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How to Coach a Winning Team in Little League Majors Baseball. Have Fun and Win!
What to look for at Tryouts
If at all possible you should attend every session of Majors tryouts to assess the talent of all the prospective players. At evaluations you can observe which players have grown significantly since the prior season as well as see who performs well when all eyes are on them. In Majors evaluations, the players are processed one station at a time so there is concentrated attention on each individual effort. The players will likely go through 5 stations at the tryout: fielding grounders, catching fly balls, timed run to 2nd base, pitching, and hitting.
Drafting Players for Success
Here comes a new season and you have a team. If your league is like mine you must draft enough players to replace all of your exiting 12 year olds from last season. Otherwise, your league does a complete re-draft and you likely are starting with only your own kid and have to pick 11 more players from the draft pool. The league's player agent should have compiled a draft sheet with all of the objective data from the evaluations. All the players should be ranked from top to bottom depending on their performance at the tryout. The sheet may also include critical data from last season like batting average and coaches' comments. You should also make every effort to obtain a comprehensive set of last year's stats for all of the prospective players. Now you can calculate your own power ranking to list the players by your own order of priority. When I have a statistical history on a kid, I weight this prior season performance as about 75% of total value, and evaluation performance as only 25%. Tryouts can be deceptive and it's best to go with whom has played well in actual games and pitched in the playoffs.
I have my own algorithm for ranking the kids by their prior season stats. First calculate their OPS (on-base % + slugging %) and sort them descending by OPS. Now you can incorporate 2 more critical data points, namely, pitching performance and strikeout total (as a batter). Pitching is such a consistent indicator of skill and dexterity. Kids who can pitch can usually also catch, field, and throw accurately around the bases. If a player pitched more than 20% of a team's innings and had a strike rate over 50% then go ahead and add .100 points to their OPS. Conversely, if a player never pitched, or had only 1 outing, go ahead and subtract .100 points from their OPS. Now for the strikeout total. There is no way to sugarcoat it. Strikeouts are killers in baseball and you should be desperate to avoid drafting kids who "K" frequently. Take last season's strikeout total as a percentage of total at bats and subtract it from OPS. For example, if a kid had 60 plate appearances and struck out 6 times then subtract .100 (6/60) from their OPS. As the final step incorporate the evaluation data with a weight of 25% relative to the adjusted OPS. You now have an intelligent draft "pecking" order.
One final note about picking your team. Serious biases against certain players become blatantly obvious at the draft. Some coaches are only inclined to draft kids who attend the same private (or public) school as their own kid. Some kids will be unfairly blacklisted because their parents are unreasonably demanding and have a history of too much meddlesome involvement with the team. Other kids may have a developmental disorder that makes them hard to reason with at times and limits their ability to follow direction. A noble and goal-minded coach should be able to draft objectively, blind to everything but the ability of the player. It is unfair to punish or blacklist a player for reasons beyond his (or her) control. Pick the best player available in every round regardless of any extra baggage they may bring. Make it your personal goal to create an environment that nurtures the best behavior and best effort from your new players and their families.
Little League Practice
You have drafted your team, sent out an introduction letter, and scheduled your first practice. I prefer to use teamsnap to manage team messaging and scheduling. Your first practice can simply be comprised of coach and player introductions, equipment recommendations and fitting, rudimentary drills, and a 10 minute parent meeting.
Ensure your team is using the right gear
Regarding equipment, most kids already have a glove so you just need to observe if they are frequently dropping balls in drills and then determine if this is due to a hard or ill-fitting glove. Using the appropriate bat for a player's size, strength, and ability is critical to success at the plate. The most common mistake is kids showing up with bats that are too long and/or too heavy for them. Odds are your entire team ranges in height from 4'8" to 5'6" and in weight from 85 lbs. to 150 lbs. Rookies under 5 feet and 100 pounds should use a 29-30 inch bat with a drop 10 or drop 11 weight. Veterans with some size can go up to 31 inches and 21 or 22 ounces (drop 9 or drop 10). I strongly recommend a balanced bat over an end-loaded bat and composite over alloy. The superior swing speed and control of a light and balanced bat outweigh the added thump of a heavier, end-loaded bat.
