Is Youth Baseball Broken?

I fear that it may be. Actually, I’ve never been more convicted that we adults are ruining this game. But let me first start with the positive news from my baseball life here in Southern California.

Spring 2022 Updates

Post game handball outside of the pizza joint

Kids just want to have fun. I’ve been pleasantly reminded that kids truly just want to play. They want to cause chaos in the dugout, they want to run the bases after the game, they want snack. They really want snack.

I’m also reminded that:

  • Most athletes have some sort of fear of getting hit.
  • 6:30pm game start time is way too late for a 9-yr old.
  • 2-hour games are way too long for a 45-yr old.
  • Strikes, while hard to throw, are the key to this sport’s success.
  • Winning cures all.
  • Coaching youth baseball is both awesome and exhausting.
  • I love my kid, and these players, so very much!

We’ve improved drastically playing catch. See Structured Catch Play as my go to for organizing a solid game of catch. Try a Long Toss Competition to finish up throwing. And I learned a new game called Knockout that the kids love from my friends at MOJO. More on MOJO in the coming weeks and months – great stuff there.

Continue to push athletes – We finally made it to Double Play Feeds this week and will hit Double Play Turns next week. We need lots of work with ground ball fundamentals, but it’s my coaching duty to advance their understanding and knowledge of the game while consistently working to train technique. So, we’re coaching up the kids on double plays.

My own son hit his first “home run” – Which has nothing to do with a ball going over a fence, nor was it an actual home run.  But what the heck, the ball was smoked (down the right field line for a legit triple in this case, with a scamper home on an overthrow of the relay man) and he was jazzed. The team mobbed him and I might have shed a tear… so we’re gonna call it a homer.

“Do not personalize a loss” – Heard a great piece of advice from a fellow coach: “Do not personalize a loss.” I have to work hard NOT to take these losses and an indictment of my coaching capabilities. And I need to remember that these athletes are 8 and 9 years old, which means they will make mistakes regardless of ability and quality of training. If they make a great effort to be in the right spot, we can’t be upset that they simply don’t catch the ball or throw it accurately.

He got hit – My dude took a hit-by-pitch like a champ – no tears and a jog to first base. He had competitive at-bats the rest of that game as well as the next. And THEN the ugly, scared-of-getting-hit monster reared it’s head. Currently, my boy has a roller skate on his back foot, which causes him to turn completely closed to the plate and messes with his ability to hit the ball fair (thus, his home run down the first base line). We have not done any particular training to overcome the fear of getting hit, as he seems to be working through it okay. But it’s interesting nonetheless to see him subconsciously move that back foot to turn his back to the ball. Is he protecting his ribs and belly? Sure would appear so.

Pitching is IT – Pitching has become my dude’s jam. He’s okay at it, probably 5th or 6th on the team, so that means 3-4 appearances this year. I’m encouraged by the fact that we, as coaches, have spread the innings around such that he’s been on the mound multiple times. That’s way more than any of the teams we play – we see the same 2-3 arms per game every game. I’m also encouraged that he’s fired up about something having to do with baseball! We’re coming around folks.

And that brings me to the rant for this newsletter:

Youth Baseball is Broken – Baserunning & Stolen Bases

We play PONY baseball. And while I love love love the PONY organization, I can’t stand what we adult coaches are doing with the baserunning rules. Here’s a fact:

Opponents have stolen over 225 bases (conservatively) on us in roughly 15 games. 

We have yet to apply a competitive tag.

Meaning, we have yet to throw a pitch, catch said pitch, throw down to second or third base, catch that throw, and apply a competitive tag that has required a safe or out call from an umpire. Yet, these coaches continue to steal – score is 225-0 for those following along at home! It’s like putting on the full-court press when a hoops team is up by 50+. Or going deep when up by 7 touchdowns.  This doesn’t even count the extra bases runners are taking on passed balls or wild pitches, which I’m somehow okay with because it IS a part of the game going forward.

Most of those runners get on via walks, which screams out the point that THAT is what we should be working on – THROWING STRIKES!! Not defending the running game, picking off, and having your middle infielders hold my baserunner on as if he was a first baseman. Memo: I’m not going to steal that base! I think the right thing to do is to teach these kids how to play the game correctly and spend precious practice time training fundamentals rather than defending against adult ego-boosting, play-to-win, baserunning tactics.

