It was shaping up to be just another routine preseason practice for Dwain, a second baseman fighting for a starting spot on the St. Michael the Archangel High School baseball team in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
St. Michael’s coach Johnny Bernhard keeps charts on every practice, logging good and bad plays in various drills, including defensive performance in “live” batting practice. As the preseason unfolded, and the competition at second base heated up, the coach picked up on a trend from his charts: Dwain was successfully handling more than 90 percent of his chances, a performance that Bernhard otherwise might have missed. In the end, it was enough to tip the scales in Dwain’s favor.
“Charting helps us get better information on our kids,” said Bernhard, who played college ball at Mississippi College. “You’d be surprised how quickly the numbers add up, how quickly you can see a trend. And it helps the kids because it makes a competition out of practice. It dials it up.
“When you have a competitive situation at a position, maybe you’re not settled on a starter, every ball counts, every ball is like the bottom of the seventh inning with two outs in terms of the intensity of the effort the kids are making.”
In the bullpen, pitchers undergo a similar evaluation. A string is stretched, horizontally, 20 inches above the ground in front of the plate. The objective: throw the ball beneath the string, because knee-high pitches tend to induce more ground balls and, theoretically, more outs. Each pitcher throws three sets of 12 balls, receiving a check for every under-the-string pitch.
Early in preseason, a sophomore side-armer named Tyler ranked in the middle of the pack. Then he made his move.
“We started noticing he was moving closer to the top,” Bernhard said. “Once he started facing live hitters, we noticed a tendency for him to get a lot of ground balls. That’s probably something that would have gone unnoticed without the charting system. He ended up pitching relief this season for the varsity.
“Of course, it works the opposite way too. The chart becomes a great teaching tool at that point. And it really helps us answer that question: ‘Why aren’t I getting more playing time?’”
Bernhard also charts bunting drills. In every case, the charting process is relatively simple. In batting practice, idle pitchers “keep score” on every position player, marking “yes” following a successful play and “no” after a botched one. In the bullpen drill, pitchers pair up: one throws while the other logs results. Bernhard charts the bunts.
Every week or so, Bernhard adds up the results, then posts the rankings.
“It can be a great motivator,” he said. “When our players come to practice, one of the first things they do is look at the rankings to see where they stack up.
“Kids love to compete. They love to see their names on the leaderboard. Of course, they don’t want to be at the bottom.’’