10
03
2017

How to Run a Development-First Travel Ball Program

This post was written by Justin Barber who is the Director of Operations and Player Development for the Indiana Chargers, and Joel Mishler, Chargers Co-Founder and General Manager. The Indiana Chargers are in their 13th year of existence and have had 140 players move on to play college baseball from their program since 2008. In 2018, they will field teams at the 11-18u levels and will run a collegiate summer training program.

The Indiana Chargers have hosted a Driveline event since 2014, a three-day weekend event for local players and coaches (sign up for 2017’s here). Since 2014, they have used Driveline to guide their throwing program and protocols and had great results. And, they track their data. You can view 3+ years of training data here, Indiana Chargers Training Data.

Following are some thoughts from the Indiana Chargers on how they try to make a difference developing players and educating their families in the current travel baseball culture.


Travel baseball is a mess. Over the past decade, travel ball mania and the showcase scene has exploded. While the number of travel teams is at an all-time high, the number of teams and organizations who truly focus on development with arm care at the forefront seems to be at an all-time low.

Having dealt with the structural issues presented by travel ball for the past 13 years, we made an organizational commitment to prioritize player development. Below we’ll take a look at the arm care issues that travel ball presents and the specific choices we made to address them.

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Arm care presents one of the biggest challenges the current travel ball climate faces. When it comes to arm care and protecting pitchers, the first place we see people gravitate towards is pitch counts and the role they play in managing overuse or potential abuse of a young arm. While we can all agree that pitch counts are not perfect, this is certainly not a bad place to start.

In late 2014, Major League Baseball and USA Baseball teamed up to create Pitch Smart, “A series of practical, age-appropriate guidelines to help parents, players and coaches avoid overuse injuries and foster long, healthy careers for youth pitchers”. Each state now has its own rules for pitch counts in high school competition.

If you want to learn more, here is the Pitch Smart Pitch Count Limits and Required Rest Recommendations and J.J. Cooper of Baseball America put together an article with the High School Pitch Count Rules By State.

While some tournament companies, most notably Perfect Game, are Pitch Smart compliant, the majority of travel baseball tournaments have no pitching rules or restrictions. Coaches are simply advised to “use good judgement” when it comes to pitch counts and pitch limits.

And while we understand why most tournament venues don’t want to police the Pitch Smart protocols, the lack of accountability leads to the “travel ball nonsense” that we see on a weekly basis.

Quick Story: Travel Ball Nonsense

An opposing 14U pitcher throws 90 pitches Saturday then catches multiple games on Sunday. The opposing shortstop closes Saturday’s game and throws a complete game on Sunday (120 pitches between the two games).

Next weekend, the opposing team’s starting pitcher (the best 14U arm we’ve seen this year) throws a complete game (95 pitches) and we lose 4-3. That’s not the issue. We had faced and beat this same team 2 days earlier and the kid who started threw 65 pitches less than 48 hours before his CG victory on Sunday. In less than 48 hours, at 14U, this kid had thrown 160 pitches.

These types of stories are all too-common to any veteran of the travel ball circuit. The fact that a random kid in the Midwest at 14 is throwing more pitches in 48 hours than professional pitchers in the playoffs is risking injury with an at-risk population just to win a game that, in the grand scheme, means nothing.

“Bullpen Day” Work to Justify Short Rest

A common arm care decision we see at travel ball tournaments is bringing starters back two or three days later. Coaches justify it as a “bullpen day”. Standard pens are generally between 30-45 pitches. But it’s amazing how many “bullpen day” outings in travel ball turn into 4-5 innings and 75+ pitches. You know, “The kid says he’s feeling good and it’s an elimination game!”

Just because day 3 or day 4 is a bullpen day at the pro and college level doesn’t mean a high school arm is prepared to handle that type of workload week in and week out during the summer season.

For example, take a pitcher who starts on Thursday and throws 92 pitches, comes back on “bullpen day” and throws 40 pitches on Sunday. Then, he’s the day one starter and throws another 87 pitches the following Thursday. And the cycle of 130+ pitch weeks repeats.

For 6-8 weeks in the summer, this plays out on travel ball rosters across the United States. Don’t forget, this same pitcher is attending 2-3 mid-week showcases throughout the summer as well. There he will get up on the mound and throw as hard as he can for 12-15 pitches after warming up.

