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The Sabermetrics of Little League

May 3, 2013, 2:39 PM EDT

Little League

There’s a fun piece over at Beyond the Box Score in which a sabermetically-oriented dude applies his sabermetrically-oriented thinking to his son’s little league games:

You’re likely familiar with the defensive spectrum—the order of positions from easiest to fill to most difficult. The defensive spectrum in Major League Baseball is:

1B < LF < RF < 3B < CF < 2B < SS < C < P

In my son’s league, the spectrum looks something like:

C < LF < RF < LCF < RCF < 3B < 2B < SS < P < 1B

There are some pretty big differences:

What follows is a breakdown of how baseball is played by little kids that will take you back to those days when you sat out in left field with no balls being hit your way, which was exactly as the coach intended, because you had no range and a metal glove.

Or maybe that was just me.

  1. El Bravo - May 3, 2013 at 2:43 PM

    Wouldn’t it be RF before LF? I recall RF being the no ball land in little league. Most batters were righties hitting to CF and LF.

    • digbysellers - May 3, 2013 at 2:51 PM

      Absolutely! As a LH batter all the way up to High School I always loved feasting on RF’s and even 2B’s who were just god awful. RF was always for the kid who was out there just picking his nose or looking for dandelions with his back turned to the batter all game long.

      • El Bravo - May 3, 2013 at 3:02 PM

        Hey watch it! I made salads with those dandelion leaves.

    • lphboston - May 3, 2013 at 3:06 PM

      Depends. Real good right-handed hitters can pull in LL, but many can’t get aound on the ball and hit the opposite way. IMO right field is far more important than left field. Most coaches will not see it that way because they ASSUME RHH will pull, but they usually don’t.

      In LL (10-12 year olds) he is the hierarchy of importance.

      P
      C (assuming there is stealing)
      SS
      1B
      2B
      3B
      RF
      CF
      LF

      Against weak hitters the best strategy is to play the 3B in and the SS, 2B and 1B deep. And the entire outfield shallow. Usually the only way weaker hitters can get a hit is a bloop, so take that away.

      • El Bravo - May 3, 2013 at 3:14 PM

        I guess the little league I was in had some tough guys around the league then. I recall many pull hitters and that’s why we and many other teams had fairly solid LFers over RFers. I was a pull hitter at that age but I had no power/loft for the most part. Most of my hits were hard grounders to SS and 3B and I’d simply outrun the play to first. Def by high school, RF became less important too b/c every batter was a righty and pull hitters were even more common. By then, I couldn’t hit faster pitching so isntead took walks and HBPs and then stole bags. In less words, I sucked at the plate.

      • Cris E - May 3, 2013 at 3:37 PM

        There’s a huge gulf between baseball played by 10 year olds and 14 year olds. Just saying “Little League” could mean either game, so you could both be right.

      • bolweevils2 - May 3, 2013 at 4:11 PM

        Huh? Doesn’t Little League end at age 12? At least it did in my day. But that was barely into the MLB DH era, so it was a very long time ago.

  2. tycobbfromfangraphs - May 3, 2013 at 2:44 PM

    It’s amusing to see how hard it is finding a very young kid who can play 1st base well. Some are still afraid of the ball, never mind trying to catch it, and how dramatically that changes once we get older. That and how hard it is to find good pitching at any level.

    • Cris E - May 3, 2013 at 3:32 PM

      Not just that, but the throws are frighteningly bad. Everything is in the dirt except the ones hurtling towards the chain link fence 15′ beyond the base.

      The one that always gets me is how earnestly the catchers chase the passed balls and grimly try to throw out runners. The pitches are bad, the runners are going on every pitch, and the 11 year old wearing gear amounting to a third of his body weight hasn’t got a prayer. It’s even worse here in St Paul, MN where half the kids on the team want to catch. (You’d think that Mr Mauer’s influence would make things better, but finding enough innings to satisfy four catchers a game is just a hassle.)

      • billyboots - May 3, 2013 at 4:29 PM

        In the leagues I ump in, I don’t even need to look at the age of the kids to figure out which league I’m in. The lower the age, the more “snowball fights,” the higher the age, the fewer.

      • mazblast - May 4, 2013 at 1:24 AM

        A lot does depend on where your local team’s stars play on the diamond. When I was a kid in suburban Pittsburgh in the mid-Sixties, all the kids wanted to play RF, the major league preserve of the great Roberto Clemente. Second choice was to emulate Bill Mazeroski and play 2B. When we moved to Cincinnati and Johnny Bench came up, there was a huge demand by kids to play catcher.

  3. illcomm - May 3, 2013 at 2:47 PM

    Craig. they probably played u there cause your shimmy dome got the perfect light to block the batters view at the plate. no man’s role is too small.

    • shaggylocks - May 3, 2013 at 3:02 PM

      That comment is inane, but the mental image of a little bald six-year-old with Craig’s glasses is pretty funny.

      • heyblueyoustink - May 3, 2013 at 3:29 PM

        I disagree, you got imagery and comedy there. Now if we can only work in small improvements on spelling and sentence structure, now we’re talking progress!

      • indaburg - May 3, 2013 at 5:01 PM

        Baby steps, baby steps.

        I giggled. Nice job, illcomm.

  4. Liam - May 3, 2013 at 2:56 PM

    From what I remember of little league, the best strategy up until the kids turn 11 would be to just never swing. I successfully put up a line somewhere around .000/.800/.000 with this strategy my first year after coaches stopped pitching.

    • Cris E - May 3, 2013 at 3:35 PM

      My first year in LL I lived that life, but there were flaws in my plan. For example that first season I distinctly remember being called out EVEN THOUGH I HADN’T SWUNG. WTF? It turned out that every once in a while the pitcher would get the ball over the plate and get credit for it. Who knew?

