Communication is undeniably key in the game of baseball.
A third base coach must signal to the hitter when to lay down a bunt. A second baseman and right fielder must converse loudly and clearly on shallow pop flies. Pickoff plays often require nonverbal cues.
But communication between a coach and his or her players? That’s of utmost importance. And, of all the times an amateur coach must send a clear message, it’s especially imperative when trying to decide how to best utilize a talented young player.
When deciding whether to bring an underclassman up to the varsity level, for example, Eden Prairie (Minnesota) High School varsity baseball coach John Buteyn always aims for an open line of dialogue between all involved.
“We try to be really proactive with communication,” said Buteyn, in his fourth year leading Eden Prairie’s program. “We’re very open about the fact that the varsity team is going to be the best team that we can field — and that’s sometimes going to field younger players.”
Several factors are at play — and must be weighed — when a coach decides how to best handle a young player with rare talent. One key prerequisite varsity coaches should look for when weighing an underclassman’s varsity prospects: mental toughness.
“We like to see that (young players) play with poise,” noted coach Jim Clancy, in his 15th year guiding Minneapolis Washburn High School’s varsity team. “We want him to come up with confidence in himself. We don’t want to see a kid overwhelmed.”
Freshmen or sophomores who crumble at the first sign of adversity do the varsity no good. Similarly, the addition of underclassmen to a varsity roster can, on occasion, harm some high school teams’ fragile chemistry.
“If there’s an issue, it’s pretty easy to spot; body language speaks a lot louder than words,” said Eden Prairie’s Buteyn. “I do think it’s easy to tell if older players are unsure about what’s going on.”
Older varsity athletes simply need to be reminded of the importance of a team-first attitude -- which is probably a valuable lesson to be taught before entering the harsh realities of the working world and adulthood.
Other factors to consider when deciding whether to “call up” a young amateur prospect:
Obviously, there's the young player’s physical makeup. Can a 15-year-old pitcher, for example, handle a varsity workload?
Does the young, burgeoning talent have a career beyond the prep level that must be, at least to an extent, nurtured?
Also, how much playing time is realistically available for the gifted youngster? Varsity coaches tend to agree that bringing a sophomore up to varsity simply to have them ride the pine during games serves little purpose.
Of course, for the sake of a coach’s sanity, they also might want to get an early jump on informing their squad’s parents that a younger-than-usual player will be on their roster. It’s typically best to break that news in settings such as a preseason, informative meeting. Again, an open line of dialogue is suggested.
Of course, there’s no need for “paralysis by analysis.” Coaches rarely fail when they do what’s best for the overall group they’re overseeing. After all, it goes without saying that player- and team-development trump winning percentages on the amateur level.
That’s something no one should lose sight of when a coach considers adding a younger-than-usual player to their roster.
“I think there’s a balance to be achieved,” said Eden Prairie’s Buteyn. “I’m accountable to the entire team … going down to the younger levels. But, within that context, we’re also trying to do what’s best for individual athletes.”