Are we surprised when his velo has dropped a few ticks by the end of the season? Ultimately, who is the responsible party for this athlete’s career?

A Development Framework for Short Rest Work

The questions we ask ourselves when it comes to deciding whether to bring back one of our starting pitchers on short rest is this:

“Have we properly trained our athletes to come back on two or three days rest and pitch competitively in a game setting? Is this what is best for this athlete’s long-term athletic development, even if it’s only for one inning or 20-30 pitches?”  

We find it hard to believe that many programs are adequately preparing their pitchers to handle this high-volume, short-rest workload on the weekends.

We certainly haven’t been able to figure out a way to be confident our pitchers are trained and ready for such a scenario, so we simply don’t consider it as a good option. This costs us some wins late in the weekends.

Since arm care and development is more important to us than winning tournament game 6, we will try to figure out how to win by giving opportunities to other pitchers on our staff.

While high pitch counts and bringing back pitchers on short rest is a prevalent issue, we feel it’s not even the biggest arm care issue in travel baseball today.

The Developmental Issues of Small Roster Sizes

The #1 arm care offender in our opinion is roster sizes. Not only is this an arm care issue, but we believe this to be a detrimental thing for the physical, mental, and competitive development of baseball players as we prepare them for the upper levels of the game.

Look at the overall scope of baseball rosters vs. games played throughout today’s game. Over the course of three days:

Professional baseball – plays three games with 25 man rosters (and another 150 or so minor leaguers at their disposal if they need another arm or two to help with an overtaxed staff). Rosters can also grow to 26 when doubleheaders are scheduled.

College baseball – plays 3-4 games with 35 man rosters

Travel baseballplays anywhere from 3-8 games with 10-15 man rosters

We’re all ears on hearing why this makes any sense whatsoever!

We had this conversation with several college coaches this summer. We asked them point blank, “If you had to play 5 or 6 games in three days, what would this do to your pitching staff?”

Without hesitation their answers were consistent, “we wouldn’t have enough pitching” or “our staff would be depleted.” These coaches have 3-8 more pitchers than most travel teams have players on their roster.

In travel ball, the majority of kids on the team are 2-way players, and often times, the best pitchers are the best shortstop, catcher, right fielder, etc. Kids pitch and then go right back to play their position the rest of the tournament, or they catch the first 2-3 games, go pitch, and then go catch again to finish off the weekend.

Pitch Smart listed the major risk factors to arm injury, namely (among 12 total):

  • Pitching While Fatigued
  • Throwing Too Many Pitches and Not Getting Enough Rest
  • Pitching on Consecutive Days
  • Excessive Throwing when Not Pitching

“Watch for signs of fatigue during a game, during a season, and over the whole year. The American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) found that adolescent pitchers who undergo elbow or shoulder surgery are 36 times more likely to have routinely pitched with arm fatigue.”

“A pitcher should not also be a catcher for his team as it is the next most throwing-intensive position and results in far more throws than players at other positions. ASMI found that amateurs who played catcher while not pitching were 2.7 times more likely to suffer a major arm injury.”

“Daily, weekly and annual overuse is the greatest risk to a youth pitcher’s health. Numerous studies have shown that pitchers who throw more pitches per game and those who do not adequately rest between appearances are at an elevated risk of injury.”

And yet, an entire decade of travel baseball kids have grown up on teams of 11, playing shortstop right after pitching, being brought back on short rest, and dealing with arm fatigue on a regular basis.

Small roster sizes make it hard for coaches to execute common baseball sense when it comes to what is best for the kid who just pitched yesterday’s game, or the first game of the double-header.  

A common solution: “Well, I’ll just put him at first base, or I’ll stick him in the outfield today since he won’t have to throw much out there.”

Sure. In theory, there aren’t many throws that have to be made from those positions over the course of the game, but what happens when a ball is hit to the gap and they are forced to make high intensity throws starting with their backs to the infield and their momentum going towards the outfield fence with teammates and fans screaming “four-four!”

So, we have identified some problems. Nearly everyone who has spent significant time around travel ball gripes about the same issues. Here is our approach to creating some solutions.

