For the average baseball fan tuning into the Little League World Series for the first time to watch our Canyon Lake All-Star team compete, there may be some surprises about how the game is played — and officiated.
The rule book for Little League games may be thicker and meatier than one would expect, since it is a long-established game played by children, but a number of rules are different compared to Major League Baseball. Ultimately, the rules are in place to ensure that young players do not get hurt, and that they learn to play the game with a focus on sportsmanship.
Canyon Lake coach Rich Hegre said the rules are important, even if they are confusing for people watching the games live or on TV.
“They are truly looking out for longevity,” Hegre said of the rules. “I think that is where Little League does a nice job in that they really are concerned with the athlete and at a high level later on. I think that is important.”
For instance, a player can leave the game and come back in; a player has a limit on how many pitches he or she can throw; and everybody gets to play and take a turn in the batter's box. And even though it is only Little League, they have instant replay and coach’s challenges to make sure the right calls are made.
The three big rule differences include a restriction on how many pitches can be thrown by one player per game; courtesy pinch runners are allowed; and every player has to play a certain amount of the game.
Some rule differences can also change the game as far as the coaches are concerned, forcing more strategy from the coaching staff.
The safety issue is the main concern for the pitch count. It all goes back to the number of pitches a young arm can handle.
But it gets a bit confusing. Consider that a pitcher can pitch the next game after 20 or less pitches. He first has to rest one day after 21 pitches, two days after 36 pitches, three days after 51 pitches and four days after 66 pitches. There is a maximum 85-pitch count in one game, although the pitcher can go over 85 if he or she starts a batter under 85. If it sounds complicated, it is. But coaches and players adapt.
“It's there to save arms, and that is a good thing,” Hegre said.
Especially in a tournament, the pitch count changes how a manager can utilize a pitching staff. If a pitcher struggles, it can throw a wrench into the decision of who pitches the next game.
“If you get out there and throw strikes, you're minimizing the number of pitches you have thrown,” Hegre said. “That helps us as coaches.”
Recent studies have shown that arm injuries in that age group (9-13) have dropped almost 50 percent with the new rule change. At the same time, athletes who pitch year-around can put added stress on their arm.
“We have actually in the last couple of years seen more arm injuries because they are constantly throwing,” he said. “A lot of arm experts believe that if they just take some time off and have some down time, it would be better. There's always two sides to that story.”
A player gets a base hit and suddenly leaves the game. In some higher youth levels, catchers are allowed to be pinch-run for and can then return to the game. In Little League, any player can be pinch-run and re-enter, though with limitations.
The courtesy runner is allowed to run for a player only once per game and only once in an inning. One player can't pinch-run twice, and he or she has to not be in the game at the time.
That leads to the substitution rule, which means if you have a 12-man roster, every player has to have at least one at-bat and play six consecutive outs on defense. If you have 13 players or more, it just boils down to each player has to have at least one at-bat. That is another rule that challenges the manager.
“Do you want to have 13 (players) and have four kids sitting that you have to work in?” Hegre said. “We chose not to this year, we chose 12.We felt that the 12 kids that we have all had a good bat. It's just a matter of, if they are going to be on a team, they are going to get to play. I think Little League has stressed that throughout the years, but implementing that a few years back has made people do it, and I think it is good.”
For many of the coaches, subbing early is the way to go, especially if it is a close game late and you want your best players on the field during crunch time. For the most part, that is what the Canyon Lake coaches like to do.
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“We like to get our subs in and make a determination on how we want them to come out, or if we want them come out,” Hegre said. “Other managers don't. It's really a matter of how they feel their team matches up and what is going on out on the field.”
At the Little League World Series, tournament officials make sure the coaches haven't forgotten to substitute. Hegre said they “knock on the door and say, 'hey, you haven't had a player get in and get his six consecutive.'”
In normal league play, it is up the opposing manager to catch a possible infraction or slight. If that happens, a protest is filed and the outcome or punishment is determined by what the rule book says at that time and where they are in the game.
“It can be that the manager is ejected and suspended for a game, it just depends on how the other team wants to handle it,” Hegre said.
One rule change that the Little League World Series has implemented that a normal league game would not have is instant replay. Each team is allowed two challenges, and as in Major League Baseball and the National Football League, if you win the challenge, you get to keep it.
It is up to the coaches to challenge. The umpires can get together and call for a replay as well.
“As coaches on my staff, we're going to all agree that it is something that we definitely want to have reviewed,” Hegre said. “If we all don't agree, we won't do it. It's just not worth slowing the game down. If it is something that can be a game-changer, we'll take a whack at it.”
Teams also can't get any help with the replay via phone or other devices, like they can in NFL games. On Thursday night, Hegre almost challenged a play but decided against it on the advice of one of his coaches.
“All I did was ask my first-base coach if he got him with the swipe tag and he said he did,” Hegre said.