Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Little League Draft... There must be a better way.

If you've ever played fantasy football, you can relate to the Little League Draft. With fantasy football, the most fanatical "general managers" spend hours upon hours digging through stats, projections and depth charts. The draft begins, and they prepare to dominate. Then, somewhere around the third round, they realize that the plan has gone horribly awry, and all that research goes out the window.

Of course with the Little League draft, you're not choosing amongst the world's most talented players. It's the little, blond-headed kid down the street that gives you a wave while you're mowing the lawn vs. the kid who's started shaving but has a crazy dad. Adrian Peterson will be drafted who knows how many thousands of times every season by anonymous fans. The neighborhood kid gets drafted once, and waits by the phone for your call. The only similarity is the plan going out the window in the third round.

Little League league limits the options local leagues can use for player selectoin. If you play fantasy football, you are familiar with the yearly draft and the "keeper" leagues. It's similar for the Majors Division of Little League. Here are the three methods in a nutshell:
  1. Keeper draft (Plan A in LL Operating Manual): In this format, once chosen by a Majors team, a player stays on that team until after his or her 12-year old season. Kind of similar to the "keeper" league in fantasy football. 
  2. Annual re-draft (Plan B): Every season, all players go back in to the draft. 
  3. Surprise! (Plan C): Players are drawn out of a hat, and let them fall where they may. 
If you take away those "gentlemen's agreements" where these rules are altered while the league president pretends to have no idea, here is what those options look like. 

Pros: The biggest selling point of this option is the camraderie aspect -- especially for the players who are drafted when they are 10 or 11. You may have a core group of players and coaches that stay together for 2-3 seasons. The players and parents often develop a connection that lasts for many years to come. And, for parents, they appreciate being able to re-use the same sweatshirts, jackets and other gear that often must change when the new team is a different color.

Cons: The two biggest issues with Plan A are the potential for competitive imbalance and attempts to "stack" teams. A residual effect is often that 11s stay in Minors while a 10 who is less ready may come up, because "I'll have that kid for 3 years." While there are plenty of coaches out there with their hearts in the right places, this can be difficult to avoid. When a team has a bad season, it could be 2-3 years before it digs its way out of the cellar. Here's why:
  • Stacking: Researching the league my children participate in, it was clear that there is a trend toward managers drafting players the same league-age as their own child. This can be for a variety of reasons. For example, if you are a Majors manager and your child is 10, it only makes sense to draft some 10s. You have that group for three years. You might take your lumps that first year, but it's difficult to not see it as a three-year plan. Next year, you look for more 10s and 11s. So, the third year, the team is strong. The manager may only need to draft 3-4 players that year. 
  • The draft: So what happens when that 3-year manager leaves? This often means 8 open slots. And, what if a player or two decide not to come back? If you have to draft 9-10 players, you're pretty much dead. This means you're competing against the next guy in the final phase of a 3-year plan. He drafts in the first three rounds, and he watches while the rest of the managers keep drafting. You do get your bonus pick after the third round, but by then the most talented players have been selected. When round 8-9 come along, you might be the only one drafting. This could be the kids who -- bless their hearts -- couldn't catch or make contact with a ball in tryouts. Or, it could be the kid with the psycho parent. Those last couple of rounds tend to be 12-year-olds who are new to Majors. (Little League requires all 12s to play in Majors.) So, your team ends up with 8 players age 12 (the maximum you can have is 8), which means the most you'll have coming back next year is four. If any of them quit, you're Bill Murray and Groundhog's Day. Cue up Sonny and Cher. 
Pros: The talent is re-balanced each season. While there is some potential for imbalance based on the draft order, all the teams are drafting the same number of players in the same number of rounds. 11s who are equal to 10s in talent are more likely to be drafted since there's no need to think ahead to year 3. Kids benefit from the diverse expertise of multiple coaches. And, your top players are facing each other, which makes them better.

Cons: As I mentioned earlier, there's going to be blowback from parents. "I just bought two pairs grey pants with blue piping and three "Royals" sweatshirts! Now I have to buy stuff with pin stripes??" And, those players who are in Majors for 2-3 years don't develop that team identity when they might play for a different team each year. Fewer 10s drafted could mean your 9/10 All-Star team isn't ready to face good pitching.

According to the Op Manual, all the names are to be placed in a "non-transparent container" and drawn. First the 12s, then the 11s. 10s if there is room. I'm sure somewhere there's a league that does this. It's difficult to imagine why this is a good idea, other than it removes any need for player evaluation or hard feelings over who's drafted by whom. The parents of that little, blonde-headed kid down the street won't give you the stink-eye when he ends up on another team.

Final Hacks
Our local league is transitioning to a full re-draft. I was very much against it initially. But, I've gone to "the dark side" and believe it's a good idea. Much of this comes from contacting leagues who use this process. Most LLWS teams re-draft, and cite that balance competition as part of their success.

When my son was 10, he was the only 10 drafted by a manager whose son was an 11. And, this poor guy had to draft 10 players. I was an assistant coach on the team, and I loved those kids. But, boy did we ever struggle. We went 4-24 and many of those losses ended because of the 10-run rule. While there's more to it than winning, you can only build so much character from repeated, lopsided losses. The next year, a manager with and 11 took over and we drafted a lot of 11s. That team went 6-15, but was in just about every game. When my son was 12, two teams that had struggled two years earlier went 1-2 in the league. We looked forward to playing each other because the competition was great. The Majors All-Star team was loaded with players from those two teams. But, the All-Star team struggled -- in part, I believe -- because our batters did not face good pitching every game during the regular season. The top two teams had most of the good pitching. The other five -- not so much.

So, while I favor a re-draft, my son and I feel that being on that team for three years was a great experience. We feel a real connection to the team. Fortunately, we got to experience winning in the final year. (Unfortunately, the 8 kids age 12 during my son's first season did not.)

If someone ever made me Lord of Little League, I would modify Plan A (keeper system):
  • Once in Majors, the player stays with that team. 
  • Each team gets a first-round pick. 
  • Then, the draft flips starting in the second round. So, that team that has to draft 9 players might be the only one picking in the second round. In the third round, the teams that need 8 join.  And, so on...
  • This continues on until you have all of the teams drafting in the last few rounds.
I expect this to happen about the time the National League starts using the DH. :) While the Op Manual states that leagues can submit an alternative method, the folks in Williamsport aren't always the most flexible or pragmatic crew. One indication that they might not be rubber-stamping another method is the phrase that the LL methods "have proved to be outstandingly successful."

If this changes by the time my grandchildren are playing ball, I will be stunned. Until then, pick your poison and coach 'em up!

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