MLB and Youth Baseball Face Challenges for Future of Sport, From Sports Specialization to Coaches


This is the first of a two-part series on Youth Baseball and MLB’s challenges in growing the sport. Part I deals with broader challenges of maintaining interest in the sport, while also providing information that helps the next generation in the current climate of sports specialization. Part II will deal with racial and socio-economic issues that MLB is seeking to address, to make sure the sport remains diverse and available as an opportunity to all.

The Little League World Series (LLWS) is, for the casual viewing public, the showcase event for youth baseball. Because of yesterday’s rainouts, 12 and 13 year olds from 16 different American and International teams will all take the bandbox fields in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, on opening day in one massive day of Little League baseball.

Rob Manfred notably made his first public appearance after being elected as Bud Selig’s replacement at last year’s tournament, and this year marks the first LLWS after he formally assumed the commissioner’s role. Youth baseball, and what it means for the future of the game in both creating the next generation of passionate fans, and of future players, has been a core issue in Manfred’s first year. In Buster Olney’s column this week, Manfred wrote as a guest contributor:

Since [taking office], my primary focus has revolved around improving the ways that Major League Baseball reaches kids, inspires their interest and compels them to play and follow our game — during a time when other entertainment options are proliferating and fewer kids are taking part in physical activity.

One of the Commissioner’s key messages has been the concept of “One Baseball,” a more unified and collaborative approach from the pinnacle of the sport (MLB), through the colleges, and to the various organizations at the youth level. The goal is to find common ground on issues that affect the future of the sport and take a longer term view toward the health of the sport starting at its earliest levels.

The Middle School Conundrum

The players you will see on ESPN in Williamsport have either just turned 13 or will do so in the next calendar year. Not coincidentally, baseball begins to see the biggest decline in youth participation immediately after this age group.

According to Chris Marinak, MLB Senior VP of League Economics and Strategy, baseball (along with soccer) still dominates at the younger ages, up until about age 9. “When you survey kids, they think it is the most fun sport to play. It involves hitting, throwing, different aspects,” Marinak said. “Hitting the ball really far is fun. Pitching and throwing really hard is fun. Those are assets that we have that we need to start capitalizing on more with kids.”

It’s the ages of 12 to 13, and up, where the numbers begin to decline. The reasons for this can be varied and individualized, though patterns exist across the larger spectrum. For those that play specifically in Little League through age 12, the field sizes and proportions jump dramatically, and this may lead to dropout for those that cannot still excel as the game grows.

Sports specialization is one major reason. The further kids progress, the more expensive, time-consuming, and conflicting the various sports become. Coaching, and the ability of coaches to engage players who are no longer just transported to the field based on parental wishes, becomes a factor. Other issues specific to baseball, and the difficulty of mastering little techniques that play big factors in success going forward, can play a role. “If you have other alternatives-basketball, football, volleyball–and it’s really hard to hone your skill in baseball, you are going to give that up,” said Marinak. “You are going to play another sport that may require less of an investment.”

The Specialization Trend Affects Most Sports, Including Baseball

Baseball is not unique in experiencing declines in overall numbers because children are opting to specialize in one particular sport much earlier than in the past. “That’s true of baseball, it’s true of every sport, it’s true of band, it’s true of education. It’s true of everything in this country,” said Marinak. “That’s the culture now, it’s focused, specialized privatization. Baseball is not insulated from that. The takeaway for us is that we need to focus on building infrastructure within a changed environment.”

The numbers, particularly within team sports, bear out that this isn’t just a baseball issue. Here are the changes from 2009 to 2014 in youth participation rates, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) (as summarized here), for the top 11 highest-participated team sports in the United States:

Basketball (-6.8%)
Soccer (-8.4%)
Baseball (-4.3%)
Tackle Football (-17.9%)
Touch Football (-32.4%)
Indoor Soccer (-11.6%)
Volleyball (Indoor) (-21.4%)
Slow Pitch Softball (-11.2%)
Fast Pitch Softball (+1.2%)
Lacrosse (+28.8%)
Ice Hockey (+43.7%)

Lacrosse and Hockey still have fewer than one million youth participants each, but have the advantage of being regional sports that are seeing increases in areas outside of the base regions of popularity. Other than that, baseball has seen declines, but less so than other sports like football, basketball, and soccer in the last five years.

