The pluses and minuses of “club” or “select” or “travel” baseball have been debated a lot recently. So, it probably makes sense for me to weigh in on this debate (http://stlgamers.net). My comments focus primarily on the 14-18u age groups. Younger than that is a different animal and different debate.
The anti club baseball crowd arguments can be summarized as some variation of:
- “I made to the major leagues without it” (mostly stated by former players in their 40’s+ who played before club baseball existed. For example, Bryce Harper would not say that as he spent most summers at East Cobb playing in Perfect Game events since he was 14)
- Kids are better off playing sandlot baseball every day during the summer instead of overly organized practices and games. There is a chance this still happens in small communities somewhere — but that perspective is simply out of touch with the reality of urban/suburban teenager and parent life these days. How many parents let their kids disappear within bike ride distance for four hours every day? If sandlot baseball is the best approach, why have major league teams set up training facilities in Dominican Republic? Don’t American kids not deserve the same opportunity?
- Kids need to play multiple sports, not just focus on one. Don’t disagree with this. I love kids that play multiple sports. But, here again, reality is a lot different, especially at large high schools. Former athletes who say this need to spend a Friday night at a large high school football or basketball game. The skill and sport-specific athleticism is those sports is off the charts. Normal 6’1″, 175lb athletes have to be truly exceptional to play football and basketball at large high schools. Not everyone can afford to send their kids to small private schools where multi-sport athletes are more common.
- Single sport focus creates too many over-use injuries. I have no clue about this, other than to point to papers and studies that support both sides of this issue. First, the best way to avoid injury in sports is to not play at all. I totally agree that club baseball players need to be on an overall strength and speed training program and pitchers need to shut down their arms for a period in the winter. But, let’s face it, if a kid does ANYTHING at an elite level, there is going to be an increased risk of injury because they are naturally going to be pushing their bodies closer to physical limits. The easy way to handle this risk is to not do anything at an elite level. But, my experience through a decade is that elite baseball players have an equal likelihood of getting hurt in PE class at school than during baseball.
- Club baseball costs too much. I tend to agree with this if there is profit margin built into the cost of the program. If there is someone at the end of the day that is making money without actually coaching and training kids, then the cost is too high. It is fair for coaches to be compensated for their time at a market rate. That allows you to attract and keep good baseball guys in the sport. Most of the great club programs across the country are not run to make profit for shareholders. All the fees are invested in coaching, practice rentals, uniforms, tournaments and travel.
Maybe there are other arguments against club baseball, but the above captures 80% of the criticisms.
Here is my argument in defense of club baseball:
- Professional baseball is NOT the measuring stick. The measuring stick is COLLEGE BASEBALL. Club baseball gets players prepared and placed into college baseball. The value of this is both short term monetary, athletic and academic scholarships, and long-term experiential. Kids who play college sports do better in college and have better life potential through the experience of playing sports at an elite level. This is a really big deal. Former MLB players who criticize club baseball either have no concept of this or take it for granted. Club baseball is about the 99% who do not make it to MLB, not the 1% who do.
- It does not just start in college. Teenage boys need to learn how to compete at a high level. I don’t care whether it is in baseball, chess or debate club. The PROCESS of working hard, passionate commitment, overcoming failure and focused achievement is 10x more important than baseball. Club baseball is a great platform for young men to experience and learn this PROCESS that can be applied to all aspects of their lives. True success is not random. Life is not a lottery ticket. This is the true value proposition for club baseball — it teaches kids how to succeed.
- Club baseball, done right, can teach young men to think outside of themselves, to care about teammates and group success instead of just themselves. Any parent of a teenage boy understands how important this is. Other team sports can do the same thing. But, to me, the act of a sacrifice bunt, advancing the runner, staying in rundown, hitting a cutoff man, getting on/off the field in 10 seconds, etc.. in baseball is at higher level and is more visible “big picture” perspective than other sports. The empathy to pick-up a teammate and the grittiness to compete for 21 outs teaches emotional maturity. Most great things in life are accomplished with these traits. Club baseball, done right, is where these things are taught. Top club programs can bench their #3 hitter for being selfish and replace him with someone just as good. It really hard for high school coaches to do this effectively, because the talent depth is too shallow and political correctness in school environments inhibits the coaching emotion and passion required to teach this.