“But my kids love running the bases.” Cool, good for your kids. Tell them to stop it, it’s ruining our games! They’ll still love it when my pitcher airmails the catcher and they take an extra base then.

For those leagues without leadoffs, we hear the same feedback. This evil baserunning manifests itself via extended secondary leads to bait a throw, exploiting pitchers, and taking advantage of the fact that athletes aren’t developed enough to play catch consistently. Either way, this is no excuse for manipulating the game to win – which is ALL to feed an adult coach’s ego whether you realize or admit it or not. There’s no way around this sad fact and here’s another twist to this self-sabotage:

Opponents effectively choose to limit the amount of their own team’s at-bats, directly because they steal, steal, and score on a passed ball / wild pitch.  

As an example, at last night’s game our opponent hit their 5-run maximum three times via a runner scoring on a wild pitch from third base. The bat was literally pulled from the hitter’s hands, inning over, time to switch sides. Working backwards, that 5-run limit is reached much faster and with far fewer at-bats than if they would hold their runners. Consider that four out of five runs were scored within a single at-bat.

Now, this isn’t every inning… we CAN record put outs, and opposing teams DO hit the ball as well. But, far too often, it’s those innings when we’re trying to get a pitcher some experience and that pitcher issues several inevitable walks, that leads to a measurable decrease in at-bats for the offense.

Each walk is followed by two stolen bases and a run scored on a past ball. Repeat, repeat, repeat, and we’re flipping the field after a 5-run inning and the opposing team has 0 outs. They’ve left an additional 3-4 at-bats in the dugout and they’ve scored without any real game action. All because they don’t have the humility to do what’s right and hold their runners.

Reactive practice time is spent on defending this action in an effort to remain competitive.

Never was this more clear to than when of the same team that steals bases like maniacs, also picked off two of our baserunners.  Clearly, they had practiced picking off to second base multiple times – they were GOOD at it! Yet they did not record a single put out on a ground ball or pop up NOT hit to their first baseman. Would that practice time have been better spent working on training skills and developing athletes’ ability to record put outs?

Combine that with the fact that our squad is now forced to train:

  • Catcher’s feeding a covering pitcher on wild pitches with a man-on-third
  • Pick off moves to all bases
  • Outfielders backing up throws to 2nd and 3rd base
  • Middle infielders backing up catcher throws back to the pitcher

Youth Baseball is Broken – Walks

Personally, I believe each batter should put the ball in play. Action is what’s in the best interest of the athlete. So, why NOT get action with every batter rather than award a hitter first base on a walk?! Involve some sort of “coach comes in to pitch” rule that guarantees any batter that earns a walk will not strike out. Instead, they will get 3 coach-pitches, followed by 3 soft-tosses, followed by the ball on a tee until the ball is put in play. Defenders should practice playing defense on every stinking batter! And knowing how hard it is for athletes to play catch, the chances are still very good that the athlete will end up on base.

The current age division I’m coaching is 10U (rec ball). Our game would be SO much better off for athletes, coaches, and parents alike if we had the ball put in play. We need to stop it with the walks!

Bats and Balls

Meanwhile, I heard a great podcast on the topic with ABCA’s Ryan Brownlee and Rob Hahne (episode #274) that hit home with me. Ryan and Rob dropped all kinds of best-practices for speeding up the game and changing it for the better.  One I had never heard:

Why is it that our youngest kids swing that big barreled plastic toddler bat…

And then as soon as they get to tee-ball, we rip that big barrel out of their hands… and hand them a toothpick! Only to save the big barrels for when they grow up and have more strength and control over the bat?!?!  Wild.

Why is baseball the only sport that uses the same size ball that the pros do?

Football, basketball, and soccer use a smaller ball and relative goal size, while youth baseball uses the same size ball and (more importantly) the same weight ball as the grown men and women that play the game.

Takeaway – ACTION

Truly, all of this is nuts. I’ve written in previous blogs about the dangerous state of our game and lack of participation in the youth ranks. Baseball is inherently a boring game, loaded with failure. With so many distractions and options for today’s kid, baseball needs to adapt to the times and create more action – action = fun. I’m all-in for smaller numbers and more balls put in play. Less stolen bases, less walks, and more action. Pair that with responsible adults that can manage their baserunning addictions and we just might have a chance.

