Tweak the Rules to Maximize Player Development, Competitive Spirit, and Excitement
With less than an hour of “play time” available in our Texas high school off-season baseball class, what could we do to encourage necessary player development while we made our annual evaluations and formed our teams? After hearing many of our country’s very best college baseball coaches speak in person or on podcasts (and realizing that they have reimagined their own programs with tighter time constraints implemented over the last decade), we began to think “outside the box.” One constant theme is that our players need and want to compete. Another common thread among baseball’s brightest minds is that it needs to be fun for our players. A third characteristic was borrowed from peak performance guru Brian Cain – Do a Little a Lot rather than a Lot a Little!
Our current practices have come to include some form of competitive play almost daily. The game may be a part of the day’s plan or it may be the main course of action. Our players have learned to gather prior to play and learn about that day’s rules of engagement. While the players were skeptical when we first started to implement varying rules and games, they eagerly ingest the rules and limitations and typically prematurely start to collaborate with their teammates to give their team its best chance to win.
While we have several games that we believe are unique to our programs and those we have shared with, Live Action is the most game-like. Player behavior and performance in our Live Action intra-squad games is strikingly similar to what we see in our league games. In addition to coaching clinic lecturers, coaching podcasts, and Brian Cain, the creation of Live Action was also influenced by Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code. The plan was to compress the game as we know it in an effort to maximize action and force players to adjust and adapt (like the deep practice described by Coyle). That desire led to the first few of rules of Live Action.
- Every hitter begins with a 2-1 count (2 balls, 1 strike)
- The defensive team must record 4 outs to get off the field
- Each batter that reaches base safely has ONE free attempt to steal a base. (If caught stealing, he is sent back to previous base with no outs recorded)
The previously mentioned time constraint, coupled with the fact that we needed to see all players perform as much as possible to properly evaluate them, led us to our next critical rule for Live Action.
- Each team must have a new pitcher each inning. If a pitcher completes his inning with twelve or fewer pitches, he may pitch the next inning.
The results were incredible!
The 12-pitch rule was not in our original plan. It became a part of our Live Action rules as a result of our pitcher’s requests to pitch more than one inning. Though it was in contrast to our desire to minimize arm stress and maximize the number of pitchers used to play, we decided to give it a try. For the top pitchers in the group, that rule change stirred the competitive juices. For our coaches, the change made it easy to identify our top pitchers – the pitchers who would give our team its best chance to win and not necessarily the most physically gifted ones.
Those pitchers who were able to deliver first pitch strikes with multiple pitches had a distinct advantage. The first pitch strike is critical for pitchers who hope to earn an extra inning within the rules of Live Action. In reality, to record 4 outs with 12 or fewer pitches, even with a starting count of 2-1, requires pitchers to attack the strike zone relentlessly. The first pitch strike gives the pitcher a slight advantage regarding options with his second pitch. It gives him an opportunity to attack a location away from the heart of the strike zone or to use a pitch that he doesn’t completely command (both are problems for the current hitter and subsequent hitters paying attention to the action). The other possibility is that the hitter’s at-bat is already over with just a single pitch. Sandy Koufax is famously quoted, “I became a good pitcher when I stopped trying to make them miss the ball and started trying to make them hit it.” It isn’t hard to figure out why competing with a 2-1 starting count encourages young pitchers to pitch with the focus of elite pitchers.
While many “old school” coaches complain that the current generation has missed out on developing their baseball IQs and learning to love the game by playing on sandlots in makeshift games as they grew up, Live Action provides on organized opportunity to recreate fun competition. Most other sports our developing baseball players are being attracted to move faster than baseball. Live Action compresses the game as we know it and thus eliminates much of the time spent “standing around and waiting.” There are very few “clean” innings with no baserunners. The free stolen base attempt rule adds another dimension every time a hitter reaches base and requires the battery and infielders to prepare for the inevitable action by the baserunner. Hitters cycle through their batting order much quicker than with traditional rules and innings are completed in less time. Most importantly, high intensity situations are more routine when playing with Live Action rules. Feedback from players definitely supports the idea that they are having fun while playing with these rules.
