There are many goals in the course of a single youth baseball game. Some are life lessons, learning from mistakes, and having fun. And if you want more reps and to enjoy the thrill of victory, another goal is to win the game.
By now, you’ve undoubtedly seen the clip and read the quote from Herm Edwards, former head coach of the New York Jets: “You play to win the game.”
It’s simple, right? Edwards is annoyed, incredulous that anyone wouldn’t understand this simple, basic fact. But, lost in this simplicity, is a question: HOW?
The immediate response is to laugh off this question, and to state, plainly, “Score more runs than the other team.” Well, sure. That’s true. But do young players understand how that’s done?
If you’ve watched many youth baseball games, it quickly becomes painfully obvious — at all ages — that how the game is won is not clear to most players. It’s obvious, not because of poor mechanics, skills, or abilities. It’s obvious because so many fail to execute the little things that may not seem like a big deal but ultimately lead to scoring more runs — or letting the other team do so.
They don’t value and appreciate each of the small things that lead to scoring more runs — or preventing the opposition from scoring more runs. As kids, they often aren’t mature enough to connect small, seemingly uneventful, actions to an end result that may be separated by many innings or minutes.
So, let’s break this down. It may seem laborious. But, basic facts that many coaches and adults take for granted aren’t so obvious to young players. The ultimate goal is to establish in the minds of young players how each of these things are important — not just “because,” but how they directly impact wins and losses.
How do you win the game?
Score More Runs: Reach Base
When thinking about scoring more runs, the emphasis is often put on taking advantage of opportunities to reach home from those who are already on base. But the reality is, we need to CREATE more opportunities by reaching base — and avoiding outs — as many times as possible. We will score more runs if you can’t get us out.
Again, that may seem obvious. But there are many different ways to avoid outs, and we don’t seem to appreciate them all equally.
Walks: A walk is far from glamorous. Some hitters detest the walk, and avoid them at all costs. There may actually be a decent argument for good, young hitters at lower levels to swing at bad pitches (poor defense leads to more bases), but this habit will become less and less productive as they age.
Applaud the walk. Walks can and do lead to runs.
Hit By Pitch: Reaching base by getting hit by a pitch may be the most selfless act in baseball. It will probably hurt. But you will reach base, which makes it more likely that your team will score.
Dropped Third Strike: After a third strike, what do you do? Do you drop your head, feel sorry for yourself, and accept your fate? Or are you STILL looking for any possible way on base?
The teams that take advantage of these opportunities make things very difficult for the opposition. Outs are seemingly harder to come by, and more runs will result.
Reach on Errors: One of the reasons that I don’t like counting errors, particularly for my offense, is that it fails to reflect the effort of the hitter and accepted imperfection of the opposition. If you put the ball in play, you have a chance — particularly if you never give up.
Put pressure on the defense. Make them throw the ball. Make them rush. HUSTLE. Get on base, even if it’s the “fault” of the defense. Your team will score more runs as a result.
Hits: Simple enough, right? Just get a hit, Jimmy. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. But a big part of actually getting an “official” hit is swinging at strikes. It’s being aware of the situation. And it’s hustling down to first.
Score More Runs: Take Extra Bases
Going station-to-station requires more effort to score a single run — and a higher likelihood of stranding runners. The best way to accelerate run creation is by taking extra bases. How do we do that?
Extra Base Hits: We’ll start with the most obvious. This one takes the most skill to execute consistently. It assumes no mistakes by the defense. In most cases, it is the result of a hard hit ball that travels past the outfielders.
Steal Bases: Stolen bases result in players closer to home, making it more likely that a run will score even in the event of an out. If you have the skill to take these extra bases, it’s a big advantage.
Advance on Wild Pitches and Passed Balls: Are you paying attention? Are you taking a good primary and secondary lead? Are you athletic and ready to jump at the opportunity to advance?
A ball that gets by the catcher and to the backstop should almost always result in an extra base. But, where teams can take advantage is on the ball in the dirt that doesn’t get by. A runner who anticipates this and is ready to go can take that base that others won’t.
Take Advantage of Mistakes: You hit a clean single to the outfield. Are you satisfied with that hit, and coasting into first? Or are you sprinting down the line, anticipating a mistake?
The opposition will give you opportunities to take extra bases throughout the game. Will you take advantage of them? Or will you be complacent, stuck at the base you were willfully accepting?
