins’ Jeff Smith the first year. The next two years, Rick Knapp lead my team — Rick’s most recent post is as the pitching coach for the Durham Bulls. I’m an extremely coachable player, so my hitting got better and…. I finally learned how to pitch.

I think of myself as demonstration that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks.

I feel that this learning process I’ve gone through to get myself back on the field and onto the mound gives me a lot of insight that most youth coaches don’t have. I’m facing challenges, overcoming hurdles and trying to improve my play every day. I think this puts me ahead of guys for whom the game came easy and ahead of guys who haven’t played in 30 years.

Nonetheless, as a coach, I’m nearly a complete neophyte.

What kinds of options are there?

I joined the ABCA a year ago on recommendation of our league President, hoping I could learn coaching. They have a coaching conference every January. I also started seeing ads for pitching conferences and a catcher conference. In addition, some organizations are starting certification programs, in which you do a lot of learning off-site, but come on-site with a number of other coaches for a final program. So, there are some general options and some specific ones. Size of conference also varies, from those small on-site sessions that might have 25, to groups of 100 or 150, all the way up to the ABCA conference at over 7000 participants.

ABCA Annual Conference

2-5 January 2020 in Nashville, TN at a cost of $120 ($80 for early, $100 for advanced and $150 for late registration)

This is the big production – clinics, trade shows, and banquets. They’re accepting up to 7100 attendees. There’s even a special Youth Coaches session on the 3rd and 4th. The 2021 convention will be a few miles from my house at the Gaylord National Harbor,  so I’m going to defer on the 2020 conference for a “no travel required” 2021 option.

Baseball Skill Acquisition Summit

12-13 October 2019 in Lakeland, FL at the Florida Baseball Ranch at a cost of $999

This is the second edition of the Summit, which is focused on “motor learning and skill acquisition conference targeted specifically for baseball.” After the initial 2018 Summit, 3 of the presenters were hired by MLB teams as consultants. The attendees included 53 representatives of MLB teams, so the value of this conference is understood at the highest level. As a beginning coach, I’d be way over my head.

Ultimate Pitching Coaches Bootcamp

6-8 December 2019 in Montgomery, TX at the Texas Baseball Ranch at a cost of $449

In it’s 20th iteration, the Ultimate Pitching Coaches Bootcamp has 3 intense days of pitching coach sessions that can be supplemented for another $99 with the Bonus Session on the 5th of December to learn the techniques and tools used by the Texas Baseball Ranch. This is limited to 150 coaches, so the ratio of coaches to speakers is probably 10:1 or so. This is intriguing because of the focus and the ratio.

Pitchapalooza

6-9 December 2019 in Franklin, TN which cost $349 in 2018

If you’re a pitching nerd like I am, trying to learn from folks using all the latest tools and scientific analyses, Pitch-a-Palooza is probably right up your alley. Last year they had Kyle Boddy, Dr Stephen Osterer, Eugene Bleecker, and Nunzio Signore among the speakers. I only know them from their writings and tweets, but they’re impressive. The rest of the speakers also have meaningful backgrounds, but those jumped out at me. This is a 300-coach conference, with representatives from 23 MLB teams in attendance last year. (What were the other 7 teams thinking?) Those headliners and the scientific approach catch my eye. It’s possible that I’d also get to visit the Civil War battlefield there….

CatcherCON

December 2019 in Nashville, TN

Every detail you want to learn about catching and coaching catchers is fair game at CatcherCon. When you search videos from the conference, you get great stuff like Xan Barksdale’s 2017 talk on drills for recovering blocked balls more quickly or Jerry Weinstein of the Rockies talking about Building Arm Strength in 2018. I started catching in January because I hadn’t tried it since 1978 and there are never enough catchers in men’s leagues. This, however, is also likely going to sail over my head.

Driveline Foundations of Pitching Certification

32 online courses with a live, in-person seminar to complete certification at a cost of $699

Deep dive, on your own schedule, into everything about pitching by Driveline’s experts. I think that the in-person sessions are currently all in Seattle, but that they plan on more sessions at other locations in the future. One of the nice things here is that you go at your own pace, on your own time. Of course, that can also be a hurdle if you find yourself too busy — being away a conference can give one an ability to focus. It has the added benefit of a certification at the end, which is likely going to helpful for those starting a career. I think I’m going to wait on this, while I see how much I might be over my head elsewhere.

Tentative thoughts

I’ve only been thinking about this for a few weeks, so I doubt that I even have half of the options available. So, right now, I’m thinking that I’ll go to one of the pitching conferences. I study and teach pitching a lot, so it would be good to get a deeper dive. There might be other options that I haven’t considered, so I’m eager to hear from you if you’ve done or are doing something else.