The Sabermetrics of Little League

Nolan Darowski (5) of the Angels awaits the play at shortstop. - Adam Darowski

Occasionally, saber nerds come out of their basements long enough to make children. And sometimes, those children play Little League baseball. Little League may only vaguely resemble “real” baseball, but that doesn’t mean we can’t analyze it.

This spring, my five-year old son Nolan started his first year of organized ball. I’m a proud papa who loves seeing him succeed in this new endeavor that he loves so much. But I’m also a saber nerd, so I inevitably think about how sabermetrics relates to this innocent version of the game he plays. This morning, I thought I’d share some of those thoughts and ask you to share some of your thoughts on your child’s baseball league.

A bit about the league

My son plays for the Angels in the Pinto Division of SIBL (the Swansea Independent Baseball League) in Swansea, MA. The league’s tagline is "Where the Elite Compete". Sounds like pretty bold words. Basically, what it means is that they are independent and it’s a bit more of an accelerated program.

For example, my son is five (though he has six- and seven-year old teammates). That’s tee ball age. And he does hit off the tee. But for the final three innings of each six-inning game, he faces live pitching from his coach. If he gets three strikes, he’s out. I was a bit nervous about this half of the game. But after Nolan whiffed the first two times he faced his coach, he followed that up with solid singles in his next two at bats.

In the Pinto division, each half-inning goes until five runs or three outs are recorded. Teams use ten position players (employing a left-center fielder and a right-center fielder) both when hitting off the tee and when coaches pitch. The batting order includes every player on the team. The team only has eleven players (one or two teams have twelve), so at most one player sits at a time. However, if one child misses a game, everyone plays every inning. If two children miss the game, we can either give up one of the center fielders or give up the catcher (in that case also forfeiting the ability to record outs at home). If more than two children miss the game we’d have to forfeit the game (this luckily hasn’t happened).

And now a couple observations…

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The defensive spectrum

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:

  • Catcher is the easiest because at this level the catcher doesn’t really do anything. Catchers are required to stay against the backstop until the ball is in play. Catcher is (likely) the position forfeited if a team is down a player. At this age, successful defensive plays are rare in general, so plays at the plate are more or less impossible. That said, I love when Nolan plays catcher. It may not be an important position now, but it will be as soon as the kids start pitching. I’d be thrilled if he became a catcher (that’s where I loved to play as a kid).
  • Left Field and Right Field are probably even less important than they are in MLB. The only time they touch a ball is if it is hit well enough to get past the first baseman or third baseman. That does happen, but it reminds me of another rule—the batter and all baserunners can only advance a maximum of two bases on each ball in play. So, if a hit makes it into the outfield, chances are it was already going to be a double (and that’s the best it can possibly be).
  • Left-Center Field and Right-Center Field are a bit more interesting. I assumed they were as low leverage as left field and right field. But then my son showed me they are actually not. Not once, but twice he was playing right-center, charged a ground ball up the middle and made the putout at second. I was impressed and so was his coach. In our last game, Nolan was positioned there with that plan in mind.
  • Third Base, Second Base, and Shortstop are all pretty similar. Second base has some value because the proximity to first base means that a ground ball there has a chance to be turned into an out. Ground balls to third and short will rarely (if ever) result in an out at first base. Where you see outs there (and some from the second baseman) is when a grounder is fielded and carried to the base for an unassisted putout. I’d put shortstop as the most important of the three as that position sees a few more balls in play and there more ground to cover when running to tag second base.
  • Pitcher receives the vast majority of all ground balls. I’ve seen the pitcher field something like seven or eight balls in play in a row rather routinely. The pitcher needs to be able to field grounders and throw accurately to first.
  • First base could not be any more important at this level. Not only does your first baseman need to catch the ball (which by itself is very difficult at this age), but also catch balls thrown by other children. It’s one thing to catch a throw from an adult. But from another five- or six-year old? That’s tough.

The scoring enviroment

15 runs is about what I’d expect a typical team score in a single game at this level because:

  • Teams can only score up to five runs per inning
  • Kids hit off the tee for three innings
  • Defensive plays are really hard to make, so five runs almost always comes before three outs
  • The coaches pitch for the final three innings
  • At this age, runs scored off the coach are somewhat rare

Now, at this point the Angels are 4-0. Of course, the players and coaches are very pleased. The success so far can be attributed to two things:

  1. The kids are solid defenders. In two of the four games, they held the opposition to 11 runs. That means even during the "tee" innings, they’re (sometimes) getting three outs before allowing five runs. That’s something opponents haven’t managed to do to them at all. The Angels have scored five runs in the first three innings of every game and the reason is definitely defensive skill levels more than offensive skill levels.
  2. The kids are starting to hit against the coach. In the first three games, the Angels scored a total of four runs with their coach pitching. In their last game, they scored five. Because defensive plays are so rare in these final three innings, they're scoring because they’re hitting well (not because of the defense is stopping them). Most at bats at this level end in a strikeout when coaches pitch.

The defensive efficiency at this level can be seen in the team’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play). Right now, the Angels have 127 hits in 131 balls in play (I’m not calling anything by a five-year old an “error” because I’m not an ass). That’s good for a BABIP of .969. Yes, his team actually has statistics posted.

Some other highlights:

  • We have a kid who has yet to be retired. He’s 17-for-17. He’s also the only one to catch a batted ball in the air through the first four games.
  • One other kid has been retired once, but already has six doubles (remember, the maximum number of bases you can take is two).
  • Eight of the kids have a BABIP of 1.000. Opposing teams have only retired the Angels with a defensive play four times. One poor girl has fallen victim twice.
  • I wish the team stats page could capture the plays our first baseman is making over there. His DRS would be astronomical right now.
  • The story I tweeted about a kid (our mini Bryce Harper) who quite epically fouled a ball off his face and then proceed to smash a single to left with blood streaming down his face is only reflected in the stats as an ordinary single. This software has no tWtW category.

There are some other things worth watching, like the difference in defensive skill on weekends vs. weekdays. Each weekend game has resulted in 11 runs allowed by the Angels. The weekday games have resulted in 15 and 14 runs allowed. Perhaps the kids are sharper when they haven’t spent an entire day in school (and other activities).

Keep it fun

Now, even though I’m digging into the numbers behind the performance of a five-year old, I don’t want you to think that I’m one of those insane Little League parents. In fact, that’s the main thing I was worried about with getting Nolan into this league. It can be a bit more intense and lead to more intense parents. Thankfully, there haven’t been many of those yet. During the games, I do pride myself on never really knowing what the score is and just trying to keep the mood light and fun.

But when the games are over, I do like to see what happened and what went into it. It’s just the way my brain works.

The key is to remember that these are just kids and kids are supposed to have fun. At a recent practice, we realized we weren’t really focusing at all on plays at home—just plays on the bases. So, we did a little drill with the kids where they tried to make plays at the plate. It was as if we were asking them to land on the moon, so we stopped. They’re having fun… they’re winning… there’s no need to take it too far.

What kind of observations have you made during your child’s baseball season?

The Angels take on the Athletics tomorrow at noon. Follow Adam on Twitter at @baseballtwit and you’ll be sure to hear about the results and see photos.

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