Score More Runs: Avoid Outs
While avoiding outs is implied in the “Reach Base” section, it’s important to add it to consider running the bases. When it comes to effective baserunning, it’s a delicate balance between aggressiveness and over-aggressiveness that leads to outs. While that risk is worth taking at specific times, the general goal is to avoid outs. How?
Get Good Jumps: A good jump doesn’t guarantee you’ll be safe at the next base and beyond, but it’s a great first step (pun intended). Far too often we see a close out on the bases and chalk it up to bad luck — ignoring the missed opportunity due to a bad jump.
Hustle at All Times: Quick, concise reactions. Minimize lag. Make no assumptions. Take nothing for granted. Bust your butt to every base, and you have a chance to avoid what may at first appear to be an easy out.
Make Good Decisions: While the base coaches may ultimately be responsible, at least visually, for decisions on the bases, the runners themselves can’t rely entirely on their coaches. Their good decisions and anticipation can make their coaches look good. Bad decisions can have the opposite effect.
Be Aware: What’s happening around you? Where is the ball? What is the situation? A general alertness and awareness of what is developing around you can help avoid outs on the bases.
Score More Runs: Productive Outs
Sometimes you get out. It’s going to happen. But the best case scenario is that these outs are productive — leading to a positive result in exchange.
Limit Strikeouts: I understand that an increase in strikeouts is part of the professional game, and there are rewards to this tradeoff. But we don’t play at the professional level, and putting the ball in play gives players a significant chance at a positive result.
Until double plays become more common, the strikeout is the worst possible outcome. Sure, popouts and lineouts and several other outs can lead to the same result, but any ball in play has a far greater potential to lead to something good.
Defenses are imperfect — some far more than others. Put the ball in play and force them to do something with it.
Move the Runner: This is partially related to limiting strikeouts, but simply putting the ball in play won’t necessarily move the runner. The situation may require a ball hit behind the runner to move a runner from second to third. Or a fly ball to the outfield to score a runner from third. Or any ball in the air over a drawn-in infield.
I know that many will want to include the bunt here, but I put it under the “move the runner” umbrella. Even if you aren’t a big proponent of bunting, there are many ways for a batter to move a runner over.
In fact, I’d include some situations related to the strikeout. Even if you don’t reach first on a dropped third strike, forcing the throw may lead to a runner moving up to third or even home. And even if the rules dictate an automatic out (first base occupied and fewer than two outs), running towards first can create confusion and lead to an unnecessary throw.
Run Prevention: Throw Strikes
If your team executes on the items above, you can help maximize your runs scored. But if you do a bad job of run prevention, you may still lose. One of the primary ways to prevent runs is by throwing strikes.
Get Strikeouts: Now, this is easier said than done. But, the more strikeouts you get, the less you leave up to your defense to make plays. Of course, this can’t be at the expense of wildness, leading to more walks. A walk, in my mind, cancels out a strikeout. So, take your Strikeouts – Walks and compare it to the opposition.
Limit Walks: Even the best hitters, with the ball in play, have a chance to get out. Giving free bases via walks is incredibly frustrating because it doesn’t allow your defense an opportunity to convert an out.
Walks will happen. But walking fewer batters than the opposition is a great start.
Limit Hit By Pitch: Same as the walk, but often more difficult to swallow. Sometimes, a pitcher struggles to find the zone and a walk feels inevitable. But that 0-2 hit by pitch hurts.
Limit Wild Pitches: Even if you avoid walks and hit by pitch, an otherwise wild pitcher can give the opposition extra bases with wild pitches. As discussed earlier, those extra bases accelerate the ability to score a run.
Run Prevention: Convert More Outs
I like to break this down into difficulty because you can’t just say “convert outs.” It’s as easy as that, right?
We need to account for age, ability level, and expectations.
Convert More Easy Outs: An “easy” out is going to be defined differently depending on the age and level. By definition, it’s the out that should be converted nearly every single time.
No bad hops. No long throws. No hard hit balls. Think things like a slow roller to the first baseman. Or a weak pop-up to the shortstop. Minimal moving parts and chances for a play to go wrong.
If you convert all of these, you’re in good shape. The team that starts putting runners on base or giving up extra outs and bases by making these bad mistakes will put themselves in a hole.
Convert More Average Outs: Again, account for your own expectations to define this. It’s not an automatic out, but it’s an out that should be made in “most” cases. The ball is hit harder, throws need to be made, and outfielders need to run to get it.
