It’s the bottom of the ninth inning and you’re trailing by one run with the previous hitter standing on first base after singling up the middle. Now you step up to the plate as the eighth hitter in the lineup, you look down the line to your coach and receive the bunt sign before you step into the box. You have just a few seconds to read the infield, pick up the pitch that the pitcher is delivering, square your body up, and get down a bunt that will successfully move that game-tying run into scoring position.
Where are you going to try to bunt the ball? Third-base line? What if the third baseman is creeping down the line — will you be able to react fast enough to take the bunt the opposite way down the first-base line? Will you be able to pull back if the pitch isn’t in a position in the strike zone for you to successfully execute the bunt, or will you try to force the first pitch seen into play at the risk of failing? Are you ready to identify and react to all of these variables in a matter of seconds?
Baseball is often referred to as a thinker’s game, a sport of strategy more than physical ability. In football, schemes are used to fool your opponent, but when schemes fail the team with the biggest, strongest, and fastest superstars are going to win more often than not. When backed into a corner, a play caller can force his best talent into the play and rely on them to outperform the lesser player. The same concept applies to basketball and hockey, for that matter, because in these sports you have your best five to eleven players in the field of play, readily available to sink the game winning three pointer, or rifle the game winning slap-shot or touchdown pass.
In baseball, a coach puts together a lineup of nine or ten players, depending on the age level and designated hitter or lack thereof for a particular game. Within that lineup, you must have a starting pitcher who often is a below replacement level hitter, as well as a catcher who is often known more for his defensive abilities than his offensive prowess. After that, the remaining seven positions have to be filled by the position players who assume the remaining seven defensive positions, because we can’t swap them in and out as we please such as in the other sports that have free substitutions throughout the game. It’s very possible that your worst hitter will be the guy in the position to execute a game changing play. We know as coaches what we want done, but does that player know how to execute what we want done?
Yogi Berra said it best: “Baseball is ninety percent mental; the other half is physical.” Baseball is, in fact, largely a thinking game, a nine-inning chess match.
“What’s the point to all of this, Coach?”
We have a problem with our current generation of young baseball players. I have, and I’m sure every other coach has or has had, players at the high school level who have absolutely no tactical feel for the game.
Most of them couldn’t answer the scenario that I opened this article with; most of them couldn’t tell you what their role is defensively on a play where the ball is hit to one of the other positions; hell, some of them aren’t even conscious enough to make simple defensive alignment adjustments without being instructed to do so before every pitch.
So why are players at the high school level coming to us lacking the knowledge of the fundamentals of the game?
As a young baseball player, I knew these things, not because a coach taught me them, but because I was an avid baseball fan. On Saturday mornings I routinely woke up and completed my chores immediately so that I wouldn’t miss a single pitch of the Fox Sports Saturday Game of the Week.
On weekdays I made sure that my homework was done after school so that I could get to the park and play a couple pick-up games with my buddies, and make it home in time to watch White Sox at seven o’clock before I went to bed, and anytime ESPN televised an out-of-market game in the evening you could bet that I was flipping channels to watch that as well.
I can remember being as young as seven years old, sitting in the living room organizing my baseball cards while I watched the ball game with my father, quizzing him on every player that I didn’t know.
I have a sixteen-year-old brother who just began watching baseball regularly, and he is a very knowledgeable on-field baseball player because of it. Before I began coaching him, he played baseball but did not watch baseball. He was talented and athletic enough to be considered one of the best players in the neighborhood, but not good enough to be the best. He relied solely on his athletic ability, because he really had no idea what a was doing, only to do what he was told before each play.
Nowadays kids spend the vast majority of their time on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Playstation, X-Box, Angry Birds, Flappy Bird, Candy Crush, etc. You get the point that I’m trying to make, I could name things kids are doing rather than watching the sport that they play for days.
A few years ago, my younger brother Ryan went from being a talented player who made his success on his athleticism alone, to a well-rounded baseball player who is now looked at not only as one of the best players in his age group, but a leader to his teammates. Because a few years ago Ryan shifted his focus from his phone, to the practice field. He shifted his focus from Playstation to watching baseball on television.
This generation of young baseball players have hundreds of things to distract them from the practice field, from consuming professional baseball games on TV or at the ballpark, far more than we did as kids.
As coaches, we need to be diligent in incorporating the consumption of professional baseball into our players. We can go over basic fundamentals of the game every single practice, but players will not be able to execute these principles on a consistent basis until they become students of the game in addition to players.
The good news for us as coaches is that we have nearly as many teaching resources available to us as the kids have distractions from watching baseball. Locally televised baseball games, nationally televised out of market baseball games, MLB Network (which has analysts breaking down baseball around the clock every single day), MLB At-Bat App, YouTube, etc. There is no excuse for a player not to be watching baseball in this day in age, with the technology that we have around us.
Whatever age level that you coach, please make sure that you urge your players to watch baseball in their free time. Incorporate them watching baseball into your practice time as a coach. Everyone learns differently; some kids can hear what we say and execute it to a tee. Some kids can not do that, and even the ones that can, don’t know why they did it. Watching professional baseball players execute the game on a daily basis is an invaluable visual teaching aid that no amount of drills can replace.
Have your players watch a particular game, and instruct them to keep score of the game while watching. This will ensure that they are actually watching the game, and following along with each pitch as opposed to having the game on in the background while they do other things.
If you want to go a step further, have them pick out plays in the game that taught them something new, or a play that reinforced something that they may have already known, but didn’t completely understand. Have them write about it, with good old pen and paper. At your next practice discuss the game, discuss the good plays, and the bad plays. Why they were good, or what that player could have done differently and what your player would do if faced with that situation.
This is the most effective way to grow a player’s knowledge of the game, and in the process it will drive the player to question everything that he does. It will make them focus on correcting flaws in their game, making them a better player. It will give them the ability to have an idea of what he is going to do before every pitch, and more importantly he will know why is doing it.
Simply put, if a player wants to be the next Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw, then they need to be watching Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw and taking in the way that the play the game, learning what makes them successful and how to emulate that.