By the very nature of the population that seeks out coaching, many of my clients are biologically older than their peers. That is to say, while their chronological age is the same as their teammates and competitors, they are much more mature – they’re bigger, throw harder, and swing bats faster. As such, they tend to do very well at their current level of competition. Occasionally, I’ve seen players get arrogant about a particularly good stretch of games – perhaps batting over .400 with a few home runs, or striking out two batters per inning over 20 games.
Now, should a player be excited when their hard work pays off? Of course. But true competitors aren’t satisfied with merely doing well at the level that they’re at. The classic example is Pete Sampras entering and losing matches badly in the U-18 divisions when he was just 12 years old. He could have entered age-appropriate tournaments, or perhaps only stepped up to the U-14 bracket, but he wouldn’t have met the challenges that he would have invariably faced as a professional.
A more sport-specific anecdote comes from Paul DePodesta’s blog: It Might Be Dangerous… You Go First. Paul is a current assistant in the front office of the San Diego Padres and is the former General Manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He posted a blog article about Wade LeBlanc in 2009, where he said this:
Leblanc pitched about 150 innings between HA and AA and now has almost 200 in AAA. That isn’t terribly unusual for an advanced college starter, and he’s still in the development process now.
The other thing, and possibly more importantly, is that sometimes guys need to be pushed in order to progress. For instance, had we left Leblanc at AA he could have continued to get everyone out with his changeup without needing to locate his fastball effectively. He needed to get to a level with more advanced hitters that would force him to make an adjustment to his game.
I tell all my pitchers about this story. Wade LeBlanc has one of the most devastating changeups in baseball and has a 3.29 ERA this year to go with it. If you’re a sabermetrics geek (like I am), you’ll note that LeBlanc’s changeup rates at +4.1 runs above average, while his fastball is -7.5 runs below average and his curveball is -3.6 runs below average. So LeBlanc has a below-average fastball and curveball but a solidly above-average changeup. DePodesta’s point is that LeBlanc could have simply used his major league above-average changeup (very advanced for the minors) to get hitters out and produce solid numbers, but that it wouldn’t have told the front office anything.
This is one area where people who rely too much on basic stats (strikeouts, walks, earned runs, home runs, RBIs, etc) make their biggest mistakes. Just because a pitcher is putting up a lot of great numbers at lower levels does not mean they are ready to move on. In LeBlanc’s case, his solid minor league numbers prior to jumping to AAA were a mirage – his success there was not indicative of his major league talent level. Big league hitters know how to lay off changeups and look for below-average fastballs to pound into the stands. Minor league hitters do not. And that’s what separates the two levels of competition.
You should always have your eye on the next level. When you pitch in a game, you want to dominate the hitters that you face, certainly, but if you’re relying on your breaking ball too much to do so, that isn’t helping you develop as a player down the line. When scouts come to see you as a high school sophomore, they don’t want to see a below-average curveball fooling bad high school hitters. Scouts want to see fastball velocity, but they also really want to see that you have an idea of what you’re doing with it. They want to know if you can cut it, run it, sink it, and most of all: locate it. I tell all my pitchers that when they can throw a complete game shutout throwing only fastballs that they’ll be ready to move on to the next level. Until then, they’ll never know if their stuff will play up at the next level.
In short: Progress is not measured by what you’ve done right now. It’s measured by what you will do down the line against tougher competition. Don’t ever get them confused.