- Finally, to become an elite player you need to compete against other elite players. Club baseball provides this opportunity to play against higher level competition from across the country. Eventually, players from the Midwest and North need to compete against players from the South, Florida, Texas and California. A .800 winning percentage and a .550 batting average in local legion baseball is not very meaningful. That is why all the college coaches are at club team, showcase events during the summer. Elite players want to play against the best competition, and college coaches want to see them do it.
A lot has changed in baseball and other sports over the past decade. Club baseball is a reality and is here to stay — just like AAU summer basketball, year round soccer/hockey and summer football camps.
I would love for the debate to shift to what is the best way to coach and teach young men in the club baseball environment. The critics need to stop harkening back to the good ole days and start contributing to the realities of todays’ athletes. There are a lot of coaching opportunities available for former players who want to contribute and give back to the sport. Those contributions would make club baseball better.
Below is a chart of data of MLB on-base percentage as hitters pass through different counts. Of course, everyone starts at 0-0, so the MLB OB% average is .324 (note there are some quirks in this data and it is a couple decades old, but conclusions are right).
If the result of pitch 1 is a ball, then the batters on-base % goes to .387. If the result is strike 1, then the on-base % goes to .256. That is a HUGE DIFFERENCE and sets up the rest of the rest of the at-bat. You can see how the results further diverge as the counts play out.
The different between the upper right 1/2 of the box and the lower left 1/2 of the box is the difference between scoring 2 runs a game or 7 runs a game. Pitchers need to throw strikes early, hitters need to swing at strikes early. That creates a perfect match-up!
I need to spend some more time on defining a quality at-bat, QAB.
The underlying philosophy is this — as a hitter, you cannot directly control the actual result of your at-bat. For example, you could do everything right and absolutely smoke a line drive right at the center fielder for an out. OR, you could do everything wrong, swing at a bad pitch and luckily poke a ball over the infielders head for a hit. Which at-bat is better? From a scout’s standpoint, it is pretty clear. It is better to be good, than lucky!
To get to the next level, you need a good approach a the plate. That means, as a hitter, you need to be in control. Quality At-Bats are all about things you can control.
You can control the following 4 ways of having a quality at bat:
1. Hit the ball hard, off the sweet spot. A hard ground ball, line drive, or ball over the outfielders head is hard hit. If you hit the ball hard, it is a quality at bat. We don’t care if the fielder makes a great play, or the ball is smoked right at him. We want you to square the ball up. Any time you do that is a quality at bat.
Note — fly balls are quality at-bats ONLY if they are over the outfielders head. A fly ball is a waste of time, regardless of the cheers and encouragement you get from the stands. If you hit fly balls, you will hit .180. That includes the rare home run. We want line drives and hard hit ground balls.
2. Execute a sacrifice bunt, hit & run, or move a runner from 2nd to 3rd with no outs or score a runner from 2nd or 2rd with less than 2 outs.
3. Draw a walk or get hit by a pitch. Taking an 0-2 curve ball off the back is a quality at-bat. Ducking out of the way is not.
4. Any 6+ pitch at bat, regardless of outcome. If you make the pitcher use up >6 pitches to get one out, it is a quality at bat. Even if you strike out, or make an easy out on the 7th pitch. That is how you get through #1 starters and into the bullpen of teams when you face a good pitcher. Battle, eat up pitches on every at-bat.
As a team, if our hitters put together 15 QAB, we will score 6-7 runs and win 80% of our games. Anytime, we don’t achieve this level of execution, the game is left to chance.