The Little League World Series presents coaches with a unique set of rules. The coaches who best utilize those rules can create an advantage late in games.
Take Japan. The team trailed Latin America by two runs in the eighth inning of the International winners’ bracket final. Coach Junji Hidaka had fulfilled all his substitution requirements. So he looked to his bench to provide a spark.
Hidaka first called on Masafuji Nishijima as a pinch hitter. Nishijima responded with a single.
Hidaka also called on Shoho Yanagishima. The pinch runner delivered a double that drove in the first of three runs in the late rally. Yuta Komaba, another reserve, took over as special pinch runner for Yanagishima and scored the winning run.
With a 5-4 victory, Japan claimed a spot in Saturday’s International final.
The reserves played a key role for Japan. Nishijima ended the game as the only player to finish with three hits. He went 3-for-3 while also striking out seven batters in 3 1/3 innings as a relief pitcher. In total, Japan got a series-high five hits from its bench.
Teams with deeper benches have an obvious advantage, but the best teams are often the ones that develop a winning substitution strategy for late in games. These coaches view the LLWS more as an opportunity than as a restrictive requirement.
Using the Rules
The Little League World Series has three major rules that affect substitutions and make strategy different than other baseball games.
1. Pitch limits. These play a major role in decisions about when to change pitchers. The consequences can affect not just the current game but also future games.
2. Special pinch runners. Teams are allowed one special pinch runner per inning. With more flexibility than other substitutions, this rule allows managers to emphasize a player’s strength or hide another player’s weakness.
3. Minimum player requirements. These change according to the number of players on a roster, but every player must get the chance to bat. Getting the most out of those required at-bats can make the difference over the course of the series.
Teams like Japan that have been successfully managing their reserves have thrived at this year's LLWS.
The six teams still competing each feature several players who have produced off the bench. The top half of the field has had its subs bat .284 for the series, while the teams that finished ninth through 16th had theirs bat .096.
In the games where one team’s bench has out-produced the other's in offensive statistics, the team with the superior bench effort has gone 14-4.
Of the U.S. teams, West — which is still alive in the U.S. elimination bracket — has had the tournament’s most productive bench. For example, Nick Maldonado hit a grand slam in the team’s opening rout. Only Japan and West have gotten six hits from players who started the game on the bench. Yet West’s only loss came when Southwest got three runs and three hits from its reserves, including a two-run homer by Raffi Gross, in an 8-4 win.
A statistical look at the bench production from this year’s teams:
Elimination Bracket Finalists
Tied for 7th-8th
Tied for 9th-12th
Tied for 13th-16th
Fans can follow LLWS game statistics live and dig deeper into the statistics after each game through GameChanger.