Equality Doesn’t Win Ball Games

Despite a vastly unequal distribution of playing time in the game, most coaches still give equal weight and resources to all players in practice. The drawback of an equal distribution is that it spreads the limited resources of time and repetitions during practice too thin, leading to an equally insufficient share for all. While this well-meaning approach can certainly be commended for attempting to give players their “fair share,” it fails to give the team a competitive advantage and maximize their performance on the field. All other things being equal, the team that awards the majority of practice repetitions to the best players who have earned them will be better than the team that divides everything evenly across the board.

I am advocating for a prioritized distribution of practice attention/repetition to the best available players in the most important roles.

The coaching bandwidth is the time, attention, repetitions, and resources that can be expended on players is too often misdirected at players who are do not produce in the game. Coaches can use a tiered system to identify the players who are most central to the team’s success. The “A” roles, generally the starters, are identified as having a strategic impact on the game and the ability to affect its outcome in a positive manner. The performance and success of the team are contingent on the performance of the ‘A list.’ The “B” roles, such as substitutes, support and may eventually develop into an “A” role, but these players cannot win the game (and likely a role as a consistent starter on the team) on their own. The “C” roles, to put it simply, are the bench players who are largely irrelevant to the game strategy and are non-performers.

Article submitted by Connor Kubeisy ; student manager, Cal Baseball

The starters should be determined by who has the greatest utility at each position, with each being categorized as “A”, “B”, or “C” players based upon their individual ability. “A” players will be the top performers and are capable of playing against a higher level of competition. “B” players compete at their current level but will struggle at the next and “C” players underperform at their current level of competition. Clearly, it behooves the team to fill the “A” roles with the best available players.

If your overriding goal as a coach is to win, practice during the season should shift to maximizing team’s in-game performance, with primacy given to the “A” players. Practice resources should be distributed the same way that water flows down a tiered fountain- it starts at the top tier with the “A” players and once sufficiently full, overflows to the next. If there is not enough for every tier to be full, the lower tiers will end up with less resources at the expense of those above.

If “B” and “C” players receive a lesser share, the opportunity cost for the team is minimal because of their relative impact on the game. Conversely, an improvement in the performance of “B” players will only lead to a minor improvement in the team’s performance. By focusing on enhancing the players who drive success, the probability of achieving success will significantly increase.

Even if all players on a team are equally talented, the relative impact of their roles is highly disproportionate. For example, if starters average three at-bats per game, pinch hitters get one per game, and backups are afforded one every three games, the starters’ at-bats are therefore three times more consequential than the pinch hitter and nine times more consequential than the backup player. The point is that underprepared “A” players adversely affect the team’s performance significantly more than underprepared “B” or “C” role players.

Although some players may receive an unequal share, the coach must treat all players with equal concern, attention and respect. Additionally, players should be encouraged to invest in their development outside of practice and all players should have an equal opportunity to compete for the most desirable roles. Ultimately, this is about giving everyone on the team their best chance of winning.

I believe that challenging the ideal of an equal distribution of scarce resources within a competitive context is important for baseball coaches to consider. Other things being equal, a team committed to this concept will gain a competitive advantage, allowing them to outperform teams that equally distribute their limited resources.