Copyright 2000 John T. Reed
Many a youth player thinks he is in a slump. Many a youth coach thinks one or more of his players are in a slump.
1. Before you conclude that a player is in a slump, you should consider the laws of probability and statistics. Let's say you have a 500 kids throw a die (singular of dice) 1,000 times each. We'll say that a one or a two represent a hit and three, four, five, or six represent an out. Record each result of the 500,000 die tosses. It is almost guaranteed that on average, the group will "bat" about .333 because two of the six possible results are defined as a hit. But it is also almost guaranteed that many will do better and many will do worse. There will be a number of high "batting" averages and low "batting" averages. There will also be a number of noteworthy "hitting" streaks and "slumps."
But we know that the results of tossing a die are pure luck, not skill. So a kid who got a long string of non"hits," that is, all three to six results, would just laugh off his bad luck. And a kid who had a "hitting" streak of ones and twos, would not start swaggering around the local elementary school.
The point here is that when you put 500 kids in a youth baseball league, and have them swing at a pitch 1,000 times over the course of a season, the group will average about .225 or some such, but there will also be some who are above and below average, not because of skill, but just because of luck. (There will also be some who have higher or lower batting averages because of skill or lack thereof. But even those players will exhibit the same pattern of lucky and unlucky days.) There will also be streaks and slumps purely because of luck.
Bottom line is you cannot conclude that a decline in youth batting success is an actual slump in performance. It may be, and usually is, just a string of bad luck. It is meaningless. It should not be noted or thought about and certainly not "corrected." You cannot correct such a "slump" in batting any more than you can in die throwing. A youth-baseball season is so short that a player could have a luck "slump" that lasts the entire season. Look at an all-star Major League position player's entire season. I'll bet you can find his worst stretch and that it will approach or exceed the total number of at bats a youth baseball player gets all season. (There are about 30 to 75 plate appearances per player in a youth season.) I'll bet the typical all-star pro was not an all-star for his worst 30 plate appearances during his all-star season. For example, George Will writes in his book Bunts about Tony Gwynn having a stretch in 1997 where he went 5 for 28---a .180 batting average. His season average at the time was .385.
2. At all levels, the mistaken belief that one is having a slump in performance can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You must have self-confidence and be relaxed to hit. Ain't gonna happen if you are thinking about how you have been slumping lately. So coaches must guard against slump thinking and slump talk at all costs.
Explain probability and statistics to your players. You might even have an apparently slumping player throw a die a bunch of times to prove your point.
Don't get me wrong. There are, indeed, sometimes real slumps in performance at all levels of baseball. They do need to be corrected. What I am trying to say here is just that you must not be too quick to conclude that a player is in such a slump, or allow the player or his parents to draw such a conclusion. Do not use batting average or similar statistics to diagnose slumps. Rather analyze by the criteria of "Did the batter make good decisions about what pitches to swing at?" and "Did he hit the ball hard a normal percentage of the time when he swung at good pitches?" Wade Boggs was once asked about a "slump" he was in. He responded with words to the effect that, "I have been hitting the ball hard all along. The recent string of lesser success at getting hits is meaningless. All it reflects is that an unusually high percentage of my hard-hit balls were caught for outs. There is no performance slump, only a string of bad luck, and I will make absolutely no changes."
In addition to lucky fielders, the mistaken diagnosis of a slump can be made because of an unusually good string of opposing pitchers or a string of pitcher's umpires.
John T. Reed