Phew! I look forward to your comments below. Especially if you’re coaching your athletes to steal on every pitch. Please explain to me why that is in the best interest of your players’ development?!?

Partner News

PONY Baseball & Softball International Updates – The European Zone Championship for Pony and Colt took place on April 21-24. Pony was won by the London Archers Baseball and they will participate in the 2022 DICK’S Sporting Goods Pony League World Series (August 12-17 in Washington, PA). Colt was won by the German Academy.

The European Zone Championship for Palomino is taking place now in Stuttgart, Germany.

The Mexico Zone Championships took place April 15-23. Go to pony.org to see the winners of each division.

17 thoughts on “Is Youth Baseball Broken?

  1. DK, nice to see DC is back although my son is on baseball hiatus, but that’s another convo. In regards to balls and bats in this article. My son had the opportunity to play against a team of kids from Japan. They were all middle school age and they played two games; one with American style bats and balls and another using Japanese bats and balls used for that age level. The balls are the same size but softer and maybe, a little lighter. The bats are also lighter were also lighter in weight. From my understanding, they use this style of balls and bats from youth ball until high school. Maybe it’s something we can look into or maybe USA baseball since they spearhead our youth programs nowadays. I think Canada does things a lot different to that favors the youth player and development. Just my 2 Pennie’s.

    1. Great to hear from you Carlos!! I’d be curious to hear what other countries are doing… and also other programs across the US that have modified play. I serve on the ABCA Youth Committee with an amazing coach and administrator Rob Hahne (ABCA podcast #275 that has great ideas on the subject. Made me seriously consider starting a new league with rules designed for faster action, lower numbers, and more balls in play.

  2. I totally agree with you. I have brought up ideas to that l think would improve our Little League Baseball program. For the beginning players playing peewee 4 to 6 year olds let i’m play with no glove, large plastic bat and a softball size Nerf ball. Currently we play with a RIF 5 Baseball player gets 3 swing at a coach pitch ball if he swings and misses the three pitches we bring out a batting tee he gets two swings off the tee he is out if doesn’t hit it after his two swing off the tee. We also have a league for the so called Advance players in this same age group that only gets three swings no batting tee. Lots of boring games not many balls put in play mostly strikeouts very low scoring games kids are not learning much. In the league where we have first time pitchers and catchers I recommend that we have no walks if a batter draw a walk we would bring out a batting tee he would get two swings to put a ball in play. The pitchers could still get strikeouts If the batter swung at three pitches. I explain this way we could we could gave more players The opportunity to pitch and monitor their pitch count since we are not worried about walks. The defense would get more opportunities to make more fielding plays. As For the catchers the base runner can Steal second and third base but once he gets third he is frozen. In the 2nd half of the season we could let the runner score from 3rd. This would at least give the coaches half the season to teach the catchers what is required from the position. Of course the board denied it.

    1. Hey Coach Flores 🙂 Any change would be difficult. But like I replied to Carlos below… when you hear THE coaching organization talking about how best to modify the game, you know that there is something to it! We need change and we need it in a bad way. I know I’m sensitive as I’m going through the most difficult ages currently – but I have a pit in my stomach at every one of our games. My gut SCREAMS that there has to be a better way.