Sometimes, the specialization leads to kids choosing baseball, as evidenced by the growing travel ball culture. Other times, it is in favor of other sports, and baseball falls by the wayside.

"“In the past, the travel ball and the commitment and expenses that came with it might happen at 14, 15, 16,” said Rick Riccobono, Senior Director of Development at USA Baseball. “Now, there is an entire community of players at 8,9, 10-year-old travel teams. Is that ultimately a good thing or a bad thing, both for the sport as a whole, and for those individual kids? The jury is very much out on that.”"

Kyle Peterson, ESPN College Baseball analyst (and also on ESPN’s Little League coverage), grew up in the early days of the travel ball culture when he was involved in youth baseball in Nebraska in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Peterson played games almost every night during baseball season, though the eventual two-time Pac-10 pitcher of the year at Stanford says he played more catcher than his eventual pitching position as a younger player. He doesn’t necessarily want his kids to grow up focusing on one sport in this current specialization culture. “Go to a family reunion or take a family vacation in July,” Peterson said, in regard to the phenomenon where travel ball families often coordinate their entire schedule around the sport, and it occupies their entire yearly calendar to the detriment of other sports or just being a kid.

He also says that being athletic and playing multiple sports is something college coaches are looking for. Peterson cited former Stanford teammate Chad Hutchinson, who played quarterback and pitched at Stanford, after winning the Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year award in high school, as someone who benefited from playing multiple sports.

Peterson is not alone in preaching multiple sport participation over specialization, even as the current is flowing in that direction.

In our minds,” Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington told ESPN last year, “it’s a HUGE positive for a high school player to be a multi-sport athlete. They tend to be more athletic, better leaders and better teammates. Single-sport athletes tend to have a higher burnout rate and/or appear to have lost some of the passion for the game because it was all they knew before it became their profession.”

This article claims that a study found that elite athletes honed in on their specialty sport later in their teens than those “sub-elite” athletes that could not crack the top level. In addition to things like burn out, specialization is also correlated with higher injury rates, both due to overuse, and multi-sport athletes developing and using more aspects of bodily movement.

Tim Jamieson, the University of Missouri head baseball coach since 1995, says “the trend [in college baseball] is to play one sport, and getting away from multiple sports, but I couldn’t really give you a number on the specific breakdown of our guys.”

The potential effects of specialization in baseball have also shown up when it comes to injury risks and offering scholarships.

“On our roster right now, we have four kids that have had Tommy John surgery, and three of them had it before they ever got here,” Jamieson said. “Which is really unusual, you never used to see that. Kids just didn’t get hurt that young, that early. It’s hard to pinpoint one reason why that’s happening, but I do think the fact that kids are playing year-round baseball and not another sport, or throwing without a structured throwing program, I think all those things have led to a risk of potential injuries for throwers.”

Jamieson noted that those injuries happened after they had offered scholarships to players, and they stood behind those scholarships, and all of the pitchers are fine now. That risk, though, exists because of the race to identify talent earlier than in years past. “We just got a [high school class of] 2017 commitment. We are toying with offering 2018 grads, which I’m not a fan of, but that’s the direction things are heading.”

Rick Riccobono of USA Baseball has been instrumental in the institution of MLB’s Pitch Smart program, and I asked what other areas of research might be coming out. He said that there is a development model that could be released in the next calendar year, after consulting with a team of experts and doctors.

“We do think there’s a lot of merit and value in producing a pathway and guidelines. It’s not cookie cutter, every individual can be different, but we do think there’s merit for providing some basic concepts. Here’s some basic concepts or principles of where your child should be taking away from the sport at age 8, and here’s where they should be at 14.”

The issue is not lack of information in many instances, but rather distribution of that information, separating the good from the bad, and getting it in the right hands. “At times, frankly, it can be misinformation,” said Riccobono, “either because people don’t know or have other motivations.”

“When we start producing all of this content, all of which is free, I think it becomes difficult over time for someone with different motivations to say ‘Hey, if you want your son to be a Major League Baseball player, do this.'”

Collaborative Coaching Losses Lead to Participation Declines

Back in May, the Wall Street Journal wrote about why baseball was losing children. It highlighted the plight of one Little League in New York (Newburgh), where the participation numbers continued to dwindle to the point the organization was having to make tough decisions about combining with other leagues or disbanding. The influence of “travel ball,” where the best players were leaving to play for competitive teams that traveled to tournaments, was mentioned.

