Free Special Report on the most common mistakes youth coaches make
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Copyright John T. Reed

There is a sort of standard pre-game warm-up in youth baseball. I do not like it. I recommend you use a more sensible pre-game warm-up as follows.

RIF-1 balls only

In 1992, a majors player in my local Little League got hit in practice by a regular Little League hardball that one-hopped into his knee. It shattered his kneecap. In 1970, my oldest son's varsity head football coach was at his first coaching-teaching job after college. That spring, a bull pen catcher threw a pitch back to his pitcher. But at that moment, the pitcher turned to look at something in the nearby game and the catcher's throw struck him in the temple. It killed him.

If either of those players had been on a team coached by me, they would not have been injured at all. In a 1992 pre-game warm-up, I yelled, "Balls in!" Standing near our third-base dugout, I turned to look toward first base. Our left fielder one-hopped a ball into my knee. I was not injured. It did not even hurt. Why? Because I only allowed RIF-1 balls in practice, pre-game, and pre-inning warm-ups---even when I coached teenagers. Reduced-Injury-Factor balls are made by Worth Sports. The level 1 is often called a "tee ball." It looks just like a baseball and has the same size and weight, but it's softer. RIF-5 balls are medium soft. RIF-10 balls are almost indistinguishable from regular hard balls, but they are much safer.

Baseball games are dangerous. See my article on baseball safety for details. Baseball pre-game warm-up periods are even more dangerous than games because of the increased number of balls and activities and the increased number of people: players, coaches, umpires, parent groundskeepers, siblings, parents, and grandparents who may be in the line of fire.

Starting pitcher

There is no doubt that every pitch your starting pitcher throws before the game reduces by one the total number of pitches he can throw during the game. Therefore, you should hold the number of pre-game pitches to an absolute minimum in order to maximize the number of game pitches that pitcher can throw before he gets tired.

On the other hand, it is widely believed that pitchers need to throw numerous warm-up pitches before the game or they will not be at peak effectiveness when they throw their first game pitch. One rule of thumb is that the pitcher should throw in pre-game until he breaks a sweat. I do not know whether this is true. I am especially suspicious that, although it may apply to adult pitchers, and to a lesser extent to teenage pitchers, it does not apply to pre-teen pitchers.

Billy Martin once said that players did not pull muscles in his day "because we didn't have muscles." So it is with pre-teens. I am a former pre-teen myself. Neither I nor any of my peers ever pulled a muscle when we played baseball by the hour in the fifties. None of the many pre-teens I coached ever pulled a muscle. Teenagers do have muscles and sometimes they pull them. I got my first charley horse when I was a teen. My high school football and volleyball players sometimes pulled muscles. Of course, when I played adult baseball and semi-pro baseball, both I and my teammates pulled muscles.

I recommend that you explain to your youth pitchers that they should not throw one more pre-game pitch than necessary to be ready for the first batter in the game. I would then leave it up to each individual pitcher to decide how many pre-game pitches he felt he needed. I expect the average pre-teen would feel he was ready after five to eight pitches. Teenagers might feel they need ten or twenty.

No one should decide how many pitches the starting pitcher throws based on "the way it's always been done" or what they see at Major League games. If you are inclined to believe in the old wives' tales of baseball, I suggest that you experiment. For one game, have your starting pitcher throw thirty pitches before the game. Note that in the score book. For another have him throw zero or five pitches and note that. Look at the games to see if there appeared to be any difference in his success with the first few batters. If it is inconclusive, try each again. I suspect you will find that all starting pitchers need at least a few pitches to unlimber their arms, but that you reach the point of diminishing returns after about five pitches at the pre-teen level and at about ten at the teen level.

I always count pitches to protect the arms of my pitchers. And I count pre-game pitches the same as I count game pitches. So my players would try to hold down the number of pre-game pitches so they would not get pulled from the game sooner than necessary. That is how I discovered that kids do not need many pre-game warm-up pitches.