Experienced coaches have all been forced to learn a balance between doing things the way their coaches did them and coming up with new ways. Just because my coach did something is not enough reason by itself to continue in that fashion. Of course, most of the time the wise old coach had a valid purpose for his plan. As a general rule, we believe most of the old standards were presented with too much time allotted both for insertion and review. Consider how you presented your team’s bunt defense in recent years. After insertion, how many practices passed before you revisited the concept? How many times did you practice your team’s bunt defense during your season? We believe in the value of doing things a little a lot!
In our area, high school summer baseball has fallen into the routine of playing two 7-inning games once or twice a week. The games are limited by time. Most of the time, neither game is completed under the time limit, which means the end of the game is a mystery to the players – they seldom play the last inning. In addition, many of the games become lopsided due to the level of play. (Most of the high school summer teams formed in our area are formed by 8th and 9th graders as the older players typically play with private organizations) Lopsided games aren’t fun or meaningful for anyone except the team that’s winning. Is there any wonder why these young players are looking at more exciting alternatives?
Live Action is best played in a series format when it is considered beyond your own practices. In an effort to design a plan to encourage high level baseball results, we decided to play a series of 3 mini-games between two teams in a Live Action match. Now we would play the last inning at least twice during the same match! Played with the same rules (2-1 starting count, 4 outs per half inning, 1 free stolen base attempt per runner, new pitcher every inning unless 12 or fewer pitches are thrown to complete the inning), we decided to reset the scoreboard twice during the match. For our high school level teams, 3-inning mini games work beautifully. We are able to play a complete 3-game series typically between 2-3 hours. All the great results from series play show up in these matches. Regardless of the outcome of game 1, both teams must reload for game 2. Exciting drama like we see in the NCAA post-season play is hard to explain to developing players, and even harder to recreate. Though we can’t even come close to the atmosphere in Omaha, we can set up a format to encourage nail biting situations!
We have found that it isn’t just the players who enjoy the Live Action matches. The parents who have been watching endless meaningless innings and the umpires who have been a part of those games also have an appreciation. Can you imagine a college or professional scout having the opportunity to evaluate more than a dozen pitchers and all the players from two teams in a competitive format in less than three hours? We invited local college coaches to some of our matches and they also appreciated the format.
We encourage you to give it a try and see what it looks like on your field with your players. Start with an intra-squad first. Split your teams into two evenly matched teams. We typically don’t bat around a full batting order, but rather match like level hitters with each pitcher (a 5-man batting order works great in intra-squad play though it creates a fairness issue when you play another team). This is a fun and exciting game that really just focuses action on the most exciting parts of our sport. It will take a little planning on your part to level the matchups and create even teams. Don’t be afraid to have a player or two out of his normal position. Be prepared to have the coaches umpire or hire umpires to work your Live Action. The players level of intensity will rise and umpires are critical. Close calls will create yet another opportunity for learning and will likely give you and your staff a better understanding of what our game umpires are dealing with during our games. We maintained the “series” concept by playing one game per day until each series was decided with the limited time available in our off-season classes. And we always played for something!
We believe Live Action rules provide the perfect storm of opportunity for players to develop appropriately while promoting highly competitive situations. Though an outsider would notice that something was different from normal rules if they were watching Live Action, it wouldn’t be obvious what the differences were. We also believe this style of play accentuates the enjoyment of the game for the competitors. They will most definitely be forced to find a way to become comfortable with the uncomfortable (another Brian Cain constant). We hope that by sharing this information others around our country will play Live Action. We do not believe you will be disappointed! Let us know how it goes!
John Carter is the current head baseball coach at Round Rock High School and was recently named the NFHS Texas State Coach of the Year. He is active as an officer with the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association.
Tom Collins is a past President of the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association and a former featured speaker at the annual American Baseball Coaches Association annual clinic.
Carter and Collins have partnered to form C&C Baseball with the goal of sharing creative ideas to promote amateur baseball and player development in our country.