Arm Care: Not Optional

When it comes to arm care, we make sure it gets done. Warmup and recovery work happens on a daily basis whether it is our first game of the week, or game 5 on day three of the tournament. Our coaches are all given a team set of the necessary equipment for our players to execute the Driveline protocols.

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Our players know that whether we won or lost, their day is not done when the game is finished. And our coaches reinforce that.

This summer, all pitchers on our 17u roster had a daily arm care plan to execute. Early in the summer, I had to hunt guys down to give them their plan or remind our guys to get their work done before leaving the field; however, as the summer progressed, our team culture transitioned from me telling players what to do, to players knowing what to do, to players asking questions, making adjustments, and developing their routines.

During the last half of the summer, I knew the arm care work was going to get done on a daily basis because our guys had taken ownership of it and had the mindset that this is a part of what we do and who we are as an organization.

Roster Sizes: We Have Bigger Teams and Tell Everyone to Expect to Sit a Little

The main reason most travel teams don’t have big roster sizes is because parents and players don’t want them. Small rosters ensure lots of playing time for athletes and maximizes the number of innings per dollar spent for parents.

We make it clear upfront at our tryouts that our roster sizes will be big. At least, they are big compared to the standard 11-12 man travel ball roster.

Our main reason for the bigger rosters is directly tied into arm care and player development.

Every year there comes a week (often multiple times throughout the season) where a player gets injured and misses significant time, maybe is even out for the rest of the summer. Another player has a 7 on 7 football tournament with his Varsity team, and another has a 10-day mission trip, and another a family vacation that has been on the calendar for months.

Next thing you know, a 12-man roster is struggling to put a team on the field. Even a 14-man roster is now down to 10 players.

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Take that situation into games 3 and 4 of the weekend and it becomes next to impossible for the coach to act rationally and in the players’ best interests when it comes to arm care and development.

With all of our teams, we shoot to have 15-16 players. At the high school level, some of our rosters may have 16-18 guys on it, including some pitcher only kids. This is not the case every year with all of our teams, but it is our goal.

In our opinion the only way to make sure our coaches can make decisions that have the best interest of the players in mind, is by having more bodies.

Lineups: Work Backwards from the Pitching Staff

Even with the bigger rosters, it is important our lineups are planned out well in advance. The pitching rotation is the first piece of the puzzle.

In our organization, if a pitcher throws more than 50-60 pitches, he is not eligible to play defensively the next day or in the second game of a double-header. He may be the designated or extra hitter, but he will not play the field even if he is our best player at another position. If at all possible, we try to have our position players pitch later in the weekend to avoid pitching, resting the day after, and then having to go back and play the field for the last 1-3 games of the weekend with a sore or fatigued arm.

Every Monday, our coaches are expected to give us detailed reports that include the lineups from the past weekend and pitch counts for every game. This is something that we started a few years ago, and it has been helpful for us to make sure each team’s lineups reflect our arm care protocols.

The next piece of the puzzle is to fill out the lineups for the first 3-5 games of the tournament. This doesn’t mean it has to be followed perfectly. We all know lineups are fluent day to day based on several factors; however, what this allows our coaches to do is to make sure all players are getting adequate playing time opportunities while maintaining arm care at the forefront.

We do not believe in equal playing time or “pay to play”. In fact, we think the lack of competition for playing time and lack of a competitive mindset are the second and third worst byproducts of small roster sizes and travel baseball!

With that said, no one develops and gets better by sitting on the bench all summer long. In our organization it is common for the majority of our players to sit the bench 1-2 games per weekend, and we think there is tremendous value in having to do so.

Sitting the bench gives players the opportunity to see the game from a different perspective. It gives them a chance to actually listen to what their coach has to say and learn as the game is happening in real time. This is hard to do if you play every game and the coach is always in the 3rd base box when you are in the dugout, and the coach is in the dugout when you are in the field! Sitting the bench presents our players with the opportunity to work on being a great teammate and staying engaged in the game when they could easily checkout.

We aren’t looking for players who enjoy sitting on the bench, but we want guys who understand they are to view it as a learning opportunity to make them better.

Bottom line, we want to prepare our players for college baseball. When they walk into their college programs, and they have to compete for playing time against 19-23 year old men, we want them to know how to handle and desire competition.  

