October 2, 2009 • Baseball

Winning High School Baseball by the Books

Winning High School Baseball by the Books

High school coaches do not have to target and recruit athletes to fit a specific philosophy. Since most schools have a roster of decent athletes who are eager and teachable, the coaches need merely adapt to the athleticism of the players.

In the book, Moneyball, Michael Lewis documents how the Oakland A’s G.M. Bill Beane, built a major league team around the philosophy of what he considers the most important offensive statistic in the game: on-base percentage.

Plate discipline can be taught and will produce more walks and a focus on getting good pitches to hit.

Beane further believes that the bunt and the stolen base do not statistically pay off in the big leagues. Like Earl Weaver, the old Oriole manger, Beane prefers to (1) play for the big inning, (2) don’t give away outs, (3) don’t take unnecessary risks on the bases, (4) look for your pitch to hit, and (5) let the other pitches go, even the strikes.

To Beane numbers don’t lie, always play those percentages and read those stats sheets. Don’t fear getting behind in the count; be patient, and when you get your pitch, rip it and clear the bases. If you don’t get your pitch, a walk is just as good.

In Three Nights in August, by Buzz Bissinger, we get into the mind of Tony LaRussa and see that his offensive philosophy is more aggressive, especially with runners in scoring position. He also likes to use the sacrifice and squeeze bunts, as well as the stolen base, to put pressure on the defense and to move runners along.

With runners in scoring position, LaRussa appears to teach an attitude more than a technique; be aggressive, even (or especially) early in the count; be tough, be confident. Those are your guys out there; believe that you are going to get those runners in.

LaRussa’s is a philosophy based more on instinct and feel, based upon experience.

As a high school coach trying to fit an offensive philosophy into a different level of talent, I was struck by the thought that there were elements in both philosophies we might employ in the high school game.

In professional baseball, the catchers all have superior arms with quick releases-cutting down on the percentage of successful steals.

In high school, superior defensive catchers are the exception rather than the norm, and many pitchers do not see holding runners on as a priority-making the steal a higher percentage play.

Further, the bunting game puts pressure on shaky defensive teams, causing them to make both mental and physical mistakes they might not make without that pressure.

If the pitcher and the defense have to worry about both the base runner and the hitter, it will cause that little extra anxiety that will create mistakes in clutch situations.

1. Keep the pitcher and defense guessing.
2. At the high school level, make the catcher throw runners out.
3. Take the extra base whenever possible.
4. Keep the bunt as a possibility in virtually every situation.

The average high school lineup only has one or two players with power, and so waiting for the long ball isn’t an option for most high school teams.

During the 2005 season, I attended a Cardinals – Brewers game at Miller Park. LaRussa’s Cardinals were facing the Brewers’ Ben Sheets, who had been dominant in his last 5 outings.

Knowing that Cardinal runs would be at a premium against Sheets, LaRussa went into action when his leadoff hitter doubled to open the game. LaRussa immediately bunted him over to third and then successfully squeezed him in with his No. 3 hitter.

Billy Beane would have approached that same inning differently. His No. 2 hitter (and each succeeding hitter) would have made two things his priority that inning.

First, he would be extremely selective at the plate, trying to drive Sheets’ pitch count up right from the first pitch-believing that if he could make a great pitcher throw lots of pitches early, the A’s would be facing the bullpen (and a weaker pitcher) earlier in the game.

Second, there would be no thought of bunting. The hitter would be looking for a pitch to drive into the gaps or over the fence, and would probably take the pitcher deep into the count looking for that one pitch, that one mistake, that each hitter gets in an average at bat.

Billy Beane wouldn’t play for one run; he would try to put pressure on the opponent by making the starting pitcher throw lots of pitches and by putting up multiple runs early in the ball game.

In high school, chances are good that if you can knock out a team’s “ace”, you’re halfway home. The second and third pitchers you face in a ballgame are not usually as good as the starter, and so driving up the pitch count early in the ball game pays dividends later.

Perhaps we will take a strike the first time through the order, or we will at least make every hitter aware that it is a good at bat if he can make that pitcher throw five or more pitches in his particular at bat. This will make the pitcher throw strikes, and will drive up his pitch count.

If we see that a pitcher has thrown 80 or more pitches by the fifth inning, we know that we have a good shot at knocking him out of the game.

In that sense, Billy Beane’s philosophy works well at the high school level. Walks are even more important in the high school game, since not every hitter in the lineup is a strong hitter, and many pitchers struggle with control. Strike zone discipline is a teachable skill, regardless of athletic ability, and so this aspect of Beane’s philosophy is easily adaptable to the high school game.

Against a good pitcher, I don’t believe that a high school team should play for the big inning by waiting to string three or more hits together; since that one pitcher may be dominating the game, the running and bunting games become even more important.

It is a higher percentage play in high school to sacrifice, steal, or hit and run, especially with a weaker- hitting bottom of the order. Putting runners in motion puts pressure on the defense and exposes its weaknesses. It makes players other than the dominant pitcher beat you.

Baserunners and runs are at a premium against good pitching, and so it is important for an offense to be able to move baserunners by means other than base hits.

Further, more bunting, hitting-and-running, hitting behind the runner, and getting good leads and jumps are all teachable skills to our average high school athlete.

Our season and contact time with athletes is too limited to be able to “teach” power at the plate.

The plate discipline and get- on- base philosophy of Billy Beane’s A’s is perfect for high school athletes, as is Tony La Russa’s aggressive stealing-squeezing-hit-and-run game. If we adapt these two philosophies and drill daily to perfect the best of each, I am convinced that we will have created a winning offensive philosophy.

Jim Wilkinson is the head baseball coach and Chair of the World Language Dept. at Marquette (WI) University H.S. He is also a writer who has been published in the Washington Post, Wisconsin Magazine, Teaching Tolerance Magazine, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

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