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: Pitch-tracking sheet

With a few years under my belt, I have found that I have a few tools, ideas and methods to share. I’m not sharing the basics of being a Little League coach, but the pieces that have moved me beyond the basics. The first piece I’d like to share is my latest creation: a pitch-tracking sheet.

I decided before our season started that I wanted to track more information about our pitchers. I had been tracking balls and strikes a little bit. I had started differentiating between called strikes and swinging strikes. I’d been tracking velocity in practices, sometimes. I wasn’t tracking where the pitches went.

I’m not real good with remembering specifics and finding patterns in live action. I’d only gotten a sense of how things were going. I’m not like professional coaches – I couldn’t tell you where every pitch in an inning went without writing it down.

So, I wanted to combine all of that and extend it a little, but not overwhelm myself with data-recording responsibilities.

Photo of pitch-tracking sheet with data recorded

The Pitch-Tracking sheet is my first effort at combining all that information and understanding the flow in real time. I opened Microsoft Excel and started creating a table for pitch-tracking. Each column has 10 boxes for pitches, which helps quickly know the pitch count without using a clicker. There are 7 boxes for the data – 3 on each side and a tall one in the middle.

From the catcher’s perspective, I mark where the pitch went. Those stacked boxes to the left and right help me place the inside and outside pitches. I use O, / and X to indicate balls, strikes looking and strikes swinging. Foul balls get an F, while batted balls get the result of the play. Wild pitches (WP), passed balls (PB) and steals (SB) get a notation in the center box (since the pitch could have been anywhere). I mark the velocity from my PocketRadar in the middle box – at the bottom unless it was a low pitch.

It’s been very useful seeing trends and learning how my guys throw. I see trends developing and can also tell when someone’s working the count a lot, rather than just losing them or killing them. I was trying to do something like this in my little pocket diary, but it’s just too much data and gets messy fast.

Things that I haven’t figured out how I’d like to do here: keep track of the opposing batters, identify lefty/righty, and record pitch type. I’m not sure yet whether I need those details.

When I review the data after games, I count up the balls and strikes, tally those and the scorebook data, and then craft a sentence or two about the outing. So far, it’s giving me a far greater understanding of what happens in our games than I was getting just looking at the scorebook or reviewing my chicken scratch in my journal.

I’ll probably start using that journal again – but only to write down noteworthy events during the game. After all, we do name a player of the game and it helps to have something to refer to beyond the most recent memory.

I’d love to hear comments on this – if you use something else instead or if you think this ought to be modified in some way. I’m a data guy and I’ve always been writing stuff down in the dugout when I’m coaching. That might not be your style….

Here it is as a PDF:

Training in the surprise off-season

I sent this as an email to our Little League team, in expectation that they need some guidance and that their parents would love for them to have some activity/direction. I need to start taking some of this advice to get myself ready for MY season, assuming it starts at some point!


I’ll admit that I was absolutely gutted when they announced that our season is delayed until at least April 6th. I look forward to every practice and game as much as the players. My normal off-season was spent attempting to improve myself as a coach: pitching conference, USA baseball certifications, intense study, and new gear. So, this has been quite a shock.

That said, there are things that each player can do to prepare for when our season restarts. The two things that I shape our team our around philosophically are: Throw Hard, Run Fast. Neither of those requires a baseball practice to get better at, so you can put your efforts in this surprise “off-season” to good use.

Throw Hard

Of course, one of our main methods is “long toss” or what USA Baseball calls “interval throwing”. For this, it’s best if you have a partner who throws at least as hard as you do. Start at further than “social distancing” apart (6 feet!) and keep moving further apart as long as you can throw it successfully in the air. If one of you can throw further, having the other bouncing it OR in extremes, using two partners to relay the throw back is fine. If you can’t find a partner, make sure you have 5 or 10 baseballs and throw at some kind of target. As you get further apart, the angle of your throws should get higher. Once you’ve reached your limit, work your way back in with each throw, lowering the angle, but keeping the effort the same. This trains your arm to throw hard direct at your target. Hit your partner in the chest (his glove will stop the ball!) with every throw. At 10 years old, you want to be throwing 120 feet at your peak. For those of you who are 11, your goal is 135 feet. Our bases are 60 feet apart, so you want to double that – throwing from behind the plate to 2nd base is only 100 feet (that’s the goal distance for 8-year-olds!)

