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It’s common for just about every parent who first sees their child do well early in youth baseball. A question inevitably pops into the mind: Is it possible that my kid is somehow magically, genetically, built just for baseball?!
To tell if your child is athletically gifted for baseball, there is no checklist, or genetic background check, “symptom,” or other type of a sign. No medical professional will tell you so. However, there is quite the list of particular athletic skills needed to excel in the game, and baseball-worthy intangibles that make some players rise above the rest on the diamond.
It’s probably a lot easier to tell if a child is not naturally gifted to play baseball. Things like a weak or inaccurate throwing arm, or simply the inability to hit a moving round ball with a round bat, should hint to parents that perhaps a different sport would be better for Junior.
If your kid is past automatic disqualifiers like those, following are things to inspect with your little ballplayer, details that might give hints that he or she just might be a genetic freak built by nature to dominate in baseball.
1. Hand-Eye Coordination
This has to be the very first thing to check with your little ballplayer. Catching a hard ball moving through the air with your hands is not easy. The guys on TV make it look so, but not everyone is blessed with that kind of vision, and brain-to-hands communication.
It’s weird, but not every human being has “soft hands” ~ the term baseball insiders apply to the ability to softly receive and hold a thrown or struck ball. “Stone hands” implies that the ball seems to bounce right off the player’s glove, as if the hand was made of …
Not every kid learns to catch a ball in tee ball. However, by the next level, say for ages 7 and 8, he or she should be able to catch the ball pretty regularly, without muffs or missing the ball. Basically by the 2nd or 3rd season of youth baseball, if a player still struggles with catching the ball, they are not gifted for baseball.
How to Test: Play catch with your child often and early. If catching a ball does not seem to come naturally, and relatively quickly, there’s no special natural physical ability. This child may play baseball well ~ but after a lot of practice and repetitions.
If a kid seems to fall down often, or seem wobbly when running fast, baseball might not be his or her game. Many facets of playing baseball command serious good balance, especially to hit, pitch well, and perform some difficult tasks in the infield.
This is a game where the body gets shifted fast and, quite often, furiously. Forceful-torque twists of the torso, or spins on a heel to pivot the feet, are common. Hitting involves shifting weight from back-forward. In pitching, the stride and landing after the toss are crucial.
They all demand above-average balance.
How to Test: Hopscotch is a simple game and test of balance. Baseball players do a lot of jumping in all 4 directions (actually more like 8, counting diagonally). That’s a lot of landing without falling. Watch your little one play hopscotch for a spell.
3. Solid Legs
Of course, there is a lot of running in baseball, as with the other major team sports. However, baseball players depend more on lateral movement, as well as twisting torque of the torso, than participants in other sports.
That’s 1 reason solid leg strength is a gift for them. Additionally, unbeknownst to most parents, the legs are what generate power. Look closely at the thighs and hips of any star hitter or pitcher. They have tree trunks for upper legs, and use all that muscle to power the baseball.
How to Test: It is very difficult to test in this area. However, very early on, gifted players show hints that they can hit a ball farther, or throw a ball faster, than their teammates. That alone will indicate the player may be gifted below the belt.
4. Strong and Consistent Arms
Arms for baseball players are a different matter. There is no doubt that the ability to throw the ball fast and on target is imperative for baseball players. Throwing the ball is involved in darn near every play. If a kid can’t seem to master throwing to a base, the gift is probably not there.
How to Test: See above, with legs. However, throwing skills are easier to improve than leg or torso strength, so players indeed can learn to throw better. But if they miss targets a lot at early ages, again, there is no gift.
There are certain attributes to a little human being, things that cannot be seen nor touched but definitely are evident, that help that person play baseball well. Here they are.
In the very first team meeting with all my new players, I would explain to them and their parents that they will learn not only baseball skills, but also life skills. Baseball demands a very important skill vital for success in living: to be patient.
Even Bryce Harper only got to hit 4 times a game through many years of playing baseball to reach the majors. Pitchers can’t throw too much at a time or they need days off. A minor nagging injury could open the door for a much-worse injury elsewhere in the body with baseball play. It’s weird that way.
There is much waiting around in baseball, and trying to artificially speed things up often does not work out well ~ if it’s allowed at all. Even the best major leaguers don’t get to skip levels of play. In general, it takes 4 years of Minor League Baseball play to get a player ready for MLB rosters.
Honestly, I can’t say enough about how important it is for a baseball player to be confident in his or her ability on the field. It is essential.
It is very hard to get very shy or introverted kids to become above-average baseball players. So if early on a child shows off a tremendous throwing arm, or the ability to hit a ball a country mile, but at other times they might pout at the first hint of failure, it will take some work to mold that person into a great player.
Baseball is a weird game in that a player has to be almost cocky to succeed. Overconfidence is never recommended for athletes; but in baseball it helps much to be sure of your skills compared with the level of play on the dirt and grass. Showing fear can and will be noticed by the opposition, to their advantage.