Relief pitchers

Do not bother these guys in pre-game. Just give them some warm-up pitches when they come in. During pre-game, they should just warm up their arms like all the other players. You can let the position players throw more than five warm-up pitches because there is no danger that they will tire their arms out during the game.

Batters

When I batted in cages, against pitching machines, I noticed that I generally had trouble hitting the first five or six pitches. Bunting seemed to help get me started making contact. So did just swinging at five or six pitches. Accordingly, I came to the conclusion that batters probably have trouble hitting the first five or six pitches they swing at in games, too. Since that would be the entire game for many players, that's a disaster. Accordingly, I have each player hit soft toss before the game.

Important! I do not do soft toss with real baseballs or even soft baseballs. I do it with poly balls. Poly balls are white plastic balls with round holes spread evenly around their surfaces. They look like Whiffle Balls except that Whiffle Balls have slits and they are in one hemisphere only. Doing soft toss with baseballs of any kind is extremely dangerous because the ball may bounce off the pipe frame of the fence into which you are hitting and injure the batter, soft tosser, or a bystander. Baseball soft toss also ruins chain link fences. The resulting turned-up fence bottoms create a safety hazard during games. There is no danger of ricochet from poly balls because they are so light. Poly-ball soft toss is some times a problem on windy days. In that case, use balled-up batting gloves or socks. I make each player do soft toss until he hits two or three line drives.

Taking infield

I never take infield in team practice except to audition players for position at the first two practices. One reason I never bother with infield in team practices is that I know I will be forced to do so in pre-game. Each team taking infield is a time-honored ritual. It is not my favorite practice activity. On the other hand, it's not so bad. So I try to make some efficient use out of it.

First off, I do not hit infield, I throw it. I read that in a book somewhere, tried it, and liked it. Another coach in our Little League did the same and he did not get the idea from me. If you think you have to hit infield to replicate game conditions, see the discussion of that in my book Youth Baseball Coaching. Throwing is far more accurate and safer in that you never throw harder than you meant to, but you can easily hit the ball harder than you mean to.

I do a quick "get one" (catch a grounder and throw to first base) for everyone so they can get the range. One thing I do differently is have the pitchers take infield on the mound. That is, I throw to the first, second, and third basemen, the shortstop, and the pitcher. They each throw to first. I also give the catcher a few reps fielding bunts and throwing to first. Do a "get one" to second and third bases and an everyone-play-in "get one" to home plate. Alternate force and tag plays at each base other than first.

I sometimes also do a "muff and get one." In this, each infielder deliberately muffs the grounder then calmly picks it up and throws it to first base. This is to inculcate that errors are a normal part of youth baseball and not a cause for panic.

I do not "get two." If you do "get two," I suggest that you "get real." Only elite teen teams can execute a two-throw, double-force play in game conditions. The only two-throw, double-force play worth practicing in youth baseball is the 1-2-3. (One-hop smash to pitcher with bases loaded. He throws home to get the force, then the catcher throws to first for the second force.)

I do practice two other kinds of double play in pre-game. I yell "one-throw double play," then throw a grounder near each base. I tell the pitcher to let the ones aimed at second base go through. The fielder catches the grounder, steps on the base, then throws to first. I only do one rep for each fielder. The main purpose is just to get it into the player's head so he thinks of it if the situation comes up in a game. Once, I did that in pre-game, apparently amusing the opposing coaches and parents with my weirdness. Then our shortstop actually executed that play smooth as could be in the first or second inning of the game in question.

Secondly, and this is especially important at the lowest levels including tee ball, I practice pop-up double plays. I yell "pop-up double play" and throw each infielder, including the pitcher and catcher, a pop-up. As the ball is coming down, I yell a base number (one, two, or three). The fielder catches the pop, then immediately throws to the base in question to double off the runner who failed to tag up. Each infielder throws to two other bases, The pitcher and catcher get to throw to all three. In tee-ball games, we often got double or even triple plays because we practiced this.