One subtle factor, and one brought up by MLB’s Chris Marinak in regard to why kids leave or do not get involved in the sport, has to do with coaching and what this segmentation has done. Community programs often might have a mix of coaching quality, from those with a lot of experience as former players, to parents with little practical experience who are trying to learn on the fly and help out because their kid is on the team. In the past, those coaches may have been more collaborative, with the more experienced teaching the less experienced techniques, and working together within the league.

“If you start pulling out all the best coaches, the best programs, into a travel program, and what’s left behind in the community programs is all the weak coaching, weak administration. It doesn’t leave behind a positive opportunity for those kids,” Marinak said.

USA Baseball, the sport’s governing body, in conjunction with MLB, is working to address some of those issues with many of the new innovations that have been introduced.

According to Riccobono, “coaches, their level of engagement, their level of knowledge, is one of the single most critical items in affecting a child’s experience within a sport. Part of that has to do with skill development, part of it is communication skills, and your ability to teach baseball.”

With that in mind, the Play Ball app and program, which was introduced in June, provides resources to assist the community-based coach in building a base of knowledge and positively impacting the children. The Play Ball website contains articles about coaching technique. The App highlights and explains drills that can be used in practices. Just as importantly, it also contains sample practice plans that help would-be coaches organize their practices. “The goal there is the volunteer coach who is a dad trying to do the best he can, but doesn’t have the time to fill out a practice plan, so we’ve populated those for you,” Riccobono said. In essence, MLB and USA Baseball are starting to put out products that can stand in place of the expertise lost in some communities where the best coaches are in more highly competitive travel programs.

In the fall, an online education center will also be launched, that will include online courses for coaching youth baseball. In addition to coaching education, USA Baseball will also be developing programs to educate parents and umpires as well. “You may have the greatest coach in the world, and if the kid gets in the car with mom and dad, and they are tearing the coach down, tearing the kid down, you’ve ruined that positive experience,” Riccobono said.

“One Baseball”: Bridging Differences in the Youth Baseball World

According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), there were approximately 9.7 million youth playing baseball in the United States last year between the ages of 6 and 17, with an additional 2.6 million playing softball. Little League–that is, the specific organization that runs the World Series in Williamsport–had an estimated 2.4 million participants in 2014, according to Penn Live. (a request was made of Little League to clarify whether that number includes only American players, or also the International leagues, no response has been provided).

So while Little League is often identified with the sport both as the traditional showcase event and as the largest youth baseball organization, it is still a part of a plurality of options in the United States, representing 20% or less of the youth baseball and softball playing population. Other organizations, including American Amateur Baseball, AAU, American Legion, Babe Ruth Baseball, Dixie Youth Baseball, National Amateur Baseball Federation, PAL (National Association of Police Athletic Leagues), Pony League, T-Ball USA, and USSSA, are popular in various regions of the country.

All have different sets of rules under which they play. For example, if you watch the Little League World Series, players will be playing on bases 60 feet apart, with the mound 46 feet from home plate. Runners cannot lead off or steal until the ball crosses home plate at the  Little League World Series; other organizations allow all of these things under the same rules that MLB players use.

Cole Wagner from the Pennsylvania team and Alex Edmondson from the South Carolina team both throw 75+ mph fastballs, giving other 12-year olds the equivalent of Bryce Harper’s reaction time to a Jacob deGrom fastball. Other organizations play at advancing distances as players age. In USSSA, for example, the mound is at 50 feet by age 11, and moves to 55 feet at age 13. Some of these organizations monitor things like pitch counts or have participation requirements; others do not.

"“The point of ‘One Baseball'” Marinak said, “is that those groups need to work together. Having everyone just compete against each other and cannibalize opportunities for kids, and try to shut out one group to get kids to play for another, sort of creates a cycle to the bottom. The idea behind ‘One Baseball’ is we want to help be a facilitator, help share information, share ideas, get groups to work together.” "

According to Marinak, though, this does not mean that the various organizations should not compete and differentiate themselves within the marketplace. As with any situation, choices will allow more people to find what’s right for them–provided they are aware of their choices. “We are all in this for the same reason: the more kids that play baseball, the better everybody is going to do across the “One Baseball” sense.”

[images via USA Today Sports Images and Getty Images]