Another thing I always told my players was, they will fail. In what other sport can you fail 70% of the time and still be considered good? That’s what a .300 hitter means: to get 3 hits every 10 at bats. So that good hitter still gets out a lot more than he or she gets base hits.
Baseball might be the best sport to teach you how to deal with failure. And that could take some time. Sometimes certain skills, like throwing a breaking ball, takes a lot of repetitions ~ and therefore patience waiting for your body to build muscle memory to do the task when commanded.
A kid who’s quick to lose temper or throw tantrums might be better suited to games that use clocks. Tom Hanks yelled “There’s no crying in baseball!” for a reason. Those who quit easily will have a hard time remaining in the game.
4. Ability to Learn
Baseball can look easy to play. Throw the ball, hit the ball, run around the bases. How hard is that? It just so happens that the answer is, baseball is very, very hard to play.
Even if a person is born with God-given skills and physical strength that apply well to baseball play, the fact is it remains a game, and a game has rules, and nuances. People aren’t born with knowledge of how to hit a cutoff man, or why they should use 2 hands when catching the ball.
Those are just a couple of what probably is a million details in baseball that a player needs to learn. The ability to be a sponge for baseball details and information can indicate the kid might have a chance to play on. Pay attention to how well he or she adapts to changes, or in performing game actions in a totally different way.
5. Leadership Skills
Not every MLB player needs to be voted captain of their team. They’re not even expected to be the most vocal in a dugout or locker room.
However, young players need at least some skills in leadership, especially as it applies to people and groups of people.
In baseball, it is natural for players on a team to turn to the best player, or 2 or 3 top players, for tips on how to react to situations. A brand new player to the squad, for instance, might not know how that particular team responds when a batter of their team is hit by a pitch.
Some baseball teams as a whole mirror the demeanor or attitude of their star player. The San Diego Padres during Gwynn’s time with the team was known for their rather reserved, professional approach ~ like their Hall of Fame leader.
Other teams might be more boisterous or demonstrative, if that’s how their best player acts. Some very good players also are high on emotion during contests, like Willie Stargell was for the Pittsburgh Pirates, or Pete Rose was for the Big Red Machine of the 1970s.
It can only help a young ballplayer progress through all the levels if they have an inbred sense of what it takes to lead.
6. Thick Skin
Every baseball player gets yelled at. Babe Ruth got yelled at, Willie Mays got yelled at, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Aaron Judge, you name it, yes they all got yelled at. There’s a reason why Hanks’ coach character yelled about crying in baseball.
Baseball is a game of failure, namely dealing with failure. Players who do not correct minor flaws in their play, or thinking, and who repeat the same mistakes over and over, don’t last long in baseball. Teams, coaches, and fans just won’t have the time for it.
So coaches raise voices to ensure a message is heard; or even those in the stands might let players on the field have it verbally. The gifted somehow keep their cool and focus on the play happening before them.
Finally, remember everything stated above, in that it takes years for even the most gifted ballplayers to crack the major leagues. If a kid gives up easily on everything, perhaps look at other sports.
On that topic, let’s dig deeper.
Even if a player has all of the above, it doesn’t mean an easy ride to Major League Baseball. In fact, far from it.
A vast majority of MLB players must endure years of playing minor league baseball. The typical trajectory is a year at each level, meaning rookie ball at age 18, Class-A at 19, Double-A at 20 and Triple-A at 21. Many do more than that (although players drafted out of college might forego some of the time in the minors).
Why then, do players born athletically gifted for baseball play, have to play so many games outside of MLB stadiums?
Because there are older, more mature human beings who have played a lot more games already ~ and many of them came into the world athletically gifted, also.
It probably wasn’t planned this way, but early on, baseball coaches and insiders developed great respect for practice, especially repetitions.
To spotlight why this works, consider a chapter in the book “Outliers: The Story of Success,” by Malcolm Gladwell. An entry is on the rock music band the Beatles ~ a look at how and/or why they became the biggest rock act ever.
Probably the primary reason, the book asserts, is that the band was able to get in at least 10,000 performances very early on, due to long tenures playing multiple shows a night in Hamburg, Germany.
Sure, the Fab Four members had talent. But in the end it was the repetition of chords, songs, and performing as a unit that helped quickly propel the foursome into the big time.
The book sets 10,000 repetitions as the barometer for how much repetition is needed. Honestly, if you think of legendary hitters like Tony Gwynn or Rod Carew, they probably did take 10,000 swings at pitches before making the bigs. Perhaps many more.
This is not to say that your little player needs to take 10,000 cuts, or make 10,000 pitches. Never should such singular actions be forced just to meet a quota. And also, remember the adage: Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect. Doing a bad swing over and over will not deliver good results.
It’s just to temper the expectations of parents reading this article, whose child checks all the boxes we listed, who might dream about huge paychecks very soon.
There’s a considerable amount of competition to make major league rosters ~ and there always remains the potential for injury or tragedy before a player even makes it that far.