I then practice the catcher-steal throws to second and third. Catchers generally need about ten reps of the throw to second before a game. They only need two or three to third. At this time, also make sure that the other players are doing their back-up duties correctly and that the baseman who receives the throw puts the tag on the ground next to the base. Start each of these reps with pitches. Do NOT allow your catcher to take his mask off for these throws.

Pitcher-cover-first play

My teams always can do the pitcher-cover-first play. I only saw one opponent who could do it in all my years in youth baseball. I give each pitcher one successful rep of this play in pre-game. I yell "pitcher cover first" and throw a grounder to the first baseman. It must be relatively far from first. The pitcher then runs to first base along the correct path, receives the toss from the first baseman, then steps on first for the force out.

Pitcher-cover-home play

At levels where runners can advance on a passed ball, I practice the pitcher-cover-home play in pre-game. The pitcher throws an invisible pitch. About the time it would have arrived at the plate, I toss the ball toward the backstop. I vary the direction. The pitcher charges in from the mound. The catcher scurries after the ball and throws it to the pitcher who places the tag on the ground, then throws to third base (because there is often another runner in a game).

Practicing this a little causes the pitcher and catcher to stop panicking when it happens in a game. But it is still a difficult play that requires a lot of practice.

Catcher pop-up

If there is not a roof over the home plate area, give your catcher some practice catching foul pops. Mainly, he needs to remember to hold onto his mask until he sees where the ball is.

Outfield

Outfielders can throw each other grounders and flies while the infield is working. Then you throw grounders to the outfielders and have them throw to second, third, and home. The players not fielding the ball should practice going to the right place. Pitchers generally need to back up third or home, although in youth baseball, with its short distance to the backstop, they are the cut man on throws to home.

Outfielders must be told where the lead runner is before the ball is thrown to them. Then they throw two bases ahead of the lead runner without hesitation. I did this once in a pre-game for the first time all season. I was not a coach on that team except that day. The manager and coach were away on business so they put me in charge. I told the right fielder he must throw two bases ahead of the runner without hesitation. I said there was a runner on first, threw him a grounder, and yelled "Three! Three!" Later in the actual game, that exact situation came up. The right fielder caught a one-hopper and gunned the ball to third without hesitation. For the first time all season, the runner did not advance beyond second. We won that game by one run.

At some lower age levels, many outfielders are often incapable of throwing two bases ahead of the lead runner. The right and center fielders can only throw to second. The left fielder can only throw to second and third. If that is the case, just have them practice those throws.

Do not "hit the cut man"

Outfielders must not "hit the cut man." Rather they must throw through the cut man to the target base. The cut man must not catch the ball unless it is off line. (Cut men also sometimes catch the ball to redirect it to a different base, but that is a very advanced skill.) Almost every Little League game I have ever seen, including the 1999 Little League World Series, have cut and relay men saving runners from being tagged out when they take an extra base. The cut and relay men do this self-sabotage by delaying an accurately thrown ball from reaching its intended base. Youth baseball coaches and players act as if it were a cardinal sin to allow a thrown ball to touch the ground. That's nuts! Better the outfielder's throw should one- or even two-hop to the base, than be caught then rethrown to the base. Catching and rethrowing the ball takes about one second at best. Left alone, the ball would have arrived at the base about one second sooner, even if it bounced. If you doubt me, have a race between an outfielder with a player relaying the ball and one without a relay man. The unrelayed ball will always arrive much sooner unless the distance is extreme.

The cut man's job on an accurate throw is to pretend that he caught the ball and threw it to another base to scare a runner there into staying. If the throw is on line to the target base, the cut man must NOT really catch it!

Do not give pitched batting practice in pre-game. The slowness of the pitches messes up batters' game timing. Also the need to swing at less-than-perfect pitches in batting practice encourages that awful habit on first and second strikes during the game. Do not fungo balls to outfielders. Throw them. Move out toward them if necessary.

Good luck,

John T. Reed