Coachisms

006 CoachismsEvery coach has them, those stock phrases they use in particular situations to impart some wisdom on their players.  As the past season unfolded, I found myself turning to a few coachisms that had been drilled into my head growing up.

When I was 13, I played for an old-time baseball guy.  Every local league has one.  You know him.  The guy who’s been around for a hundred years, whose kids and grandkids have long outgrown baseball, but is still out there coaching.  Mr. Eastman was as old-school as they get, rough and gruff but he knew baseball.  When I told him I played first, he informed me “First is where old ballplayers go to die.”  I played third for him.  I can’t remember who our first baseman was, but I imagine his was a long season.  For the record, I loved playing for Mr. Eastman.

I also pitched for Mr. Eastman.  After each pitch, I would leave the mound and walk halfway to the plate to wait for the ball.  Thus I was introduced to the idiot’s walk as in “You know what they call that?  They call it the idiot’s walk.  You an idiot?”  In his kind and gentle way, Mr. Eastman was explaining it is the catcher’s job to get the ball back to the pitcher and it is the pitcher’s job to conserve energy for actually pitching.  I used it with the 8U team though I did change the phrasing slightly.

The varsity coach in college had many sayings, only a few suitable for adults let alone little kids.  Make a bonehead error and you heard “Hey [player’s name].  There’s a town named after you.  It’s called Marblehead.”  I haven’t used this one yet, but I do look forward to the day the kids are old enough.  I’ll probably have to mention the town is in Massachusetts.

Occasionally a coachism provides situational teaching.  While I’d been playing first base since I played for a New York City All-Star team when I was 12 (my dad saw the 60+ kids lined up at shortstop at the first tryout and told me to “get the first baseman’s glove, you’re a first baseman”), it wasn’t until I was 16 that Coach Santos gave me this nugget on fielding the position, “If it’s hot give it a shot, if it’s slow let it go.”  Little kids like to be involved in every play no matter what position they’re playing (think of all the t-ball scrums,) and I can’t think of a better way to help temper the little first baseman’s urge to go after every ball hit to the right side.

Over the last two summers I played travel ball, I played 100+ games for Carmine.  “Losing the second game of a double header is like kissing your sister” was Carmine’s standard after we won the first game of a twin bill.  Want to reach a male teenager?  Make a reference to girls.  Given we played double headers on Saturdays and Sundays and went 104-12 over the two summers I played for Carmine, we heard it a lot.  I used it this past summer when we played a game the day after our first win.  Well, I tried to use it.  As I went into my spiel, I thought maybe this isn’t appropriate for 8 year olds, so I adlibbed “. . . is like kissing your mom.”  Silence and eleven “WTF Coach?” blank stares.  If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.  I went back to Carmine’s version and I got the appropriate “yucks” and “ooohs” from the kids who promptly went out, played flat and got mercied.  Oh well, I still got to use my favorite coachism.

Better Left Unsaid

005 Unsaid 006When did youth sports become politically correct?  I was taught to chatter incessantly. “No batter, no batter, swing batter” was a staple.  I don’t know what a “belly itcher” is, but I know we wanted a pitcher instead of one.   I’m not saying it was better or worse, I’m just saying my fragility as a ballplayer didn’t hinge on what anyone said.

Living in today’s positive cheering world, I have found the marginal filter existing between my brain and my mouth is a godsend.  Some things are better left unsaid.

To the opposing first base coach who yelled, “You can hit him”:  It may seem like positive reinforcement, but what you are saying to my pitcher is “Hey kid, you suck.”

What I wanted to say:  “Apparently he can’t” (after the kid struck out on the next pitch.)

What I did say:  Nothing.  Self-restraint is a good thing.

005 Unsaid 002To the opposing parent who decided to stand practically inside my dugout and yell, “Through the window Bobby.  Strike him out!” (I may have mentioned this one):  You want to cheer from our side of the field, go nuts.  I have no idea what through the window means, but you’re yelling in my ear and my players are two feet away.

What I wanted to say: “Bobby isn’t striking anyone out because he is throwing about 20 mph which is why he’s getting shelled so please go back and sit with your group.”

What I did say: “Way to rip that window wide open” (I don’t know what that means either) when my player crushed one.  Some self-restraint is a good thing.

To the opposing manager who, upset my players were cheering, loudly told his team “Just because they do it, we’re not going to”:  My rec league may have an idiotic rule requiring cheering to stop when the pitcher comes set, but travel ball doesn’t.  I don’t let my team start cheering when the pitcher is about to deliver and we only cheer for our player, so if they’re already cheering, keep at it boys, whatever keeps you engaged.

What I wanted to say:  “Dude, have them chant away. It’s a baseball game for crisssakes!  Their cheering isn’t going to make my pitcher any better or worse.”

What I did say:  Again nothing.  I should have said this one.  Self-restraint is overrated.

