The success of hitters is based on how well they hit. Obvious statement to say the least, but when we review offensive statistics as critics and coaches, batting average tends to edge out other statistics. However, in youth and high school baseball, batting average should not be the most important statistic. As coaches of youth and high school baseball, the goal is to develop players in order for them to be successful as they progress to higher levels. This means teaching situational baseball and rewarding good at-bats and not just hits. I am not trying to reinvent the wheel in how we develop and evaluate youth or high school players, but as coaches and critics, we need to consider why batting average is not the only way to evaluate players.
1) We don’t account for physical development in youth players
Youth athletes develop at different rates. The onset of puberty occurs anywhere from 5th to 8th grade (ages 10-14). With this being said, kids who mature physically early have a drastic strength advantage over those who have not yet finished puberty. For example, let’s recall this year’s Little League World Series phenom, Kotaro Kiyomiya.
Kiyomiya put on a laser show at Williamsport this year and dominated on the mound. I credit this to the fact that he is 6’0” and weighs 206lbs, equivalent to some juniors and seniors in high school. If we placed him in an older league and on a larger field, he would become less dominant. Inversely, if we consider a player that hasn’t reached the end of puberty; he may have not had the successes that Kotaro Kiyomiya had at the same age. This doesn’t equate to the less physically developed player not having a good skill set, it simply means that time is needed to develop physically compared to those around him. For this less physically developed player, batting average would not be a good reflection of his swing as opposed to keeping a contact percentage statistic (At-bats minus strikeouts, divided by at-bats).
2) Batting average doesn’t teach good at-bats.
To paint a better pitcher, let’s consider a scenario. Player A goes 0-4 with two of four outs recorded being line drive outs. Player B goes 2-4 with two jam-job singles to the opposite field. Who had the better day at the plate? As a former high school coach, I would vouch that player A had a better day. How many coaches would ignore the fact that player B needs to work on timing or shortening the swing [insert any mechanical issue here]. I think you get the point. We know that hitting is largely depended upon confidence. If the coach does not reinforce what a good at-bat is, then player A may go home thinking he had a bad day. Consider using a hitter’s rating chart. This can be done in numerous ways; let’s take a look at an example of a rating system.
Minus 1- strikeout, missed sign, failure to bunt, weak fly ball
Zero- ground ball out
Plus 1– 7 pitch at-bat, advance runner with zero outs, sharply hit ground ball, sac fly, etc
Plus 2-Extra base hit
Again, the above is just an example of how a coach can structure a system for rating quality at-bats. This can be used to teach situational baseball and reward players for doing jobs at the plate. How many 12 year old kids think a 7 pitch at-bat is a good thing? Not many, but from a coaches’ perspective if you string several 7 pitch at-bats together the likelihood of the starter being knocked out of the game comes sooner.
3) More teams use advanced scouting.
As players move on to higher levels of competition, teams will utilize scouting more frequently. While I was at Lexington, I would credit numerous wins I had because we knew the opponent. We tracked how we attacked each hitter and their results of the pitch type and location. For some opponents, I had three or four years of spray charts. Needless to say, having the charts not only allowed us to understand how to pitch to the player, but the charts also allowed us to position guys accordingly. It wouldn’t be farfetched to say that hitters would have a lower average if they played in a league where scouting was a priority for coaches.
I think as coaches, parents, critics, and fans of the game we need to understand that baseball development takes time. Players are driven by extrinsic motivation more often than intrinsic; this can be seen at all levels of baseball. Rather than fighting the extrinsic motivation of reaching a statistical goal, we should embrace it and become more creative in helping players to understand numerous ways to be successful in the game.