The Notion of Playing “UP” in Baseball… The Myths

Most of the content of this article was posted in November of 2012.  We reprint it because once again the frenzy has begun with players and their families wondering where they are on the developmental curve.  Most of the anxiety is rooted in chatter, hearsay, and rumors.  Some of it is found in the proliferation of websites that rate players at certain ages with prognostications that have varying degrees of merit.  It is a fact that many players get listed on prospect lists simply by paying to attend a showcase, while talented players who do not attend fly under the radar.  Yet the biggest misconception is the notion of “Playing Up.” With greater frequency we hear parents tell us that their son has “always played UP.”  Often we hear folks tell us that their son has an opportunity to “play up” on the 16U or 17U team of XYZ program even though he is 14 or 15… as if their son is a special talent.  It is never quite clear what “playing up” really means.  Neither is it clear what it should mean in the context of playing in the Ruffnecks program or anywhere else.

For example, how many 15 year old “All Stars” are invited to play on a 16U team before it actually becomes a 15U team?  After all, is a freshman in college playing “up” or is he just low man on the totem pole?  Likewise for high school players… Are JV players playing “down” if they do not quite fit into the varsity plans, or are JV players playing “up” if they are really freshmen or sophomores?  It depends on the school and the program.  The notion of playing “up” is unclear at best, irrelevant in most cases, and often a function of what people want to believe.  “Playing Up” is tied directly to the quality of the competition on the schedule, not what someone calls the team.  So why is it always such a big deal?  Mostly, it is a sideline topic of discussion and one-upsmanship for parents in the stands.  Consider that Jason Heyward (currently with the Atlanta Braves) did not find it beneath him to play with a 16U summer travel team (when he was 16) even though he was entering his senior year in high school.  Neither is it beneath most Ruffnecks players to play on any given roster, especially when age and graduation class may overlap.

The key to development is not playing “up” or “down,” but rather to play and develop in a challenging environment.  Our obligation is to design schedules that provide a blend of challenges and opportunities. Our goal is to build confidence tempered by failure; individual growth through the experience of baseball in a team context.  It is useless for teams to be over challenged on a regular basis; it is equally useless to beat up on weaker teams…. Which is why the argument is based on relativity to the competition.

Most players chase the shadowy objectives of “Playing Up” because their parents want to speed up a process that would otherwise take its natural course.  Some see their development plateau  and believe their struggles are a result of not “being challenged” or not being surrounded by good enough teammates.  What an excuse!  Some refuse to acknowledge that perhaps others are catching up to them… that their early growth and size no longer provides the same advantage it provided at 13U or 14U.  Conversely, we have had players who recognized that repeating a level is best for their personal development.  Many who repeat have met with greater long-term success.  Some programs attract players by promising that they will play “up,” as if a 15 year old playing on a 16U team has a path to quicker or better development.  It simply does not correlate.

In the Ruffnecks program the schedules for ALL our teams are aggressive.  After more than a decade, our program finally won a “National Championship” in an age-specific competitive tournament when the 14U Ruffnecks won the Premier World Series in Southwest Missouri.  No player should have felt under challenged.  Such achievements are not easy to accomplish.  As such, it stands to reason that there are still competitive hurdles to conquer.  We build schedules to meet the objectives of challenging play.  We always want to find out how good we are and how good we need to be.  We play some older competition at every level in the Ruffnecks program.  Our 13s play in 14U competition; the 14s play in some 16U events; our 15s, 16s, and 18s all play in age-specific events along with events that match our personnel against older or more seasoned opponents.  Our teams play “UP” by definition of the tournaments we enter, the places we travel, and the demands of our program itself.  We calibrate the schedule and we never “dumb it down” for a Ruffnecks team.

Most qualified scouts and college recruiters often tell young players the same thing: Just go somewhere where you can get an opportunity to play.  We are fortunate in the Ruffnecks program to attract players who wish to challenge themselves.  The specific roster a player is assigned to is more a matter of “fit” and opportunity, than it is about “up” or “down.”  Strong programs play strong competition… period.  It all comes down to who you play, where you play, how much you play, and the competitive environment in which you play that matters.