  3. Great comments. I coach Little League. Fundamentals are so important. I have three boys in the program and the oldest is 10. A groundball out hit to the short stop and thrown to first base for a legit out is celebrated more than a “HomeRun”. Although I certainly give my players praise for hitting good pitching and putting the ball in play I do hate the feeling of cheering because we scored a run only because another player had to make an error for that run to score. There seems to be two extremes in youth baseball. One extreme is Travel ball with professional coaches and the other is rec ball. Travel ball seems to be loaded with talent where a catcher can actually make an accurate throw to 2nd base and throw out a runner, groundballs are fielded, double plays are turned and pop flies are caught. There seems to be a new crazy drill coming across my facebook feed every morning that promises to make my kid better. Granted the kids in these videos are always the “fighter jets” on their respective teams so of course it looks as if the drills work great. What about the kids that are average players but still want to have fun playing the game? Those kids are never the ones in the videos. I recently changed up one of my practices. I switched the field. I made 2nd base home plate and the kids hit towards the backstops. We made a rule that if you hit the ball over either dugout or over the first cross bar on the backstop it was a homerun. Ground balls that got to the fence were singles. We split the team up into two teams and the defense would have to field a ball cleanly without dropping it for an out. THe final score was not 19 to 15. The final score was 8 to 9. Fundamentally it was the best defensive practice we have ever had. Our hitters were more focused and swung more aggressively than any other practice. We named the game “UpperDeck”. The practice was the most fun practice we ever had. The confidence carried over to the next game. We lost but it was one of our better played games. I will admit that I am one of the guilty coaches that definitely likes getting a win, but a win with good field execution should always be our goal, not a win because of someone else’s mistakes. What would be possible solutions to make youth baseball more fun, More Fundamental? with More execution? with more action, without making it so easy that the players are not ready when they face good competition at a higher level. More and More of the great players in professional baseball are from the Dominican Republic, Valenzuela, Mexico, and other countries that I know do not have the Baseball Resources and money that American parents do. AS a Youth Coach there is nothing better than seeing one of your players hit a legitimate base hit off a flame throwing pitcher, or to have an infielder throw a batter out at first, or have an outfielder miraculously catch a flyball. Baseball is the hardest of all sports, filled with failure, and sprinkled with brief flashes of success. How do we create more success for the kids, which equals more fun, without taking out a second mortage on our homes to pay for it?

    1. I hear ya Rick. Definitely want to hear more about this “Upper Deck Drill.” I’m sure I’ll see it in the morning on my social feed ;). And I am with you, I want to win and I want to win BAD. We continuously talk about competing until the last pitch of the game, and always always always have to remind each other to make sure we’re keeping the game fun. That said, I know that I can’t take it when a baseball game goes by with 15 walks, 30 stolen bases, and 7 balls put in play. It’s frustratingly backwards and entirely in our control to change!

    2. I feel this comment, and ask myself the same questions. You sound like a good coach, in that you are searching ways to make practice funner and keep the players engaged. That’s key. The problem is (and this is just my opinion), baseball is a continuous repetition sport, you need to do it almost every day during a season to be good and get better. Even if it is only playing catch or hitting whiffel balls. 9 out of 10 kids aren’t doing anything extra outside of practice and game time. You just don’t get enough time with them as a coach to make serious strides in a season. I get most exhausted from repeating myself and having to continuously go back to the basics, when I feel like we should be moving on to more advanced things at 12u.
      It’s all screen time at home, and out on the field your fighting to just to grab their attention. I want to win too, but I can’t want it more than them.

      1. So very true. My own kid has made HUGE improvements this year, primarily because he wants to play catch (and pitch). He hasn’t improved as much with the bat, because he doesn’t want to hit (yet*) *fingers crossed that there’s a ‘yet’* The mere action of playing a lot of catch has resulted in the most improvement he has ever had – to support your point.

        One thing that I try to do is continue to advance my instruction. The example I used in the blog was double play instruction for the kids – we did SS feeds and live turns yesterday. Several of these athletes really struggle to catch the ball, but that won’t stop us from attempting to turn two. The challenge is now making sure that my shortstops making the feed / throw, don’t get too frustrated by their teammate not being able to catch the ball.

        Finally, I was reminded again yesterday NOT to personalize their performance. Regardless of how much we train in practice, and how much I emphasize technique… when that ball is hit and the athlete simply doesn’t make a play, I have to take a breath and stay positive. Especially when it’s my own kid!!

  4. Man, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve had so many similar complaints in recent seasons. I love Pony also, but they start pitching the kids too young and running the bases is ridiculous. I have the same gripe with little league right now using the drop 3 rule. It’s so deflating. It’s difficult enough for most of these kids to pitch and play catcher, and then to get a strike out and the kid gets on base without an out. As the season has gone along, our catchers have gotten a grasp on recovering the ball and making the throw for the most part, but it’s no less frustrating. I don’t like it.
    I feel like something is off on how we are running these leagues. We keep trying to push adult level rules down to younger and younger ages, and the kids to me seem less engaged overall. I find most of these kids are not going home and playing catch with their parents or their friends in the park in free time. The level of skill per age is worse than it has ever been, in my opinion. That was probably what I liked best about Pony. We could put our own team together with kids and parents that were more engaged and keep them together. In turn creating some really competitive teams. Little league seems lost to me currently, but that little league world series tournament is still the jewel of youth sports.