To the coach who told his player to stop halfway between first and second so the kid on third could score (I mentioned this one before):  You should know my immediate thought was to plunk the next batter.  I didn’t because it’s beyond wrong and it’s not your kid’s fault his coach is a jerk.

What I wanted to say:  “Way to teach your kids good baseball.  It’s an 8-year-old baseball game not the World Series.  As they get older your kid is going to be out and the next kid is going to get plunked for that bush league (expletive deleted).”

What I did say:  Nothing, damn it!  I so wish I had said that one.  Self-restraint is stupid.

005 Unsaid 001Finally, to the parent of the kid who is finally putting the bat on the ball after I worked with him relentlessly all season who told his kid, “Remember, take the big stride just like we worked on”:

What I wanted to say: “I just spent a month eliminating all the noise from your kid’s swing, and he is finally making contact which is no small accomplishment.  You’ve just watched me spend ten minutes with him on the tee reminding him to widen his stance and shorten his stride so he can focus on getting the bat to the ball on some trajectory that’s not a karate chop, and you have the gall to tell him to take a big (expletive deleted) stride?  Seriously?!?”

What I did say:  “Johnny, great job.  Now let’s do it in the same way in the game.  Hey, dad can I have a word in private?”  And that required every ounce of self-restraint I have.

“I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponent or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never, ever your uniform.”  – Ryne Sandberg

What’s His WAR?

Complex Sabermetrics Made SimpleI keep a tight score book, i.e., reaching on an error is not a hit, and I chart pitches which gives me a robust set of statistics.  I started keeping stats because I didn’t trust my observations or instincts and I was afraid I would let personal feelings about a player tint how I saw them.  Now I can’t imagine not using them.

Over time, I have settled on a handful to help guide my lineups.

Offense

Balls In Play Batting Average (not to be confused with Batting Average on Balls In Play):  At the younger ages, if you put the ball in play you have a good chance of getting on base.  BIPBA tells me who’s hitting the ball consistently and is especially useful when I have to juggle the lineup.  That said, by the end of the season, the 8U players were making more plays so sooner than later BIPBA won’t tell me as much.

Hard Hit Batting Average:  I heard Gil Hodges kept a book where he tracked player’s frozen ropes, bombs, lasers, rockets and whatever lingo is in use today to describe a pitch tattooed regardless of whether it resulted in a hit or out.  Makes sense to me.  If my player is squaring it up consistently, the results will take care of themselves.  Without knowing or wanting to know all the history, maybe Hodges was the first sabermatician.

I’ll also look at On-Base Percentage for players with good plate discipline.  Another offensive stat I like is Runs Created per Game as a good indicator of overall offensive contribution though its value is somewhat limited to arguments over the season end awards.

Pitching

Strike Percentage:  Throw strikes and good things happen.  Kind of the golden rule of baseball.  Enough said.

Fielding Independent Pitching (without the constant):  FIP gives me a good way to gauge the effectiveness of my pitchers taking out the randomness of the fielding range and abilities at this level.

Defense

When it comes to fielding, I’ve yet to settle on stats that really shed much light at this age.  I’ll look at fielding percentage and assists but they are tangential at best.  Fielding percentage may give you an idea of who’s actually catching the balls in play and assists may give you an idea of who’s capable of doing something with the ball after they catch it, but determining fielding positions is mostly about being observant.

As the kids get better the valuable stats will no doubt change.  Already I have new arena planned for next year.  I’ve just finished a new spreadsheet to show swing tendencies and holes as well as spray charts.  More fun and post-game work for me.

In the end, you can’t manage by the stats alone so I don’t see the point of using more than a handful.  As much fun as it is to pour over every statistic looking for an unforeseen insight, the fun outweighs the value at the younger ages, except, of course, in determining season end awards.

Have We Completely Lost It?

With the Little League World Series done and gone, ESPN is back to covering professional (that includes college) sports where the results theoretically matter.  Amen!

Don’t get me wrong, all games matter – to those playing for sure and to those coaching though I suspect to a somewhat lesser degree.  And they sure seem to matter to the parents/grandparents and the like, though I am not sure why.  This wonderful piece by Justin Halpern paints a picture of why they should matter to the kids.

I don’t begrudge the little leaguers on ESPN’s nonstop coverage their time on TV.  What could be cooler than playing on national TV?  But the 24×7 analysis, game breakdowns and endless noise on Twitter and Facebook is as ridiculous as it is overwhelming.  The pitcher is dominating because he is a six-foot man child.  And yes, he’s gutsy.  They’re all gutsy.  Baseball is the toughest game out there.  Worse still is the other side to the ubiquitous coverage: the risk of damaging a young kid.

In a LLWS game late in the tournament, a first baseman elbowed a batter-runner as he crossed the bag.  There was no play at first so it would be hard to question intent.   The Twittersphere lit up.  Why?  Why should anyone other than the kid involved and his coaches and caretakers care, let alone know about it?  It was an unfortunate play and a stupid play.  Kids do stupid things.  It needed to be addressed and moved on from.  Does the kid really need his mistake spread across the globe for all to see?  Does he need it commentated on and analyzed with replay after replay?  Does he need it forever preserved online along with the words “bush league” and ‘”punk” (that’s how it was described)?  What purpose does it serve to forever shame the kid?

