Our friends at GameChanger included an article about a new Little League Baseball rule change in their Season newsletter. The rule change is related to how intentional walks are handled in Little League. Specifically, under the new rule, managers will declare they want to intentionally walk the batter and the pitcher will automatically have four pitches added to their pitch count. This is not immaterial as Little League Baseball has mandatory pitch limits based on the age of the pitchers. The article describes a situation where a manager in last year’s Little League World Series (of which I have already written about my mixed feelings) denied an intentional walk by instructing his batter to swing. This was done to get the starting pitcher over his pitch count limit – forcing the opposing manager to replace the pitcher. The manager who declined the intentional walk is quoted as saying “We’re trying to win” and “It was just strategy“. It worked in this case as his team rallied against the new pitcher to win the game. But is it appropriate for kids 11-13 years old?
I have written about my philosophy about youth recreational sports . Further, in my coaching clinics, I tell the coaches that we are playing to win, but that we’re doing so with other higher priorities. Specifically, the priorities are that every child plays an equal amount (over the season) and every child gets a chance to play multiple positions (again, over the whole season). Hustle & Attitude coaches don’t measure the success of their season by wins and losses and tournaments won, but in terms of whether the athletes want to play again the following season. Within the season, the measure of success is whether each player had fun, learned how to play the game, and got better at playing the game throughout the season. Does the above situation – denying an intentional walk deliberately to increase an opposing pitcher’s pitch count – fit with the Hustle & Attitude philosophy? I don’t know that I would go so far as to say it runs contrary to the philosophy, but I know that I wouldn’t have done it.
I appreciate Little League Baseball’s attempts to encourage positive experiences for young baseball players. They have mandatory playing time rules. Pitch counts show appropriate concern for the young players’ health. However, there is still room for coaches to behave poorly. Specifically, instructing their players to do things that will contribute to the team winning, but are contrary to actually learning how to play the game correctly. I can remember a game while I was coaching in the El Segundo, California Little League where the opposing manager was instructing or encouraging – I’m not sure, but let’s say I know he wasn’t discouraging – his players to just keep running to second on a walk. The batter would take ball four and then sprint to first base and while the catcher was throwing the ball back to the pitcher, would take a turn and break for second base. This was an attempt to take advantage of the fact that 8- and 9-year old recreational baseball players have trouble reliably throwing and catching the ball. The pitcher would have to catch the ball, then turn and successfully throw the ball to the second baseman or shortstop covering at second who would, in turn, have to catch the ball and make a successful tag. In response to seeing this a couple of times, I instructed my catcher to walk the ball back to the pitcher while staring down the base runner. Does this sound like baseball to you? Of course not. Did the opposing manager’s ‘strategy’ increase his chances of winning? Sure. He’d often get a runner in scoring position with each walk.
Strategies like the ones above fit into a mentality that teach the wrong lessons to the children playing the game and often can lead to more insidious strategies like losing on purpose for tournament seeding. These are not in keeping with a desire to provide a positive experience for the youth participating in sports. Hustle & Attitude coaches do not coach that way. Rather than declining an intentional walk, I would recommend the batter take their base and encourage the next batter to do their best to drive the runners in. Easy for me to say…I’ve never been coaching with a Little League World Series game on the line. Regardless, I would suggest to you that our team was more successful that year than many of the teams in the Little League World Series any year. The players had fun. They learned how to play the game (the appropriate way). They got better throughout the season. And, to my recollection, all of them came back to play the following season (many of them requested to play on my team).