How you manage your lineup and playing time is going to be different from coach to coach. But a philosophy I’ve grown to adapt results in more reps for everyone while also maximizing success and games played in bracket play.
How? A big part of this is recognizing which games truly matter and which are available for development. Games that our team plays typically fall into the following buckets:
- League games
- Pool play
- Bracket play
Understand that executing this is increasingly easier when there’s a narrow gap in ability between the top and bottom. The larger the gap, the more difficult it will be to keep reps and opportunities close-to-even.
How this is managed will also differ depending on the age, skill level, and other factors.
Here’s a closer look at how I manage the lineup order, benching, positions in the field, pitching, and catching in these three formats…
The Spiders tend to play league in addition to tournaments. However, these league games are not a priority for us. There are two reasons we play league:
1. Get access to a practice field
2. Give players opportunities they may not get in tournament games
As a result, we approach these games as glorified scrimmages for the most part. Still valuable, however.
LINEUP ORDER: This season, I’ve been flipping the most recent lineup from the prior tournament game in league games. Those who hit at the top of the order will naturally get the most plate appearances throughout the season. This helps even out those plate appearances a bit.
Why do this? Because reps help players improve. Providing more reps to the bottom of the lineup in league games can help them get better for tournament games.
There is also a psychological aspect of this. Sometimes, players will struggle when hitting at the bottom of the order because they see their place in the order as evidence that they aren’t as good. I often see hitters perform better when hitting at the top simply because they feel better about themselves.
BATTING THE ENTIRE LINEUP: There is zero reason to bat a partial lineup in league games. We will always bat everyone, barring an injury or some other scenario where subs are required.
SITTING THE BENCH: During tournament play, some players will naturally sit the bench more than others. Once again, I try to even things out a bit in league games by benching the players who don’t sit as often, giving others the reps that they need.
POSITIONS IN THE FIELD: League games are great times to experiment. I may be less likely to try a kid at a new position during a tournament — even on Saturday — but league games are perfect for this.
Practice isn’t enough to evaluate whether or not a player will succeed at a position. Without league games, I may never know whether a player is capable of playing at a certain position on gameday.
PITCHING: League games happen during the week, and often close to the day of tournaments. Some players will pitch far more than others at tournaments, and I’ll either want to save them for an upcoming tournament or rest them following one that just happened.
That makes this a great time to try players on the mound who may rarely get that opportunity. As a result of league games, every member of the current Spiders 14u team had pitched within a month of the start of the season. Once a pitcher succeeds in league games, I am more likely to use him on the mound on a Saturday.
Saturdays and Pool Play
I view Saturdays in tournament pool play as the happy medium between league games and Sunday bracket play. Pool play games definitely matter more than league games (league games really don’t matter much at all). Good seeding will often (not always) help you play deep on Sunday. But at the same time, these aren’t must-win games in most cases either (exceptions being when you need to qualify to play on Sunday).
As a result, we approach these games a little differently.
ORDER: The lineup order will often depend upon the opponent. If it’s clear we are on a higher level than the other team, I’ll flip the lineup the way I do in league games. Otherwise, I’ll use a similar or identical lineup to what I’ll use on Sunday.
Note that if you have a strong roster from top to bottom, the order of your lineup matters very little for an individual game. In fact, it took me a couple of months before I could even come to a decision on a standard lineup this season because it made no difference.
BATTING THE ENTIRE LINEUP: I bat the entire lineup of my current team for every game. But that hasn’t always been the case in prior years. That said, unless there’s a pool play game that is needed in order to qualify for bracket play, I’d always bat the entire lineup in pool play.
SITTING THE BENCH: As is the case with the order, it depends a bit on our opponent and how important the game is. Typically, though, I’ll spread out who sits a bit more during pool play than I do in bracket play. I also realize that the top defensive players could use a rest on Saturday since they may not get one on Sunday.
POSITIONS IN THE FIELD: I won’t experiment with new positions in pool play unless a game is out of hand. However, I will move players around from position to position more in pool play than in bracket play. I’m not typically looking to maximize my best defense in pool play — instead spreading out opportunities between a couple of players at each position.
PITCHING: This is a balance. The end goal is to keep winning in bracket play and ultimately make it to and win the championship game. That will require lots of pitching. As a result, I’ll focus primarily on my second tier “innings eaters” on Saturday. These kids may not pitch in bracket play.
I do, however, tend to throw my top pitchers one or two innings in pool play as well. First, just to shake off the rust because they may not have pitched since the prior tournament. Second, because we do need to do well for seeding purposes.
CATCHING: I tend to have a 2-3-2 approach for pool play games. In other words, my primary catcher starts for two innings, another catcher will come in for three innings, and my starter will finish up (if necessary, depending on run rules and time limits) for the final two. The second catcher will take those middle three innings in one game and the third catcher will take them in the other.
I want to give my primary catcher reps, but I also know that bracket play can be very tough on a catcher. So I provide him with as much rest as I can.