From the Twittersphere

Before the days of the app you were lucky if your name got in the local newspaper.  I’m not saying it was better in the pre-internet age though personally I still love the newspaper clipping and making the scrapbook and framing the articles.  But somewhere between the instant gratification of social media and the glorification of kids sports (though the LLWS may be the most visible example, it goes well beyond just baseball), we lost perspective.  We’ve lost perspective with travel sports in general with year-round play and specialization at such young ages; your kid is not going to play pro sports (it’s a numbers-thing more than anything else no matter how good they are now) so why not let them experience many sports instead of one and not run the risk of burnout before they reach high school.  Bad as that is, we have a bigger issue if the travel sports mentality allows us to think a stupid play by a young kid in a meaningless game is newsworthy and that somehow it’s okay to shame the kid on social media.

Daddy Ball

Coaching eight year olds is stressful business.

Is my practice plan focused on what they need to learn and on the building blocks that will let them develop the fastest?  Are the right kids in the right spots in lineup and the right positions?  Have I prepared the kids enough for game day?  Have I prepared myself enough to keep ahead of the game and slow it down?  Stress, stress, stress, and more stress.

The most stressful part?  Coaching my own kid.

Domingo Ayala (if you don’t know about Domingo, google him and get ready to laugh a lot) may have nailed the player’s view of Daddy’ Ball or, better, at 8U, the non-coaching parent’s point of view.  But the view from the parent-coach’s seat is a whole lot grayer.

During the season I had two questions circling in my head.  Was I being unfair to him, or the others, with where he played and batted in the lineup?  And was I being harder on him than I was on the other players?

I was so set against being the Daddy Ball coach, in my lineup for our first travel game, my son was catching and batting seventh.  Catching I had no qualms about.  Though he may not have the strongest arm on the team, he catches the pitches and isn’t afraid to block the bad ones keeping the game moving and our pitcher in a rhythm (when I went to switch catchers in that first game, the ump asked me to keep him in).  Batting him seventh was an appeasement to Daddy Ball and being worried about what the parents would be thinking.  He makes a ton of contact and he’s fast so he should be at the top of the order.  My two assistant coaches are great (choose your assistants wisely) and both said he should lead off and that’s where he hit to start the season though he would have hit in the bottom of the order if they hadn’t intervened (eventually I dropped him to the two hole where he flourished.)

I have a running joke with one of my assistants that his kid, who is our best player, makes it easy for him to be a coach.  No one blinks an eye when his kid is at shortstop and batting third.  Not that parents should blink an eye, but we all suffer from some form of Delusional Parent Disorder (so eloquently described by former NBAer Keith Van Horn), some more than others.  So my stress level was through the roof whenever I put #20 (he choose 20 because of Jorge Posada) at short or, even worse, had him pitch.  I had my heart in my throat whenever the ball was hit to him which I wish I could say was because I wanted him to succeed as I think is normal for any parent.  It wasn’t.  It was because I worried if he missed the ball the parents would think “Daddy Ball.”

Luckily, he had a good season.  He got some big hits for us (a game tying homer to his credit), he put the ball in play a ton (second in runs scored and third in balls in play batting average), and he led the team in fielding percentage, gobbling up every grounder hit his way and throwing strikes to get the outs.  Good on him!  I say luckily he had a good season because I felt like it was lucky for me so I didn’t have to worry about DPD or Daddy Ball.  Problem is, he shouldn’t have had to live up to the higher standard to which I held him.

I didn’t hold any of the other kids to the same standards.  I didn’t give their errors or strikeouts another thought other than how they affected the particular game we were playing at the time.  When our best player made an error playing short, I didn’t think “he shouldn’t play short again.” I wasn’t being fair to #20.  And I didn’t realize it until the season was over.

At our season end party, I mentioned the Coach’s Kid video and my fears about Daddy Ball.  I had more than a few parents tell me what a passionate, good player #20 was and that he played where he should have throughout the season which left me with mixed emotions.  I was happy from him that they saw what I saw, how hard he worked and that he played well.  I was a bit saddened that I couldn’t loosen up from my own fear of being the Daddy Ball coach that I wasn’t able to treat him the same as the other kids.

When I sat the kids and the parents down at the beginning of the season to level set on playing time, team goals and the like, I mentioned a very common goal at this age of everyone improving, including the coaches.  I told them it was going to be a learning experience for us all and that we coaches wouldn’t get it all right but we would learn and get better.  After that season end party, I told my son that I’d messed up and that I would try my best to not be so hard on him next year.

Here’s hoping I deliver on that promise, and I get better as the parent-coach because there is just no separating the two.