  5. Dan! Glad to hear from you again. I’m also coaching my 8 year old in coach pitch and 6 year old in t-ball. We’ve dabbled in 9u a couple times where the kids start pitching. I wholeheartedly agree with you on the pitching. We act like the rec leagues are broken, but there are some things they are still doing that’s better for the players and game overall, with #1 being no lead-offs at 9/10. At those ages, the kids are just learning to pitch and there’s a thousand things to be thinking about, but holding runners on and keeping them from taking easy bases should not be one of them. Pitching alone is a huge jump and kids need at least 1 year, if not 2, to focus on just pitching and learning the mechanics. As you’ve mentioned, if every walk turns into a triple in 2 pitches, we’re not playing real baseball and it become impossible to hold a force. We might as well let him walk straight to 3rd. I equate it to the NFL extra point. If the success rate is near 100%, we’re just wasting time, and it’s time to make an adjustment.

    As you’ve also mentioned, I’ve yet to see a 9 year old catcher throw a kid out on a straight steal, even when he does catch the ball. Catchers also need a year to learn to somewhat control the game, but also build some arm strength so it’s not an automatic steal every pitch. I do love your idea of bringing out a coach to pitch 3 pitches on a walk. That will also keep “those coaches” from telling their kids to go up there and just watch pitches knowing most kids can’t throw 3 strikes at that age. Force the kids to be hitters and let the defense work. The walk fests aren’t fun to play, and as parents and fans, it’s like watching paint dry.

    Lastly, regarding equipment, I think the local leagues need to allow the USSSA bats. If you haven’t tried them, they are a night and day difference. The USA bats are dead compared to them. We have to find a way to create success for kids, and I really believe those bats would go a long way in doing that. The more kids hit balls to the outfield and get to run bases, the more fun they’re having. And the more fun they’re having, the more they will want to do it. On top of that, it’s more opportunities for the outfielders get involved in the game and not be so bored. That’ll prevent the parents whining about their kids being in the OF because they aren’t getting many balls currently so they end up standing around a lot.

    As you can tell, I’ve thought about this a ton and hate the way the game is turning into a big money grab, but at the league level, we absolutely have to put the focus back on the kids and find a way to make the game fun again. Thanks for all you do, Dan.

    1. This is GREAT Joey. I want to send a follow up email to our entire community with your opinions, especially this one: “I equate it to the NFL extra point. If the success rate is near 100%, we’re just wasting time, and it’s time to make an adjustment.” We know it took 75 years or something, but even the NFL makes adjustments!! Thanks so much for sharing.

      1. To add to it and give you more context, my 8u team plays travel tournaments on the weekends, but my t-baller is still playing league ball, and I’m on the board of the rec league, so I’m seeing it from all angles. I heard Tim Kurkjian say it in a telecast not long ago that the game has evolved more in the last 5 year than it did in the previous 50 years. The leagues aren’t setup as money making machines and are being run by the older generation when travel ball didn’t exists. Therefore, the leagues are MUUUCH slower to adapt, while travel ball is making adjustments on the fly. With the rate at which technology is changing, we must be quicker to adapt. Baseball is a slower game by nature and that doesn’t fit today’s society of everything being on-demand and getting what we want when we want it. I don’t know what the solution is, but I think we all agree there’s a big problem in our game. I’d love to keep this conversation going.

  6. It’s crazy to me that a league would allow straight steals for 9/10yo, even in travel. I’ve been coaching my son’s Rex teams for the last 5 seasons and I think we have a good happy medium in 9/10U where there are no leadoffs, you can’t steal/run on a passed ball until 2 outs and you can’t score on a passed ball. We also shift to coach pitch after 4 balls with bases loaded until they put the ball in play or strike out (ask me how it felt to ‘strike out’ your own player with the bases loaded last night 🙂 ). I was initially annoyed at that rule but in hindsight it does eliminate games like the one last fall where we won 11-10 in a walk off but had no hits (!). Now *that* was excruciating to watch.

