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BASEBALL: Rule change removes 13-year old athletes

By CHRIS MASSE

For The Express

Some of the world’s best Little League players will continue making outstanding plays, delivering outstanding pitching performances and collecting key hits.

But there will be a striking difference between this Little League World Series and the others fans have watched over the years. The players will be a little younger and, on average, a little smaller.

That is because 13-year olds will no longer be competing at the Series. This event has long been advertised as featuring 11 and 12 year olds, but many players over the years have actually been 13. Little League ended that last year when it said that, starting in 2019, the birthday cutoff to compete in Little League would be changed from May 1 to Sept. 1. For the first time, the Series now truly does feature nothing but 11 and 12-year olds.

Little League coaches and volunteers have noticed a change in how the game is played this year. They also are nearly universal in approving of that change, too.

“I love it. It’s made it more traditional baseball,” River Ridge, Louisiana manager Scott Frazier said. “Fundamentals are a bigger part of the game and you have to manufacture runs. It’s great. It gets back to the way baseball is meant to be played.”

Throughout the 2000s, Little League players have grown bigger and stronger. Home runs started dominating the Series in the early to mid-2000s and Little League adapted by moving the fences from 205 to 225 feet. Still, the players caught up and again turned Lamade and Volunteer Stadiums into launching pads. Instead of two teams playing baseball, it often turned into games of Home Run Derby.

Little League modified its bats last year and that played a major role in home runs drastically decreasing at last year’s Series. It also played a role in keeping players safer.

With only 40 feet separating pitches from batters and 60 feet between those batters and infielders, defenders have less time to react. Obviously, injuries can happen in any sport, but changing the bats and lowering the players’ ages has created a safer environment.

“In the grand scheme of things, they probably did the right thing. Getting the 13 year olds off the 40-60 field is the right thing to do,” South Riding, Virginia manager Alan Bowden said. “These kids are already bigger and stronger and hitting the ball so much harder and some already are looking to big for the field, so it’s probably the right move to get the 13 year olds off the field.”

“It’s definitely better that you have 13 year olds out of the game,” Barrington, Rhode Island manager Chris Promades said. “With the less powerful bats and having no more 13-year olds, what Little League tried to do is put more emphasis on safety and defense. You’re seeing more kids making plays on the field instead of players just smacking the ball over the fence.”

Of course, one could argue that Little League might have gone a little too far, rolling out the less potent bats and no 13-year-old rules in consecutive years. Home runs remain exciting and some may not like seeing their volume drastically decrease. It could be a case of pushing the needle too far one way across the spectrum.

Driving home that point, the eight U.S. regional champions combined for just 17 home runs during their regional title runs. Bowling Green, Kentucky; Rhode Island and Salem, Oregon all won without hitting a home run. Wailuku, Hawaii did not hit its first home run until the West final and Mid-Atlantic champion Elizabeth, New Jersey hit just one in six regional games.

“I like the rule change because the 13 year olds were too big for the field. What I don’t like is they got rid of the 13 year olds at the same time they got rid of the old bats. The two of them together really changed the game. Maybe liven the bats up a little bit more or something to think about could be moving fences in because of the lack of home runs the last two years,” Coon Rapids, Minnesota coach Jason Law said. “The combination of the two maybe went a little too far, but for the most part it’s a good change because the 13 year olds were getting too strong for a field that size. It evens the playing field.”

As Frazier alluded to, it also means finding more ways to create runs. Instead of relying on the Earl Weaver three-run home run philosophy, teams have to generate runs in other ways. That means more bunting, more moving runners and more situational hitting.

All eight regional champions excelled doing the little things while reaching the Series and that is a major reason they are here. Virginia and Louisiana combined for 12 of the 17 regional home runs hit by the champions, but they also were able to produce runs other ways with both teams receiving key non-home run hits that won games.

“Rather than everyone trying to hit a home run, with a guy on second you’re looking to move him over. You’re focused on doing all the little things you need to do to win games,” Frazier said. “Before with the bigger kids playing on these fields, they could have a terrible swing and still hit it over the fence. We have a lot of kids that are smart fundamentally and we feel like it has helped us that way.”

While many focus on the offensive impacts of no longer having 13 year olds playing Little League Baseball, it also makes a big pitching difference. Yes, there still are players who can throw in the lower to mid-70s, but they are no longer the norm for the elite Little League teams, At past Series, nearly every American team had at least one pitcher who could hit 70 miles per hour. Now those pitchers are the exception and not the norm.

A year ago, the less powerful bats created fewer runs but lots of excitement with several games being close. Adding no 13 year olds to that equation could make this upcoming Series one of the most balanced yet.

“You generally no longer have 2-3 kids that can throw 70-plus miles per hour and kids that are hitting 225-foot home runs. You don’t have as much power as you did in the past so it takes a matter of bunching singles and doubles and walks. Whatever it takes, you have to manufacture runs,” said Kentucky manager Rick Kelley, who also coached in the 2015-16 Series. “It’s more of a parity situation. We’ll see how that plays out.”

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