You want to make a higher percentage of these plays than your opposition. Doing so gives your offense more opportunities to minimize outs and score runs.
Convert More Difficult Outs: These are the plays that you don’t expect to be made. They result in “ooohs” and “ahhhs” and applause. It’s the diving catch. The throw from deep in the hole. The out that everyone assumed would be a hit.
For two evenly matched teams, these difficult outs are often the difference between a win and a loss.
Run Prevention: Limit Extra Bases
We talked about how important it is for our offense to take extra bases when possible, leading to runs scored. Just as important, we need to prevent the opposition from getting those extra bases.
It’s close to impossible to prevent it entirely. But doing the little things that make the extra base difficult, forcing the opposition to go station-to-station, is a really good way to frustrate the other team. They will strand more runners and may ultimately take greater risks, leading to more outs.
Prevent Stolen Bases: It isn’t as simple as having a catcher with a great arm. At least half of stolen base success can be attributed to the pitcher. How well does he hold the runner on? Can he prevent a good jump from first?
Of course, the catcher also needs to do his part to keep the ball in front of him. He needs to be alert and aware of the baserunner. He needs to do his job of holding the runners, too, without taking unnecessary risks. And he needs to make good throws.
Collect the Ball Quickly: A single was hit to you in the outfield. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t assume the runner is stopping at first (or other runners are stopping at their bases). Get to and collect that ball quickly, while not rushing.
Hit the Cutoff: One key mistake made by players of all ages is a failure to hit the cutoff man. Maybe they panic and attempt to make the throw all the way home. Or maybe they simply make a poor throw. A failure to hit the cutoff will often lead to extra bases, if not runs, for the opposition.
Keep the Ball in Front: This applies to infielders and outfielders. Even if it’s going to be a clean hit, take a good angle to prevent it from getting by you. Keep not only the batter from taking an extra base but those runners already on base from moving closer to home.
Know Your Responsibility: Who is on base? How many outs are there? You must understand the situation before the ball is hit.
And when that ball is hit, avoid hesitation. Be confident in where you need to be and what you need to do. Delays can lead to late throws, wrong throws, extra bases, and runs.
Run Prevention: Minimize Impact of Mistakes
Mistakes are going to happen. These kids aren’t pros, and they aren’t robots, either. We accept they aren’t perfect, but we prepare them and help limit the number of mistakes that they make. The fewer and smaller mistakes that are made, the fewer opportunities you give the opposition to take advantage.
Here are some examples…
Back Up Throws: It’s commonplace. There’s a close play at home. Throw gets by the catcher. The pitcher is still standing on or near the mound. Runner on first advances easily to second.
This doesn’t have to happen. But you can’t will for your players to back up every throw. You need to put a plan in place. You need to practice it. You need to talk about it.
With backups in place, runners are less likely to advance on an errant throw. That could mean a run not scoring on that play. Or it could mean giving your defense an additional chance to get outs that prevent that throw.
Back Up Teammates: A ball is hit right to the left fielder. The center fielder freezes, assuming his teammate will make the play. The ball gets by and rolls to the fence, resulting in two or three extra bases.
Had the center fielder been there, the runner may not have advanced at all. Or a single base, at worst. Someone always needs to be there — or be making an attempt to get there.
Once again, this needs to be an expectation based on practice and detailed discussion, rather than reflexively getting upset when the ball gets by.
Prevent Errant Throws: Often underappreciated is the first baseman who prevents a bad throw from getting by him. When you see the shortstop make a bad throw, rolling into the dugout, the expected reaction is to blame the shortstop. Bad throw, E-6.
The reality? Players should be expected to make the more difficult plays, too. Help your teammate. Scoop the ball out of the dirt. Come off the bag to prevent the ball from getting by.
Making these plays — even if the bad throw still allows a runner — can help limit the damage and ultimately prevent more runs.
React Quickly: “THROW THE BALL!” We’ve seen it, particularly at young ages. The outfielder, standing with the ball. Not sure what to do. Meanwhile, runners keep on running. It’s important that fielders act quickly and confidently. This can only be reinforced through effective practice.
This, of course, isn’t an all-encompassing list of all factors that lead to winning and losing a game. But it’s the foundation for things to focus on with your team.
Any items I missed? Let me know in the comments below!