    And, while we do have at least 4 pitchers who can bring it, I think our umpires have also been instructed to have quite liberal strike zones to keep games moving, though last night’s was brutal with numerous eyes and up pitches going for strikes. I don’t think we’ve hit the bases loaded walk rule yet and probably have had 2 or 3 walks in an inning once or twice.

    Thanks for the content !

    1. This is great and more along the lines of what I think the game needs. I’m all for baseball purity, so long as the rules match the athlete ability level. What you describe would be a match for the level of athlete that is playing in our league as well. What organization are you playing rec ball in?

  7. It’s just a Park District league in the north suburbs of Chicago. The travel teams play in the ‘Mid Suburban Baseball League’ and uses Illinois High School rules with exceptions for age levels but I’m not sure what those are. The park district / Rec league doesn’t use anything in particular. The guy who runs it seemingly just makes them up as he goes along 🤦🏻‍♂️

    Overall I’ve seen a big jump in baseball awareness and skill even between just last fall and now. I tend to work on things like situational fielding drills and am the defacto pitching coach and am definitely ‘harder’ on the kids now vs when they were in first and second grades. Unfortunately we have had a very cold and rainy spring so we have had makeup games on the days we normally practice, so that kinda sucks.

  8. Hey Dan, I’m a little late to the party here, but as you know I managed Pony teams for many years both for my older son who is now 21, and my youngest that will be an incoming freshmen in the fall.

    I agree with you that something has to change and I believe accountability is what needs to be required, although I don’t know the answer to achieving it.

    Successful, learning competitive baseball can be done with current rules and equipment if both the coaches and the league are held to a higher standard. I managed spring and summer ball every year and 1 All-Star team. Parents need to help at practices so that the manager can truly manage multiple stations so all the kids are busy the entire time. There are a lot of skills these kids have to learn and become proficient at, and practice needs to really be managed so there isn’t 1 kid doing something and the rest watching… While all the skills are important, pitching and catching I feel should require dedicated attention.

    Beyond the practices, the Pony league needs accountability. Something board members have said to me countless times in the summer season is “it’s just summer ball”… And that drives me crazy! To that, my response is, that it’s is still baseball! They even allowed entire travel ball teams to join as teams to compete with the rest of the blindly drafted teams. To this day I’m disgusted with what I was told when I had issue with it… And that was that the league could use the registration money.

    Luckily, through coaching with a lot of the same coaches and against the same coaches over many years we were able to adopt more of a mentality of coaches from both teams helping kids on both teams. I feel that enabled the kids in my younger son’s age group to benefit way more than the adversary approach that is so common. Part of the requirement has to be that the coach is there to benefit the kids not just to win, or benefit his or her kid. Wins and losses are important though because that is part of the lesson kids learn from sports so I hate the “we don’t keep score” approach except for with the real little guys.

    All that said there needs to be accountability for the board, and the coaches as well as for parents.

    When my son was playing Shetland, he won the raffle for the “Angels On Field Experience”. The board was pushing the coaches hard to sell the raffle tickets to all the kids(parents) and they were also sold opening day and other times. It was presented as there will be x number of winners and 1 winner will actually get to be in the dugout for the game. When I got the call that my son had won the basic experience we were really stoked… Then as we were working with them to get all my son’s info entered/enrolled they said he was actually too young to participate. I immediately told the person I was calling the board president and would call them back. The board had been pressuring the sale of these raffle tickets to all levels even to the youngest even though they wouldn’t need eligible to participate. After I raised hell, they somehow made an exception for my boy. When we got to the event, we were the only ones that weren’t on the board. So basically 1 random player won the raffle and all of the board took their players… And to top it off the board presidents son was the one that got to be in the Angels dugout. It was the last year that person was president although he had been for a number of years prior.

    That made me realize how unaccountable they were. I still managed years after and it doesn’t make me say I’d rather go to little league or something. I like the kids learning the “real” rules and strategies of the game. Just my personal preference… But I 100% agree that as things are youth baseball is broken and it comes down to accountability… For the board, the coaches to and the parents. I think there have been a lot of great ideas brought up, but without accountability I don’t think it will matter what rules or strategies change… The adults are the broken part.

Leave a Reply