Every year in the middle of February, spring training facilities in Florida and Arizona all have a buzz of excitement for the upcoming baseball season. Major League stars are getting ready for the grind, minor league guys are found on back fields honing their craft, while fans are enjoying both as they escape the cold with warm thoughts of summer. There is hardly a time of the year when there is more enthusiasm for our game.
For the amount of fanfare seen at these complexes in February and March, what goes on in the months September and October does so under the radar, with little to no coverage at all. Fall Instructional League amongst professional baseball clubs is one of the cooler baseball environments because it’s sole purpose – as it lies in it’s title – IS instruction. There is no championship trophy. It is barely even a true league, with no records and no standings. The “league’s” only real function is setting up a game schedule for teams to play.
Spring training brings in a couple hundred players and tens of thousands of fans. Instructs – as it’s commonly referred to – attracts 40-50 players, and even fewer fans. Not all players go. In fact, attending is by invitation-only. It’s a privilege to be asked to get another three to four weeks added on to the baseball season because that usually means the organization believes so much in the potential of those players that the additional focus on those individuals’ specific skills may be the difference between them becoming Major Leaguers or not.
Instructs is all about individual player development. Yes, team fundamentals are practiced and emphasized when appropriate, but the main focus during this month-long period is on taking a player’s raw athletic ability and molding it into useable baseball skills. For instance, a player who is an above-average runner may spend the entire time at instructs learning how to bunt for a hit or on stealing bases. Pitchers often spend their weeks working on developing a specific pitch, while other players may be transitioning to entirely new positions that fit best with their talent, like a hitter with a great arm becoming a pitcher, or a shortstop learning the utility role at other spots around the diamond.
All of this detailed instruction is able to happen because Instructional League creates an environment that allows for – and often encourages – failure where that failure has absolutely no effect on the team’s daily success, because records aren’t kept, nor scores closely followed. A game in instructs is not your normal baseball contest. The traditional rules of the game are more in the background than they are dictating how the players from each team play the game.
That plus-runner learning how to bunt? He may attempt to lay one down in each of his four times at bat, regardless of the situation, and may start certain innings on base without actually doing anything to get there. That pitcher figuring out his new breaking ball? He may throw it far more than he does his fastball. And when he’s thrown enough, the words, “roll it” is heard from the dugout and the inning is over, whether or not any outs have actually been recorded. And that new-found utility player? He might start at a different position each game, or play multiple position throughout the course of one game. The more reps at the new spot, the more comfort builds. There is still competitiveness in instructs, but rather than it being between teams, the competition lies within the player, and their own personal inner drive to be better than they were the day before.
In this age of travel baseball with constant tournaments and showcases week in and week out, the concept of instructs is an interesting one to take in. If professionals have so much to be gained when placing the entire purpose on developing rather than to winning, there’s no reason why amateur baseball players can’t participate in something similar. So how can today’s coaches and aspiring Big Leaguers implement a similar approach? Well, it begins with the environment.
The main reason why Instructional Leagues have been so productive over the years is because there is zero on winning games or individual stats. Instead of playing in competitive tournaments all summer and fall, schedule games throughout the same time frame where the result does not matter. It’s important that coaches from both clubs are of the same mindset when putting these games together, knowing full-well their purpose will be strictly developmental, and at times, may look non-traditional with innings that may start with runners on base, or end without getting three outs. Expose your players to positions that are completely foreign to them, and turn their primary position into a secondary one, giving them far more time at a new spot than one they are fully capable and comfortable playing. Additionally, give them specific skills to focus on during these games. For pitchers, that might mean throwing an entirely new pitch, or a focus on throwing the fastball to a certain part of the plate that they may not do consistently. For position players, that may have the look of a right-handed hitter trying to learn how to switch-hit as a lefty, or forcing a free-swinger to take a strike in every at bat to build some discipline and pitch recognition, both important traits of good hitters.
But above all, the point must be made to the players by the coaches that the entire focus and reason for these games is not to win or lose, nor to put up numbers, but to improve on the things that they don’t do well. Encourage failure…and use that failure as a means to learn, rather than a reason to get upset as many would in normal competition. Without that emphasis in the message, these games won’t serve their purpose as best as they can.
Winning is a byproduct of a collective group of players playing the game well. The better those individual players are, the better their team will be. So don’t be scared to be different and put a focus on shaping the small pieces of the puzzle instead of completing that big picture all at once. Do that, and eventually those wins that we all want tend to take care of themselves.