N.A. Holmes II October 24, 2020
I want to share a personal story of a current MLB pitcher named Max Fried. If you are watching the 2020 MLB playoffs, you know who I am writing about. If you are uninterested in this current COVID-impacted season or boycotting the atrocities of the current MLB landscape, I understand and bear no grievance.
Before I get into the story of Max, I have a question:
What is the obsession with prematurely promoting kids through levels of progression in baseball?
I realize it isn’t just baseball; this happens throughout all sports. It also occurs in school; for example, kids are pushed into advanced grades before they are ready. Baseball is my domain; therefore, I will illustrate my perspective in this field.
To begin with, what is wrong with simply letting young athletes excel in their birth-date-ascribed age bracket? Why do coaches believe that accelerated advancement is “challenging” younger athletes more than if they stayed put? I am confident that people are chewing on this perspective and consequently spitting out exemplar players who they know, probably including themselves, that were moved up and excelled.
I recognize that by surrounding yourself with people better than you, this environment can propel you to more significant achievement. However, this doesn’t always yield the same effects. To emphasize, I believe this can, in fact, often have an inverse effect especially in the younger ages of development. Most critically, it can be detrimental to the natural evolution of both players and people overall.
Meet Max Fried, a 26-year-old, 6’4″, 190-pound left-handed pitcher in the Atlanta Braves’ starting rotation. He worked his way through a 5-year progression: beginning with being a 2012 First Round (7th overall pick) out of Harvard-Westlake High School in Sherman Oaks, CA, developing through the minor league system to ultimately earn the prized opportunity to start in the Big Leagues on August 8th of 2017.
That is who Max is today; but,
let’s flashback to 2009 and understand who Max was then.
In 2009, Max was a young, incoming 10th grader in high school. He was five-foot nuthin’ and a hundred and nuthin.’ His physique was typical to most of his 15-year old peers. He tried out for the Oakland A’s Scout Team; however, he was physically underdeveloped like many kids his age. He simply could not compete with the bigger and stronger 11th and 12th-grade athletes. His velocity was barely 70mph, but he did have some “flashes of feel” to spin a curveball that we have been watching dominate MLB hitters these past three seasons. This story’s exposition ends with Max being cut along with forty other players that were also entirely unready in the moment and that was and is OK.
I was one of five scouts on the field that day, and not one of us thought twice about keeping Max or any of the other players that were not ready. It happens. You are ready when you are ready. Looking back through history, many of the “great ones” started as the average or mediocre ones. These mediocre players being lower draft picks or free agents, non-scholarship athletes, or walk-ons in college. These mediocre players achieved success on the field through a long journey steeped in a strong work ethic, tireless perseverance, opportunity and perfect timing.
Simultaneously, another large number of early-identified “phenoms” end up fizzling out before their signing bonus even earns any interest. No records are broken. No historical postseasons or Hall of Fame inductees evolve. They bust. Why? What causes this? I don’t think it is any one thing but a combination of many things that happen along the journey for both.
Now, let’s fast forward to the next two short years of young Max’s high-school career. He hit his growth spurt, topping out at 6’4”, packed on some muscle weight, and honed his craft to eventually become that first-rounder with a 91-93mph fastball and that plus curveball. Another note worth mentioning here is the fact that he was very fortunate to be in the situation of playing alongside two other incredibly gifted and hard-working pitchers, Jack Flaherty (St. Louis Cardinals) and Lucas Giolito (Chicago White Sox) – both MLB Aces drafted in the first round. As a witness to this surrounding situation, I am certain his proximity to these talented players contributed immensely to his overall development and competitive edge. How is it possible to not improve and skyrocket to your potential when you’re surrounded and pushed in an environment such as this? Imagine facing this rotation in HIGH SCHOOL!
I recognize and acknowledge that a great deal of advancing young players early stems from the parents. Parents are often the ones who put pressure on coaches. Parents forget that most coaches are equally looking out for their kids’ best interests and want their athletes to perform well. Of course, parents want what is best for their kid; however, the big-picture vision gets a little cloudy, influenced by a haze of delusional hope or a parent’s desire to vicariously live their second chance of an athletic pursuit of excellence through their kids.
Even good coaches who know that it is in the kid’s best interest to stay where he belongs must deal with parents who will pull their kid out and move on to the next coach that will do as they wish. This is the sad reality in numerous situations, and coaches can only do so much in these circumstances.