  5. Jason @ IIATMS - May 3, 2013 at 2:59 PM

    Until they allow stealing, P is the most important, followed probably by 1B and SS. You NEED a kid who can catch the ball at 1B since nothing is more brutal than watching Clumsy Charlie dropping every toss at 1B and running up those precious pitch counts. 2B is also hugely important since most kids get the bat around too slow against any kid who can throw with any velocity.

    Once stealing is in play, C becomes tremendous.

    • El Bravo - May 3, 2013 at 3:04 PM

      Leave Charlie alone!

      • heyblueyoustink - May 3, 2013 at 3:31 PM

        But Charlie don’t surf!

  6. gerryb323 - May 3, 2013 at 3:04 PM

    Looking at the stats page, no one has drawn a walk all season! That hurts the OBP.

  7. conjecture101 - May 3, 2013 at 3:36 PM

  8. 1981titan - May 3, 2013 at 4:55 PM

    Two Points:
    1. I wish the American Leage Angels were half as food as the SIBL Angels. The Big Catorce must go at this point (but that’s a rant for a different post).
    2. Right Field was always the poorest player when I played and coached. Why else would Peter Paul & Mary have a song called “Right Field” (Mainly Paul Stooky).

    Other than that a great article. When I coached we had another manager would have had all the players in town in a Sabermetric database from the time they were 8 so he would know who to pick when they were 11.

    • 1981titan - May 3, 2013 at 5:03 PM

      OK my Typing still stinks!

      I wish the American Leage Angels were half as good as the SIBL Angels. The Big Catorce must go at this point (but that’s a rant for a different post).

      They are playing like fish food.

  9. philliesblow - May 3, 2013 at 5:48 PM

    As a current LL manager (11 & 12 year olds) I’d have to say P is the most important followed closely by C. I’m lucky to have a lot of pitching depth, up to 7 kids out of 12 that throw strikes consistently. Last night we won a 4 inning mercy throwing only 43 pitches.

    Since I have had throwers I tend to stack my better defenders at 1B, 2B & RF since most hitters are RH. I also like to have a good glove at 3B to catch attempted stealers. LF is the easiest spot to fill.

    4 & 0 record to start the season and a 57 – 10 runs for & against mark. Our team is the Astros. Only in LL are the Astros off to this kind of start.

  10. quizguy66 - May 3, 2013 at 5:51 PM

    Hope this guy posts the evolution of the chart as his son progresses through little league. As mentioned in other posts, it definitely changes as you get older. My own reckoning based on zero statistics of the importance at say age 12:

    RF<LF<2B<CF<3B<1B<C<SS<P

    That's vaguely how I remember the hierarchy going. All of us crappy LF-RF guys desperately wanted to play 2B (being that it had the shortest throw to first). CF was important largely as you needed a kid with the kind of range that could cover all the stuff the LF and RF couldn't get. I put RF as lower on the chain than LF as with more right-handed hitters the LF gets more chances (opportunities for RF throw-outs at first were rare). 3B needed to be able to throw and given again that kids could pull the pull at this age quick reflexes were needed. On the days they weren't pitching the best kids were almost always stationed at SS.

    Great article.
    -QG

  11. phillyphannn83 - May 3, 2013 at 9:58 PM

    I don’t understand why people have to change the game for kids nowadays. Please tell me why it is necessary for 11-12 yr olds to have an extra outfielder? Its not tee-ball, its little league. At that age, kids need to be playing the game the right way, with the right rules. None of this everyone gets a trophy crap, none of this give em an extra outfielder for god knows what reason. That crap is for the little kids. I’m pretty sure not a single one of us commenting here and not a single player in the majors played in a little league that added an extra outfielder. Up here, the GIRLS do that in softball but they compensate by using only 3 infielders. We do that in our men’s league, but your sons little league has 4 outfielders and 6 infielders(P & C included)!! What’s up with that?!?! Baseball is played with 9 players, not 10.

    Oh and RF is ALWAYS reserved for your worst player at the little league level. There simply isn’t that many left-handed hitters and barely any switch-hitters.

    • mazblast - May 4, 2013 at 1:32 AM

      Your worst player(s) play the position I played by far the most often in kiddie ball–left out. I was in the kiddie ball equivalent of Catch-22–didn’t play well because I rarely played, rarely played because I didn’t play well. It only bothers me years later to the extent that I would have liked to have proven myself one way or the other.

    • yahmule - May 4, 2013 at 11:25 AM

      I’m so amazed when people gets their shorts in a twist over participation trophies.

  12. hojo20 - May 4, 2013 at 11:24 AM

    I was the 12th man on my LL team. So they stuck me in right field. I had to play the two innings so I was in the game late. Caught a fly ball on the run with a runner on 3rd to preserve a 1-0 playoff win. For all the boredom I experienced in right field during the season, that catch was my “one shining moment” of my LL career.

  13. yahmule - May 4, 2013 at 11:39 AM

    We had no mercy rule when I was playing. Teams who stunk just got beat on until the next game was scheduled or the sun went down. I was in a league for 10-12 year olds and we truly had the alpha and omega represented. The Orioles who went 19-1 and the Angels who went 1-19. Their first meeting lasted roughly two innings and the score was 40-something to nothing. I think they might have put up 60 in another game against them.

    My team was called the Sox, with no designation of White or Red, but we were clearly patterned after the Pale Hose and were garbed in the powder blue and red that they wore in the early 70s. It was horrible, but it was a real baseball uniform and I thought stirrups were the coolest thing ever. We were almost the team to take down the Orioles, losing 10-9 in extra innings. I still have vivid memories of that game. I also remember having my sister drive me home because I didn’t want to cry in front of my dad.

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