It’s often said that baseball is a kids’ game played by grown men. There’s plenty of truth to that. The cool thing about this great sport is that very little about the game itself changes from the youth level to the pro ranks – aside from size of the field…and the players.
The Milwaukee Brewers are taking this concept to a whole new level. Their strategies and philosophy with personnel mirror that of youth baseball more than traditional professional ideas.
It’s actually quite fascinating and endearing to think an MLB team runs things so similarly to what you’ll find with 9 and 10 year olds. And when you watch the players have so much fun in the dugout, the comparisons continue.
I’ve had the fortune of coaching every level of baseball the past 15 years, with the exception of the pro ranks (my resume is in the mail, Mr. David Stearns). This winter, when prepping for my son’s U9 Greenfield Hawks’ season (shout out!), it dawned on me that Craig Counsell has recently employed many of the same tactics that we utilize with the youngsters.
**Author’s note: Any time I can compare myself to an MLB manager, I am required to do so**
You’re probably thinking it’s a stretch, but bear with me; there really are some interesting parallels. Let’s start with the pitching, since that is where the Brewers REALLY seem to ruffle traditionalists’ feathers.
Milwaukee has their group of typical starters – er, initial out-getters. They will get the majority of starting assignments, generally toss the most innings, and often have some sort of schedule they’re on. The same goes for our select baseball squad, though we’re a bit limited on numbers.
We carry 11 players (and no farm system for call-ups), so the “starters” are mostly the 3 or 4 pitchers you trust the most over the course of multiple innings. They’ll get the highest percentage of action, though everyone on the roster will enjoy some time on the hill. Hey, not unlike the Brewers throwing Hernan Perez and Erik Kratz out there a few times each.
The Brewers generally don’t like their starters to face the lineup more than a couple times, hence you rarely see them pitching deep into games. Same thing with our kids. Young kids’ arms and legs don’t usually hold out too well past a few innings, so we toss out a fresh arm and a new look for the top of the lineup. Sound familiar, Brewers’ fans?
There are more tactical similarities when it comes to relief pitching, too. For the most part, Counsell is analyzing when the best time is to use his top bullpen arms. While having a lockdown closer is comforting, we all know that the most important pitches don’t always come in the last inning with a close lead.
Top the order in the 7th frame in a one-run game? Now might be the best time for the most reliable pitcher you have available. In comes Josh Hader for an inning or two. If you need an important strikeout in a tight spot, you go to a big “K” guy for a short stint. Everyone in the pen should be ready to contribute at any time.
It’s 100% the same way when working with the youngsters a few levels down the baseball ladder. The difference between the top 4-5 hitters in a youth lineup and the bottom few kids can often be enormous – a far greater gap than what you see in the Major Leagues.
So our best relief arm that day is tagged for the opponent’s best hitters or in a high-leverage spot. Why save him for the last inning when the game might be a blowout or the bottom of the lineup is due up?
If he throws a quick first frame, he’ll stay on for a second. That’s becoming more common now in the big leagues where they’re finally catching up to the kids. Might as well get greater value out of him today and win the game in front of you rather than worrying about tomorrow.
On the other hand, there are games we start a player on the mound who would normally pitch in relief, and we have him only pitch the first inning. Remind you of the “opener” strategy at all?
We haven’t employed the Wade Miley/Dan Jennings one-batter start yet, but it could be coming. I’ve even seen some Brewers’ Twitter talk about giving Corey Knebel consistent starts as a one-inning opener to shut down the top of the lineup to improve the chances of posting a zero to start the game.
We’ve also used our best “starters” for a batter or an inning late in games just a couple of days after making a start. Now, that’s often more for playoff baseball in MLB, but still another worthy comparison. It’s all about putting players in the best position to succeed and benefit the team.
Finally, there is the question of usage. Of course, Counsell was questioned 1,587 times about why Hader didn’t pitch in a game. Other guys also fall into that category at times. In a long season, it is important to properly manage pitchers’ arms. Sometimes that means going into a game saying, “We’ll do everything to win this game – just without using x, y or z to pitch.”
Our season isn’t nearly as long (about 40 games with tournaments), but we are dealing with young kids, and about seven of them will throw significant innings. While there are rules for pitcher usage in league play, tournaments don’t factor that in. So in trying to keep kids healthy and effective over the whole summer, we will also shut kids down if need be. It just makes sense based on what you see from them, more so than arbitrary innings or pitch limits.
Keep in mind, a lot of Stearns’ and Counsell’s general philosophy and detailed tactics are relatively new to Major League Baseball. Hmmm…maybe that means they actually learned from our team. Sweet! I mean, Jeremy Jeffress did attend one of our games, after all.
As for position players, the Milwaukee Brewers definitely value versatility, as evidenced by the multiple positions played by Travis Shaw, Mike Moustakas, Hernan Perez – even Ryan Braun (OF/1B) and Jesus Aguilar (1B/3B). It allows them to keep everyone fresh, create ideal matchups, and even adjust defensive alignments based on which Brewer on the hill that day.
At the same time, Milwaukee doesn’t go completely crazy. Aguilar isn’t getting regular reps at shortstop and Lorenzo Cain isn’t manning first base. However, certain players have their regular spots while others help the team through their ability to handle different spots.
You should know that in youth baseball – with only 11 players on the roster – that most kids are going to play a handful of positions. Part of our reasoning is development and learning, as young players need to find out what positions they can play effectively. That isn’t in stone at 10 years old. Some move all around the field, while others have only one or two roles that suit them best.
The starting pitcher – and really any pitcher that is in the game – also plays a factor, similar to how the Brewers view it. If our regular shortstop is on the mound, the infielders we play will be altered. It may even change who our catcher is that day for a number of reasons. Making adjustments and understanding how your personnel works together is vital. Counsell has done this extremely well.
If we have a hard-thrower on the mound against a team with mostly right-handed hitters, we’ll play one of our best outfielders in right field, while also strengthening the right side of the infield. Many of those batters will make late contact and hit a majority of the balls that way – so let’s be strong on the right side. It’s sort of like our way of shifting, too.
We saw this last season with the Brewers when Counsell chose to play certain guys at shortstop, second base, or the outfield. Does the pitcher have more of a ground ball tendency or fly ball tendency? Do you need max range in the outfield? And we all know shifting is a constant for the Brewers; again, a way of enhancing the team on a deeper level.
All of this is just another reason to love what the Milwaukee Brewers and Craig Counsell are doing – especially because, thus far, it appears to be working. The majority of people who enjoy baseball want the players to be grown-up kids out there, having fun and doing whatever helps the team.
Hats off to the Brewers’ staff and players for winning at the adult version of the sport by treating baseball like the kids’ game it truly is, down to the way players are used.