I must also recognize that I have seen coaches make this decision on their own in hopes of winning another $10 ring in a club tourney. Coaches have tried to talk their athletes out of playing for their high school team because they (the coach) are the saving grace and the only one-way ticket to a scholarship or the draft. This is complete lunacy. If a coach ever says to you or your kid that he can get them a scholarship or drafted, run for hills. That decision is not in their hands and is far from their doing. This is the part that makes me sad. The ego is the enemy.
You don’t see much “fast-tracking” at the college level or the professional ranks. Players move up when they are ready to move up. Occasionally, there is a roster situation that calls for someone to fill. A coach is forced to move a player up into a role they may not be ready for at that moment. That coach will naturally fill it with the best option available, and sometimes that guy isn’t prepared physically, but he can handle it mentally or vice versa. However, we must remember that we are talking about 20-30-year yr-old men by this point.
Have there been guys that moved up or even skipped levels in this game and went on to greatness? Of course. I think of Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, off the top of my head. Another former Atlanta Brave, Bob Horner, debuted in the Big Leagues just days after being drafted number one overall out of Arizona State in 1978. He never logged a minor-league game. Let that sink in. I seriously doubt, that will ever happen again. I understand there are exceptions to every rule. I get it 100%. These players mentioned are once-in-a-generation freak athletes who were able to play with the big boys from the time they were born—they’re the 1% of the best. The true elite.
By the way, can we agree to please stop using that word for youth players? They are not elite.
Now, I imagine a few head shakers are reading this and saying, “But my kid or this kid I coach is ‘that player.” He is too good for his 8U, 12U, or 14U team. He needs to move up and be challenged. Does he, though? I recommend that you cautiously rethink this and check a few boxes before making such an impactful and monumental decision that will drastically sabotage his growth forever.
My feeling is this, and it is just my feeling if one of my players ever comes to me and says they are not being challenged, that condition is on me first as his coach. You can bet I will be adjusting his development plan that night. Next, I will hold him accountable to take ownership of his own development and, in turn, master what I put in front of him. I must not let him get away with this type of mindset, and I cannot listen to his parents tell me otherwise. As his coach, I need to challenge him. Allow me to outline the boxes that must be checked, in my opinion. First, is he hitting 1.000 and striking out every single hitter while never making an error? Second, is he physically a threat to the safety of the other players? Ok, with these boxes checked, then he should probably move up. If these are unchecked, then, sorry, Bucky, get back to work and prove your dominance where you are right now.
I have spoken to several former players who were rushed through the ranks too early and lived to regret it later. For a few, it worked out OK. However, for the majority, not so much. They confided that it robbed them of their FUN. They shared how they experienced unnecessary stress and pressure in what was supposed to be a kid’s game during the kid phase of life. It took away precious hours of learning and developing at an average pace, which is essential for adapting and excelling at each level. I firmly believe that you cannot jump from A to D without hitting B and C. Think about it. One minute you are hanging out and having a blast playing ball with your buddies. Then, the next minute you are sitting in a dugout with strangers 2-3 years older than you, and you are listening to conversations about topics that you cannot relate to and probably should not even be involved with yet.
Ask yourself this hypothetical question if you are a parent: would you want your child to be rushed through life? For example- regardless of the law, would you let your kid get his driver’s license before he can see over the dash or reach the pedals? Would you encourage him to move out of the house and start a family before he had graduated high school or landed his first job?
Please ask yourself: Do you want your 11-yr-old sitting in the dugout or on the bus listening to 13-14-yr-old conversations and mingling with kids that have already hit puberty? Maybe you do. But, I don’t see any valid or justifiable reason to rush our kids to grow up. Life is short enough as it is. In the end, what is the reward versus the risk? If he is good enough to earn that scholarship or get his name called on draft day, then it will happen. However, forcing or rushing the process is not going to guarantee it.
I think it is in his best interest to dominate and play with his buddies; he will be challenged soon enough. I promise you that. He will catch up to the talent or the skill level around him will eventually catch up to him. The playing field eventually evens out, and then you will get to see the real player emerge. It is here that the real challenges will be faced. Let’s not lose sight of what we are talking about here.
It is a massive part of my life, and I owe a lot of the joy I have experienced to this great game. But it is just a game and nothing more. It isn’t that important in the end. We aren’t curing cancer or saving the world.
So, what’s the rush?
Let them marinate.
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