With less than an hour of “play time” available in our Texas high school off-season baseball class, what could we do to encourage necessary player development while we made our annual evaluations and formed our teams? After hearing many of our country’s very best college baseball coaches speak in person or on podcasts (and realizing that they have reimagined their own programs with tighter time constraints implemented over the last decade), we began to think “outside the box.” One constant theme is that our players need and want to compete. Another common thread among baseball’s brightest minds is that it needs to be fun for our players. A third characteristic was borrowed from peak performance guru Brian Cain - Do a Little a Lot rather than a Lot a Little!
Our current practices have come to include some form of competitive play almost daily. The game may be a part of the day’s plan or it may be the main course of action. Our players have learned to gather prior to play and learn about that day’s rules of engagement. While the players were skeptical when we first started to implement varying rules and games, they eagerly ingest the rules and limitations and typically prematurely start to collaborate with their teammates to give their team its best chance to win.
While we have several games that we believe are unique to our programs and those we have shared with, Live Action is the most game-like. Player behavior and performance in our Live Action intra-squad games is strikingly similar to what we see in our league games. In addition to coaching clinic lecturers, coaching podcasts, and Brian Cain, the creation of Live Action was also influenced by Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code. The plan was to compress the game as we know it in an effort to maximize action and force players to adjust and adapt (like the deep practice described by Coyle). That desire led to the first few guidelines:
- Every hitter begins with a 2 ball, 1 strike count
- The defensive team must record four outs to get off the field
- Each batter that reaches base safely has ONE free attempt to steal a base; if caught, he is sent back to previous base with no outs recorded.
The previously mentioned time constraint, coupled with the fact that we needed to see all players perform as much as possible to properly evaluate them, led us to our next critical rule, whereby each team must have a new pitcher each inning. If a pitcher completes his inning with twelve or fewer pitches, he may pitch the next inning. For the top pitchers in the group, this rule stirred their competitive juices. For our coaches, it became easier to identify our top arms - those who would give our team its best chance to win.
Those pitchers who were able to deliver first pitch strikes with multiple pitches had a distinct advantage. The first pitch strike is critical for pitchers who hope to earn an extra inning within the rules of Live Action. In reality, to record 4 outs with 12 or fewer pitches, even with a starting count of 2-1, requires pitchers to attack the strike zone relentlessly. The first pitch strike gives the pitcher a slight advantage regarding options with his second pitch. It gives him an opportunity to attack a location away from the heart of the strike zone or to use a pitch that he doesn’t completely command (both are problems for the current hitter and subsequent hitters paying attention to the action). The other possibility is that the hitter’s at-bat is already over with just a single pitch. Sandy Koufax is famously quoted, “I became a good pitcher when I stopped trying to make them miss the ball and started trying to make them hit it.” It isn’t hard to figure out why competing with a 2-1 starting count encourages young pitchers to pitch with the focus of elite pitchers.
For the coaches who may grumble that the current generation has missed out on development via makeshift sandlot or wiffle ball games, Live Action provides an organized opportunity to recreate
fun competition (or create it in the first place!) by compressing the game and limiting “standaround” time. There are very few clean innings with no baserunners, and the free stolen base attempts require extra communication for the defense. Hitters cycle through their batting order more quickly because of the 2-1 starting count, and innings are completed in less time. Perhaps most importantly, high intensity situations eventually become more routine.
Experienced coaches have all been forced to learn a balance between doing things the way their coaches did them and coming up with new ways. That wise old coach most likely had a valid purpose for his plan and was not limited by as many time constraints as we are faced with today. In our area, high school summer baseball has fallen into the routine of playing two 7-inning games once or twice a week. The games are limited by time!
Oftentimes, neither game is over before the time limit comes into play, which means the end of the game is a mystery to the players—they seldom play the last inning. In addition, many of the games become lopsided due to the level of play. Most of the high school summer teams formed in our area are formed by 8th and 9th graders—many older players typically play with travel organizations. Lopsided games aren’t fun or meaningful for anyone except the team that’s winning. Is there any wonder why these young players are looking at more exciting alternatives?
Live Action is best played in a series format when it is considered beyond your own practices. In an effort to design a plan to encourage high-level baseball results, we decided to play a series of three 2-3 inning mini-games in a day. Now we could play the ‘last inning’ multiple times in a day, which worked beautifully. We are able to play a complete 3-game 'series’ typically within three hours. Though we can’t even come close to the atmosphere in Omaha, this format really helped us deliver more nail biting situations than before.
It isn’t just the players who enjoy the Live Action matches. Parents and umpires also have an appreciation, and scouts have enjoyed the opportunity to evaluate more than a dozen pitchers and all the players from two teams in a competitive format in less than three hours. We encourage you to give it a try and see what it looks like on your field with your players. Start with an intra-squad first. Split your players into two evenly matched teams. Don’t be afraid to have a player or two out of his normal position. Hire umpires. The players’ level of intensity will rise throughout the day, so the umpires are critical. Close calls will create yet another opportunity for learning, and will hopefully give your staff a better understanding of what our game umpires are dealing with during the season. And always play with something on the line!
We believe Live Action rules provide the perfect storm of opportunity for players to develop appropriately while promoting highly competitive situations. Though an outsider would notice that something was different from normal rules if they were watching, it wouldn’t be obvious what the differences were. We also believe this style of play accentuates the enjoyment of the game for the competitors. They will most definitely be forced to find a way to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. Give it a try, you won’t be disappointed!
John Carter is the current head baseball coach at Round Rock High School and was recently named the NFHS Texas State Coach of the Year. He is active as an officer with the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association.
Tom Collins is a past President of the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association and a former featured speaker at the annual American Baseball Coaches Association clinic.
Carter and Collins have partnered to form C&C Baseball with the goal of sharing creative ideas to promote amateur baseball and player development in our country.