Little League is recreational baseball and odds are many of your players are not playing year-round travel ball so you should have a heavy emphasis on throwing warmups and drills early in the season. Start easy, working on form and accuracy. (See this video below for examples on throwing drills. - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPpVpwkpbiY ) After warmups, break your team into 2 groups with one group fielding grounders and the other fielding deep fly balls in the outfield. It is best to always have 2 stations of drills going at the same time. You don't want all of your kids standing in one slow line waiting to do the same drill.
Setup Preseason Scrimmages
There is no substitute for practice games when readying your team for the season. Try to setup scrimmages with teams in your league, and, more importantly, teams from rival leagues in your district. If you have played a few scrimmage games before your season starts your players will be far less nervous and tight in their first official game. Most new coaches have no idea how to setup interleague practice games but the solution is simple if you are a bit proactive. Visit the websites of other leagues in your district and access the emails of the board members there. Most board members are also coaching or managing a Majors team in their league. Ask them if they would like to play a friendly scrimmage and most often they will be quite receptive. Scheduling informal, interleague practice games is also a great way to get on a baseball diamond when field access is at a premium in the preseason. Sometimes neighboring leagues have more fields and fewer teams. They are often waiting for someone to ask them to scrimmage!
Identifying Players for Positions
You have had a few practices and brushed up on the five tools, namely; throwing, running, catching, and hitting for power and/or contact. You are now ready to identify players by position. Due to the (can run on) dropped 3rd strike rule, catcher becomes your most important defensive position in Majors. Your catchers must demonstrate agility out of the crouch, bravery in blocking wild pitches, and a strong arm to throw out and pick off runners. Frame the role of catcher as the most coveted position on the team. Don't ask the players, Who will catch?" Rather, it is better that you ask them, "Who thinks they can play catcher?" The reason for this reverse psychology is that some of the most skilled and talented players have been advised to refuse the role of catcher by their parents and coaches. Your challenge is to help these catcher refuseniks understand that by not carrying some of the load at catcher they are hurting their team. No player is legitimately good at recreational baseball if they don't have versatility. If you find yourself with a shortage of catchers you might be forced to set catching as a condition of being in the pitching rotation.
Pitching is indubitably the hardest and most valuable skill in baseball. It requires skill and coordination and a level-headed mindset. Kids easily prone to emotion are just waiting to meltdown on the mound when anything goes awry. Some players will never develop the capacity to pitch effectively. Even so, you owe it to your team to discover and develop as many competent pitchers as possible during the first half of the season. Ideally you will have at least one pitcher who throws hard (60+ mph) and a few pitchers who throw junk (a slow fastball, plus a changeup, and a slider, cutter or curve). Determine if your power pitcher has stamina by working him up to the 85 pitch limit in successive starts (or relief appearances). Many power pitchers can only maintain their sharpness and pop for around 50-60 pitches. That is why it often makes sense to start a junk pitcher and see if they can give you 2-3 quality innings before you relieve them with your power pitcher to potentially finish the game. It is much harder for batters to dial-it-up to a harder pitcher than dial-it-down to a slower pitcher in the middle of a game.
Managing Requests to Pitch and Play Catcher
In my first few years as a coach, I struggled with how to handle developing players' and parents' expectations concerning pitching opportunities. Originally, I had the policy that in order to earn a pitching appearance in a game, a player needed to demonstrate sufficient command to throw in and around the strike zone in practice. Later I came to the conclusion that the best way to get certain kids to relent was to just give them a start early in the season or in a preseason scrimmage. Allow them to experience how difficult it is to start a game as a pitcher and make outs from the top of the order. If they survive the first inning let them keep rolling until they discover why starting at pitcher in baseball is one of the most daunting and challenging tasks in all of sports.
Unfortunately, you will get far fewer requests to play catcher as pitcher and your most capable catchers will likely come from your pool of pitchers. Inform your team that catchers must demonstrate they can catch pitches consistently, pop up out of a squat, and throw down to second base.
Aligning your infield
With first base a mere 60 feet from home, infield hits can be quite common in little league. There are situations where you can minimize them. One of the most frustrating things that can happen when you are in the field is seeing a weak opposing hitter reach base with a glanced ball or swinging bunt to the left side of the grass infield. When a less capable hitter is up, especially a lefty, with the bases empty or just a runner on first, bring your 3rd baseman way forward so they are almost as close as the pitcher. From this "in" position the 3rd baseman can successfully field a glanced ball or swinging bunt and still throw to first in time. With the bases empty you may also opt to roll the shortstop way up too.