I also avoid having a player who is both a pitcher and catcher do both in the same game. And if they pitch more than an inning or two in pool play, they likely won’t catch that day at all.
Sundays and Bracket Play
Here we go. It’s bracket play, and we’re playing for all the marbles. Win and you keep playing, lose and you go home.
How many games you play on Sunday will depend on the tournament and your seeding, but it’s typically somewhere between two and four. Winning may not be everything, but it’s certainly more important on this day than in pool play or in league games. Development happens in league games and to an extent in pool play, whereas bracket play is about seeing how good you are and how far you can get.
It may sound harsh to put a greater emphasis on winning here, but look at it like this: The more you win on this day, the more reps everyone gets. Get cute and experiment too much and every player is likely to play less as a result.
ORDER: I’m going to use the lineup that puts my team in the best position to score runs. And, barring unforeseen developments, I’ll use the same lineup for each game on a given Sunday.
BATTING THE ENTIRE LINEUP: As I’ve mentioned before, I bat the entire lineup with the 14u Spiders for all games. However, if there’s a time to consider batting only nine or 10, it would be in bracket play. Coaches are trying to maximize their chances of winning and advancing, and this is one way to do it.
SITTING THE BENCH: The deeper we go and the more difficult the competition gets, the more I try to maximize the best possible defense on the field. This means that my top defensive players become less and less likely to sit. Those who sit more aren’t necessarily weak defensively, but they are replaceable with someone who is similar.
I’m sure some coaches are more cutthroat than I am, but I don’t tend to bench anyone more than two or three innings in a seven-inning game. I often pair similar kids (first basemen with limited flexibility, for example) to limit the number of innings they are on the field together in these games.
POSITIONS IN THE FIELD: We’re going for it in bracket play, so I’m going to put my best defense on the field to give us the best chance to win. Still, there will be some moving around because different players will sit every inning and adjustments will need to be made based on the pitcher.
PITCHING: I’m using my most effective pitchers in bracket play to give us the best chance of winning. Ideally, my top two or three pitchers will be reserved for the end of the tournament, but that’s not always possible. You do what you can to survive.
Different tournaments have different innings limits, and that will be a consideration. However, more important than the innings limit is the number of pitches a player has thrown. We’ll keep a close eye on that and remove pitchers prior to hitting their innings limit, in most cases.
CATCHING: The 2-3-2 approach becomes less possible at this point, unfortunately. First, we’re trying to optimize our defense, and the second and third catchers often play pivotal roles at other positions. Second, the second or third catchers may also pitch, and we need to limit their wear and tear.
Ideally, your primary catcher rarely pitches (which is the case for our team). I try to get him breaks in bracket play whenever I can, often at times when games aren’t tight — either sitting the bench or playing another position. It’s important to have open lines of communication with the catcher to know how he’s feeling because it can be a grind for him in bracket play, particularly when playing three or four games.
Bench and Lineup: General Philosophies
There are a few things that tie together my philosophies when it comes to lineup order and players sitting the bench.
1. Lineup order impacts reps. More reps can improve performance. I do my best to flip or change the lineup order when possible to help even out opportunities. I won’t do this in must-win games, of course, but when the opportunity presents itself (league or pool play).
2. Avoid consecutive innings on the bench. I can’t remember the last time I ever sat a kid for two consecutive innings (if not due to injury or disciplinary reasons). I want him to remain as active as possible. So even if a player will sit for two or three innings, I’ll make sure that there are at least two innings in between benched innings.
3. Try to have a different player sitting to start the game. I realize there are psychological aspects of the game, and confidence is important. While we shouldn’t baby them, particularly at older ages, little things like this can impact confidence and ultimately performance. So, I often do my best to alternate which player or players are sitting to start a game.
4. Tie together similar or opposite players. I alluded to this earlier, but one way to maximize the best possible defense is the way I tie players together who sit. For example, it may not be a good idea to sit both of my primary shortstops in the same inning. I’d space them out, making sure that one is there to cover the position. Similarly, I try to avoid having players who are relegated more to first base on the field at the same time. They will alternate when they sit or play the field when the other is pitching.
Positional Repetition and Consistency
There is method to my madness when I plan out positions by inning for a game. It’s not random. Kids aren’t constantly moving to a different position every inning. I do want them to get comfortable.
This is why I try to retain some level of consistency from inning to inning. Whenever possible, I attempt to have kids play at a single position for at least two consecutive innings before moving to another one. By providing this comfort level, I believe they are more likely to play well.
End Goal: Reps and Success
Everything above is constructed in a way that will give kids similar reps while maximizing performance in bracket play — leading to more reps for everyone.
The result? As of this moment, players on the 14u Spiders average between 2.9 and 3.2 plate appearances (a 0.3 difference) and 4.7 and 5.5 innings (a 0.8 difference) in the field.
That’s pretty darn consistent. This consistency leads to more reps, more success, and more happy kids and families.
This is how I manage playing time and the lineup. As mentioned at the top, not all of this is applicable to all ages and levels, but it can give you some ideas of things to think about.
Anything you’d add? Let me know in the comments below!