I have never understood the concept of a draft in youth rec baseball. The draft and all its trimmings (evaluations, rating sheets, etc.) put unnecessary stress on the players, bring out interesting traits in the coaches and leave room for ill feelings between coaches and their non-coach friends with kids in the league. Add to the mix the secretiveness of the ratings to keep them from hurting a kid’s feelings, and the draft gives rec baseball an air of seriousness more akin to travel ball.
Nine years old is an age at which we ought to be encouraging young kids to play baseball. So it seems contradictory the introduction to their first season of real baseball is an evaluation in front of all their friend’s dads or moms, each with a clipboard and a pencil secretly scribbling numbers on a sheet. And it’s an arbitrary evaluation at that because, other than for kids at either end of the playing-spectrum, what can you really tell about a player in sixty-seconds?
The night before my son “tried out” to play up as an eight-year-old last year, I asked him if he was nervous which he was. I asked how long he thought the evaluation would take. It’s comprised of two grounders, two pop-ups and four swings. He guessed five minutes. I explained it would be closer to one minute. Then I asked him if he thought anyone would be able to tell if how well he could play baseball in sixty-seconds. It calmed him down tremendously.
The actual draft is a spectacle in its own right with those secret official rating sheets and a draft board (via a computer and a projector) which, if you are going to have a draft, are necessary I guess. Each team has its own table with space for laptops and charts. About all that was missing were the helmet phones to call back to the war room and the green room for the likely high draft picks to await their names to be called.
The coaches seem to come to the draft in four flavors:
- The Unprepared are always good for a few laughs. They’re the ones drafting players who were already picked, picking out of turn, and trying to draft other coaches’ kids. Near the end of the draft, you start offering to help them only because you want to go home.
- The Overthinkers are the ones who have a grand plan which includes skipping the best kid in the league with the first pick based on some rationale which makes perfect sense to them and only to them. The difference between a hallucination and vision? More than one person sees the vision.
- The Too Serious are the ones with their laptops open and three different ratings cards showcasing which players are seriously undervalued or overvalued based on their rating versus the official ratings. They have three or four spreadsheets because they can’t decide which one best highlighted the hidden gems.
- The Cavalier are the ones who walk around saying, “It’s just rec league baseball” and who seemingly don’t even know there are ratings sheets. These are the ones you have to watch out for because they are more prepared than anyone else sitting in the room.
I fall into the Too Serious category. While I might not like the idea of a draft, if we are going to have a draft, I’m going to over prepare for it. Feel free to laugh at me (I do) because I did have multiple versions of my “plus-minus” spreadsheet and I missed a higher rated player while I was busily weighing the merits of two other players with lower ratings. But mostly I laugh at myself because of the amount of time I put into the analysis convinced I was going to find some golden nugget everyone else missed in the sixty-seconds I looked at each player.
Once the draft is over the awkward conversations can begin. A week after the draft, I saw the father of a friend of my son who I had not drafted. The conversation rotated between his trying to figure out what his kid was rated and my telling him it really didn’t matter as a way of following our rules to not reveal the ratings. Did I mention his kid was standing right there the whole time?
There has to be an easier way.
Recognizing the need to keep the teams evenly stacked, you have to rate the kids somehow. Instead of having all coaches from a particular age-group evaluate players of the same age-group and therefore have a vested interest in the outcome, it would be better to have a small group of coaches evaluate all the players of all the age-groups. It could be a selected group of coaches from the program with the coach from the age-group being evaluated recused or it could be an independent set of coaches. It would also be better to do the evaluations as part of simulated practices or clinics. While it would add a fair amount of time to the process, you could be helping kids improve and making their first taste of baseball a positive experience. Even if you keep the evaluation process the same, fewer clipboards should make it less nerve wracking for the players. Having the same set of eyes ensures you have consistent ratings across the board. And while you’ll never eliminate bias completely you won’t have the inherent overrating or underrating when parents rate their own kids.
The draft should be eliminated completely with players placed on teams based on their scores at the evaluations. You can rank the kids one through n which gives you the order in which kids will be placed. After you’ve placed the coaches’ kids on their teams, each team has a combined score which gives you an order for the teams to get kids. The highest rated non-coach’s kid is placed on the team with the lowest combined score, the next highest is paced on the team with the second-lowest, . . . reverse the team order for each “round.” To ensure an even more level playing field, you would still rank players but group them into A, B, C, etc. categories. Teams with coach’s kids rated in the category skip their round in that category (i.e., if a team has two coaches’ kids who are rated A and each team gets two A players, that team doesn’t get an additional A player.) You’ll need some rules for things like siblings whose parents want them on the same team, but those should be straightforward. And voila, you have teams set for the rec league and players who hopefully had a positive experience to start the season.
With any method there will be shortcomings. The method above eliminates friends being on the same team other than by chance. Well, welcome to the real world. In sports or the workplace, you don’t get to choose your teammates. What you do get to do is learn how to get along with them even if they don’t become your best friends. The general idea is to eliminate the pomp and circumstance and secretiveness surrounding the draft to make it a better experience for the kids and spend more time focusing on getting young kids playing baseball and playing it well.
Every league is different so I can only speak from my own experiences (basically, apologies for the gross generalizations and if your program has a different approach, I’d love to hear about it.)