First and 3rd base with no outs
Unless you are late in the game, and the runner on 3rd base represents the tying or go-ahead run, you should not concede the uncontested steal of 2nd base. Your opposition will be stealing 2nd base in the hopes that your catcher throws down and their runner on 3rd may score. In Little League, when a capable runner reaches 3rd base with no outs, they will score 80% (or more) of the time. If you have any faith in your catcher, go ahead and throw down to 2nd when the runner on first goes to steal and try to throw them out. Basically, statistically, it's the best strategy to concede the run at 3d in exchange for an out at second or in a run-down.
Aligning your outfield
As popular as it has become in Major League Baseball, shifting your outfield to exploit the tendencies of certain batters, works. Some kids are dead pull hitters, some almost always go oppo (to the opposite field), and some hit gap-to-gap. Learn where your rivals like to hit the ball and shift your outfield accordingly. Versus lighter hitters, especially righties, bring your right fielder way in where he can throw someone out at first. Once you are in league tournament play you may want to put your strongest arms in the outfield and encourage them to throw directly to bases to gun down advancing runners, skipping the cutoff man. Most veterans with "live" arms should be able to throw a seed to any base from anywhere on a little league field with 200' fences.
Setting the Batting Order
On average, a Little League team will have a couple kids who can really hit, about 5 more who can kinda hit, and about 5 who are still developing. The temptation might be to put your best slugger at cleanup or in the 3 spot but you should actually bat him (or her) second. The only case for batting him lower than second is if he is slow and you have more than 1 other kid with a very high on base percentage. When I say high on base percentage I mean over .700. You need to bat your stud 2nd, behind the kid with the highest on-base percentage, to maximize his (your slugger's) potential plate appearances. Otherwise you generally want to bat your kids in descending order by on-base percentage. Where kids are close you should obviously hit the faster kids higher in the order where they can steal their way into scoring position and not be clogging the bases.
Coaching your batters at the bottom of the order
Kids at the bottom of your order are usually younger and still developing. Early in the season they may be quite nervous and intimidated as rookies facing Majors' pitching for the first time. Do your best to ensure these kids have prepared with plenty of hard machine batting cage rounds at speeds varying from around 50 mph to 60+ mph. Coming up from Minors, many will need to shorten up and level off their swing to catch up to ace pitching. For some of these batters, you may only be looking for a quality AB where they get at least 5 pitches out of the pitcher and manage to get the ball in play. Once they get 2 strikes or 3 balls on them they should really get conservative about swinging the bat. Never yell, "you got 2 strikes now! Gotta protect the zone!" You are just asking your batter to chase and strike out when you yell that. Rather, with 2 strikes, you should yell, "Be ready to run now!", when the dropped 3rd strike rule is in effect. All of your batters should be running out of the box on strike 3 looking or swinging since the pitch may bounce, be dropped, or be wild.
Stealing bases on a caught pitch versus a capable catcher can be very difficult in Majors since leadoffs are not allowed. The only way to steal is to catch a catcher by surprise. This can be done by lulling them to sleep taking very short leadoffs and not jumping off the base on every pitch. Observe if the catcher is starting to lob the ball slowly back to the pitcher. If the catcher gets lazy and starts lobbing the ball back, take a slightly bigger lead on the next pitch and then break for second base right as the catcher releases the next slow lob back to the pitcher. Now they must make 2 throws to get your runner out and the first throw is a very slow one. Another appropriate scenario for stealing is in the final inning when you are; down 1 run, have a runner on 3rd base, 2 outs, and a very weak batter up. If the pitcher has good command and is rarely wild you can't count on a walk or passed ball. Once your batter has 2 strikes on him it is time to steal home. Steal with surprise, by taking no leadoffs on previous pitches in the at bat and then breaking for home right as the catcher throws back to the pitcher. Avoid the tag by sidestepping or sliding on the inside of the plate and touching home with your hand. Whatever happens, do not get pickled off returning to third base. Just keep forcing a play at home plate. Don't take strike 3 for the 3rd out in the final inning with a runner stranded on 3rd! Click the link below for an example.