At our tryouts, we take time before any kid steps on the field to discuss this with them and their parents how our organization handles arm care, roster sizes, and lineups. We are looking for parents and players that are not only willing to put up with our philosophy but also buy into it being an upper-level approach. Ultimately, we feel this helps people understand what they are saying “yes” or “no” to if they get an invite from our organization.

Schedule: Design for Development

Travel baseball and tournaments go hand in hand. In this part of the country, youth travel teams typically play anywhere from 10-14 straight weekends of tournament baseball in April-July. At the high school level, most teams play 8-9 straight weeks of tournaments in June-July. Somewhere along the way, we have lost sight of the fact that the number of games played does not directly correlate to player development.

Let’s say your team has a solid weekend, advances deep in bracket play, and plays 7 games over the course of 4 days. And, let’s say you played defensively in 6 of those 7 games. How many chances did you get at shortstop? How many balls were hit to you in the outfield? If you are busy, maybe 4-5 per game? Over the course of those four days, there were 24-30 opportunities to work on and improve your game. Not the recommended amount of reps if you want to become an above average to elite defender and have that part of your game stand out to college coaches or professional scouts!

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Our teams certainly play in their fair share of tournaments, but we are making a conscious effort to move towards more scheduled games against quality opponents.

We are proud to be one of the organizations that was in on the ground floor of the Midwest Invite League (MIL) a couple of years ago. This league was created by some other like-minded organizations (Summit City Sluggers & Dayton Classics) who feel like we do, that tournament baseball is not necessarily helping prepare players for success in college baseball. Here’s a snapshot of what our invite league events look like:

  • Each team plays 4 games – all games played on a college diamond
  • Games are played on Friday-Sunday
  • On-field batting practice each day along with a pre-game infield/outfield
  • 3-game series vs. the same team – Friday & Saturday
  • Series winners play each other & series losers play each other on Sunday

Friday – Single 9-inning game

Saturday – Double-header (two, 7-inning games)

Sunday – Single 9-inning game

While this looks good on paper, the first question brought up by most people is, “Okay, that’s great but will college coaches be there?” The answer is simple. If you have quality teams with good players, college coaches will be there!

The first 17u MIL event two summers ago had 16 schools in attendance over the course of the weekend, with all levels of college baseball represented. This past summer, we hosted an MIL event on the last weekend of July, and there were 4-5 schools there each day.

Smaller roster sizes has created an influx of teams on the travel ball circuit leaving the talent level watered down.

College coaches and scouts do not want to evaluate players competing vs. inferior talent. We have played in several tournaments over the past few years where there have been games with no scouts in attendance and even some entire weekends where we have seen fewer coaches than we do at these MIL events.

The feedback we have received from college coaches who have attended our MIL events has been positive, and they like this format. It’s a great way for them to really hone in on certain guys and see all that they need to see when evaluating a player in one day.

Additional benefits to an invite league format:

  • All game times are scheduled. No waiting around to find out when bracket play begins.
  • No early morning games – baseball wasn’t meant to be played at 8 am!
  • No required hotel stays – anyone else sick of these yet?
  • Fri-Sun. schedule means less time off of work for parents, less nights in a hotel, and less expenses for families
  • Gives players a really good feel for what a college baseball weekend actually looks like. Getting to the ballpark, taking BP, infield/outfield, then playing a DH can turn a typical day into a 6-7 hour experience on the diamond. Doing this three days in a row turns this format into an experience high school players rarely get, yet college players are expected to handle well.
  • Players learn to make adjustments throughout the weekend, or suffer the consequences. If you can’t handle a breaking pitch in game one, guess what you will see the next 12 at bats for the weekend! The tournament format doesn’t typically offer this developmental advantage to players as you rarely face the same team all summer, let alone the same weekend.
  • Better control of the talent level of teams participating. When a scout comes to a game, he can hopefully be confident that the talent level of all teams will be better than the talent pool he might see at any given tournament. Not all teams will play great every day or be super talented at these events, but it is certainly our goal in order to better develop our players and to make it worth the time for a college coach to come recruit.
  • Players get practice time & reps during on-field BP & infield/outfield!
  • Coaches know how many games and innings will be played going into the weekend and can plan accordingly. This makes it easy to follow arm care protocols when lineup decisions are not based on trying to advance in bracket play to get to the next game.

