As youth baseball coaches, we can’t control genetics and talent and, while we’d all like to develop professional players, most of us are unlikely to encounter one. The best things that we can do are to develop young men and women who love the sport and are knowledgeable about it. However, even with the best of intentions, coaches often do things that both kill the love for the sport and ensure that players aren’t very knowledgeable about it. One of the most apparent examples I see is with youth pitching. How many times have you seen youth coaches sit on a bucket outside the dugout during a game, calling every single pitch?
In this article, I’m going to suggest the specific ways this prevents youth pitchers and catchers from learning the sport.
- It’s about learning the sport, not proving what the coach knows
- Catchers should call the pitches
- Coaches, catchers, and pitchers should practice to learn the “why’s” behind what they are doing
- Practice reps with baserunners/situations should not be overlooked
It’s About Learning
In addition to my coaching habit, I am also a teacher. I have my principles for life written on one of my white boards so that anyone who walks in my classroom knows what I am about and what I keep myself accountable for. One of the principles is “I will understand it is not about me.” In teaching and in coaching we often lose sight of this. It’s not about the coach—it’s always about the athletes, but through making lineups, planning practice, running the offense and yes, calling the pitches, coaches can have too much control. In sports, the highest praise a coach can get is when their athletes are prepared, love the sport, and have a high sport IQ. A coach can run an environment where they do all the thinking for the athletes, and this can be successful, but what is it teaching? In my opinion, all you are developing in that situation are players who look into the dugout after every pitch for feedback and instruction on what to do next. The athletes have learned to rely on the coach to think for them, and they have not learned much about the game.
Let the Catchers Call the Pitches
Youth catchers should call the pitches. Let’s be honest for a minute: your nine-year-old has one pitch, and you’re just hoping it goes over the plate. Don’t overthink it. If your players are 13-14 and above, they may be starting to develop more of an arsenal. Let the catcher and the pitcher work together and call the game. Feel free to give some parameters so it’s not just a completely random process. There should be a team philosophy behind the “why’s” of pitch-calling that the catchers and pitchers should practice extensively.
- 0-0 Count: Throw whatever the pitcher can control the best (we are just trying to get ahead)
- 0-2, 1-2, or 2-2 Counts: Okay to try an off-speed pitch if the pitcher has one, or a different location (off the plate away, in the dirt, high) if not...
- 3-0, 3-1, or 3-2 Counts: See No. 1! We need to get the ball in the strike zone—throw the most reliable pitch; we will count on our defense to make a play.
If the coach starts slowly with this and builds it layer by layer, youth pitchers and catchers can learn it. Clearly you have the freedom to set your own parameters here, but as long as you’re letting your players call the game, you stay away from micromanaging and give your players a great opportunity to learn the game quickly.
Many coaches call the pitches because they are concerned their players will make a mistake, or “they don’t know what to do.” If you give the players ownership of this, then they are going to make mistakes, but they will also learn from them and be much better baseball players as a result!
Learn the “Why”
If the catchers are going to call the pitches, this has to be practiced extensively. If you wait until the practice before the first tournament and try to cram it all in, the results will be bad. So what does this look like?
First, have the pitchers throw to batters in batting practice. Think about this, coaches don’t throw in games so why do it in practice? Have the catchers catch and call the pitches. Instead of lecturing, talk through what you want them to know as it comes up. Being able to actually do it will result in better learning than a lecture. For example, “OK, we have a 3-0 count. Do we want to walk this hitter? Good, do you think we should throw something tricky or something reliable to avoid walking him? Right, your four-seam is most reliable. I understand he will probably hit it, but let your defense behind you do their job and get the out for you.”
Reinforce this with scrimmages against other teams or intersquad scrimmages. That’s the closest you can come to game situations and game stressors. Finally, apply it in games. If mistakes are made, correct them and coach ’em up!
Pitching would be really easy if batters never hit the ball or got on base. Unfortunately, baserunners complicate things, which goes without saying, but it’s not necessarily practiced as such. For example, if a runner is on third base, then we want to avoid wild pitches and passed balls.
This is an area that we have to practice to understand and apply the coach’s philosophy. For example, having pitchers pitch to batters during batting practice (and catchers both catch and call pitches) is a great time to develop this. As the coach, keep track of what is going on.
“That’s a walk. Now you have a runner on first base. Catcher, since there’s a runner on I need you to pop up with every throw back to the pitcher.
“That’s a hit. Now you have runners on first and second. At this point we don’t want to risk the big hit, so let’s look at your two-seam and changeup to try to get him to hit a ground ball so we can get some outs.”
“Ouch, that was a wild pitch, all the runners advance. Now we have runners on second and third…”
Throwing 10-15 pitches to a batter during batting practice can give the pitcher and catcher a great opportunity to practice situations. On the offensive side it promotes situational hitting and competing within the parameters of the ball-strike count. This can then be applied to scrimmages and then eventually to actual games. But practice is key!
Learning baseball is a progression. Nine-year-olds won’t play like major leaguers with twenty-plus years of experience behind them. The knowledge and situational awareness that a major leaguer has is developed over decades of playing the sport. Giving your young players some ownership of the game and allowing them to both make and learn from mistakes will pay off in the long run!