I talk about the importance of balance and we do some of that in our warmups, but not enough to really work on it. One of the best ways to work on it anywhere is to pick up a ball while standing on one foot. I like to lift my opposite knee up like I’m in my windup, then swing down to pick up the ball. Then, I repeat it, but set the ball down. Doing this ten times with each leg really improves you balance and works your core muscles. Core muscle strength, balance and body control will all help with your ability to Throw Hard.

Since core muscle strength is such a good thing, it also makes sense to do crunches or situps as well as try ‘planking’ for 60 seconds or more. If you set 100 crunches/situps as a goal, plus 60 seconds of planking, you’ll do well. Each day, do those 100 reps and 60 seconds, even if you have to do 10 at time. When we reconvene, we’re going to have a contest for the longest plank as well as the longest throw.

Run Fast

The best way to develop speed is by running. We don’t need you to run a mile. We just need you to be able to run 60, 120, 180 and 240 feet as fast as you can. Jogging 240 feet doesn’t help. One of the good ways my basketball coaches used to work on our speed was by doing shuttle runs. You need three lines or three cones to use as markers. Set them down 30 feet apart, so that it’s a total of 60 feet. Start at the first cone, run to the middle one and then back. Then run to the far one and only back to the middle, returning to the far one to turn around and run back to the start. Do ten or twelve of these a day. If you can have someone time you, that’s best. That way you can keep track of how much you improve.

I used to lament when I’d see players who couldn’t touch their toes, especially if they used to be able to do so. The good news is that I didn’t understand what was happening. In your age range, you’re still growing and sometimes, your bones grow faster than your muscles. When that happens, it the BEST time to train for speed. So, if you suddenly can’t reach your toes, that’s good news for your spring times.

I expect everyone on the team to come back from our off-season faster than when we last met.

Some notes for catchers

Spend time in your gear. I do have a complete set of gear that belongs to the team if there is a catcher with out their own set. (Make sure to disinfect the helmet, just in case!)

If you get in your crouch, you can either have someone toss you a ball to catch bare-handed with your glove hand or bounce it off a wall. You want to have “soft hands” so you catch the ball rather than have it bounce out of your glove. The most improvement comes from holding a ball with your last two fingers while catching the ball with the other three. You might need to use a golf ball or something else small for guys with shorter fingers.

Here’s one of my mentors, Jeff Smith, doing it with major league catchers from the Twins on the first day of spring training in 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Dty9ZLuUqI

Practice chasing a ball that’s gotten past you. This is best done by putting three balls on the ground several feet behind you. Get in your crouch with your glove and have a partner call out “1”, “2” or “3” for you to go grab the ball that’s toward 1st base, in the middle or toward 3rd base. Your partner can cover the plate like the pitcher for you to throw for the tag. One pro tip is that you can slide on your left left leg (if you’re a righty) when you go for the ball. The shin guard protects and allows you to slide easily. If you do a dozen of these a day, it will bring big improvements in our defensive play.

For pitchers

Practice pitching! Have a partner take video of you throwing. The best angles are: facing you from the side and from 3/4ths forward. The angle from behind tends not to be as revealing, but does allow people watching to see the location of the pitch. It’s better if you have a target to throw at and to have someone else tell you whether it’s a ball or a strike, but that’s not required. Every time you throw, write down how many pitches you throw. Treat it like a game and if you throw more than 20 pitches, don’t pitch 2 days in a row. If you throw 36 pitches, take 2 days off. Never throw more than 50 pitches until after we start practicing. If your shoulder or elbow hurt, don’t throw that day or stop throwing when it happens.

If you take video of your pitching, we can figure out how I can help you analyze it to determine what might help you do better.

Batting practice

Some of the indoor cages are open, but even with cleaning at the top of their list, most of them are too tight a space. Since you want to keep 6 feet away from other people, indoor cages might not be feasible.

The batting cages at Simpson, Minnie Howard and Brenman (over at the baseball field) are never locked, so you can either have someone pitch/toss balls to you or take a hitting tee. I like to use the SKLZ impact balls (yellow and black), especially if someone’s going to be doing soft toss near you – less risk of injuring them. I order them off Amazon for $16/dozen. They’re indestructible in comparison to the cheap white ones and they come with a bag. https://amzn.to/3b01yCZ

Keep Training!

Basically, I want everyone to keep training. I don’t know when we’ll be back on the field, but if you spend at least one hour every day, you’ll be ready when we do.