Play Less, Practice and Train More

One of the negatives about travel baseball is the lack of practice/training. Most travel baseball teams do not practice much, if at all, during the summer. Admittedly, once our seasons get rolling, we fall into this category, too.

Let us ask you the following question, “We are in a tournament this week Thursday-Sunday, and next week’s tournament begins on Wednesday, when do you suggest we hold a practice?” Any team is physically and mentally taxed after the Thursday-Sunday tournament. Monday needs to be an off-day for the arms which leaves Tuesday. How much are we really going to get accomplished by holding a Tuesday practice knowing that we are going to be playing Wednesday-Saturday or Sunday? Not to mention we need to travel to get to Wednesday’s game as well.

A couple of years ago, we implemented “development weekends”. What these development weekends are all about is practice! These are built-in off weeks from tournament play. Instead of traveling and playing more games, we will have 1-2 practices with our younger teams and 2-3 practices/training sessions with our high school teams.

 

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Each of our teams had at least one development weekend this past year, but this is something we are going to be more intentional about with all of our teams this upcoming spring and summer. Likely, we will have 2-3 of these development weekends built into all of our team’s schedules. At the high school level, the combination of development weekends, and playing in 2-3 MIL events which allow for us to practice or train on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, will allow us more opportunities for player development to happen throughout the summer and not just during the winter months.

At the end of the day, we believe that travel baseball and player development do not have to be independent of each other. We believe winning, and teaching our players to be winners, is important and is a big part of development; however, for us, winning does not come at the expense of jeopardizing a player’s development or career. If we can keep the focus on long-term athletic development and work at getting better every day, winning will take care of itself.

In no way do we have travel baseball figured out, but, by addressing some of the current issues we see in the travel baseball culture and how we deliberately reorganized our organization’s approach to solve for them, our hope is to create some thoughtful discussion within the baseball community at all levels of the game.

We feel this will require a different approach regarding how travel baseball might look and be more beneficial for all concerned. Even if people disagree, listening and discussing other points of view is the only way we see travel baseball improving as a whole over time for the benefit of the players.

For more information on the Indiana Chargers, visit their website indianachargers.com, or follow them on Twitter @IN_Chargers. You can also contact the Chargers staff at inchargers@gmail.com.

Comment
3
John Haefele

I really enjoyed your article and agree with you on nearly all of your points. With respect to roster sizes, my only comment would be that comparing MLB and College roster sizes to those in travel ball, one must take into account that in the younger age groups (14u and under) games are only scheduled for 6 or 7 innings. Rarely do they even last that long when run rules or time limits are taken into effect. I really like the idea of your weekend invites. Sounds like a great format. One of the biggest obstacles to development is feeling the pressure to win. However, for me personally, winning is not about the plastic trophy as much as it is getting more “games for the buck”. I really like the idea of your set weekend schedule.

Ryan

Best article I have read to date in all my years of coaching club baseball. I have felt the pain of these same issues more so over the past 3-4 seasons. Travel baseball tournaments are starting weekend tournaments on Wednesday or Thursday now and have really hampered the development of programs like Pitch Smart. I like the approach of set games with quality opponents, a development weekend and then playing X number of quality tournaments that aren’t every single weekend. If coaches truly followed the guidelines about pitch counts, rest, arm care, etc, I believe more depth of “quality” pitchers would begin to happen. Let’s face it, as this article states, tournament play may get a starting player (like a SS) 20-30 reps in competition play. Practice, even one more per week than they’ve been getting, provides more opportunities to improve their game. The key is making practice time competitive and game like. Because we all know that players talk and become envious of the player playing the weekend tournament where they took home a championship over attending 2 or 3 practices. It’s really the culture and mindset of today’s travel baseball landscape. We’ve gotten away from player development and the focus has gone to hosting tons of money making tournaments with increasing fees, gate fees, mandatory hotel stays, etc. It’s big business. Unfortunately it’s hurting the game. Utilizing the tools of this article could go a long way in improving the quality of players/games.

Matthew

Article is very enlightening; however, I wonder how the findings can be applied to travel teams at the 9U/10U levels where continuous lineups are the norm. Do we have to “buck the trend” of continuous lineups and get parents/players used to this new way of thinking? I’m not sure this is a smart route though because filling teams at this level can be tough, even with the guarantee to hit every game.

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