Last night I was speaking with one of my 10U pitching students during her lesson. I knew from GameChanger (and a text with her mom) that she had pitched two innings the previous weekend, facing six batters and striking them all out. Not a bad performance overall.
I asked what pitches she threw. She said one drop and the rest fastballs. “What about your changeup?” I asked.
“My coach doesn’t want me to throw changeups,” she replied. “He says he only wants strikes.”
My blood immediately started to boil as I’m sure you can imagine. Statements like that, in my opinion, demonstrate world-class ignorance, both about pitching generally and the mission of a 10U coach.
For those who don’t quite get this, I will type it slowly. As a 10U coach your primary job is not to rack up a great win-loss record.
YOUR JOB IS TO DEVELOP YOUR PLAYERS. Period, hard stop.
If that means you give up a few walks, or a few runs, while your pitchers gain experience throwing more than a basic fastball, so be it. In the long term you will benefit, because as hitters get older pitchers can’t just blow the ball by them anymore and need to have other pitches available to them if they’re going to get outs.
If that means you have a few more strikeouts at the plate because your hitters are swinging the bat instead of just standing there waiting for walks, so be it. Instructing your players to wait for walks so you can score more runs benefits no one.
Because if they don’t learn to be aggressive and go after pitches when they’re young they’re very likely to stand there and watch strike after strike go by when the pitching gets better. And then where are you?
If that means you don’t throw out as many runners stealing bases because you’re having your catchers throw before the fielder reaches the base, or you’re teaching your infielders to cover the base instead of having your outfielders do it, so be it. Down the road you won’t be able to play your outfield that close to the infield so somebody better know how to get over there. And get over there on time to get a runner out.
The same goes for trying to get the lead runner on defense instead of making the “safe” play to first – or worse just trying to rush the ball back to the pitcher. If a few more runners advance and eventually right now, so be it.
As your players get older and stronger and presumably more capable they will be able to make those plays – and will have the confidence to attempt them.
I get it. We all like to win. As they say in Bull Durham, winning is more fun than losing.
But again, at 10U (and even at 12U or 14U to a large extent) your focus should be on developing your players and teaching them to love the game rather than massaging your own ego. You should be playing teams of comparable quality and should be teaching your players to play the game the right way.
You shouldn’t hold them back or prevent them from trying new things they’ve been working on. Instead you should be encouraging them to grow, and giving them the opportunity to gain higher-level experience rather than simply playing it safe.
Does that mean go crazy with it? Of course not.
If a pitcher tries a particular pitch and doesn’t have it that day then yes, stop throwing it that day. But don’t not throw it at all because it might not work.
If a girl has been working at pitching and wants an opportunity to pitch in a game put her in. She may just surprise you.
But even if she struggles she will either learn what to work on to get better or she’ll decide it’s not for her. Which is a win either way.
If your hitters are swinging at balls over their heads or balls in the dirt, call them together and give them a narrower range to go after. But don’t take the bats out of their hands completely, just in case that wild pitcher manages to throw a few strikes.
So how do you strike that balance? Here’s an approach for that pitcher who wants to try a new pitch.
Pick a safe count like 1-1 and have her throw it. Even if she chucks it over the backstop the count is only 2-1. And since she’s already demonstrated an ability to strike out the side anyway you know she’ll come back.
But what if she throws it for a strike (which in this case we all know she probably will)? Now the count is 1-2 and she’s gained more experience throwing it in a game.
That experience will come in handy down the road when she faces a team that can hit her heat and thus needs to knock them off-balance. Hitting is about timing, and pitching is about upsetting that timing. Plain and simple.
If that isn’t enough incentive, here’s something to consider. Coaches who hold back players who are driven enough to want to throw changeups or swing the bat or make advanced fielding plays don’t keep those players for very long.
Instead, those players seek out teams where they can grow and learn and be encouraged to expand their skillset instead of being put into a tight little box so their coaches can win more meaningless games. And in the big picture, ALL 10U games are meaningless.
Every coach and every program likes to proclaim that they are “in it for the girls.” But talk is cheap.
If you’re really in it for the girls, give them the space to grow and improve – even if it costs you a few wins today. Your players, and your team, will be much better off in the long run.