By Joe Santilli
Director of Baseball, Triple Crown Sports
Every year, coaches of 13-year-old teams are faced with a decision on what field dimension is best for their players. In some cases, the availability of fields and the area’s league/tournament options take the decision out of your hands. But for many who like to travel, there is a choice to be made and important factors to consider including safety, player development and pure enjoyment of the game.
Across the country, travel baseball has many standards that apply for the majority of the sanctioning bodies (USA Baseball, USSSA, AABC, Nations, etc.). Typically by 9th grade or age 14, baseball is played with the pitching rubber set at 60 feet and six inches from the point of home plate, with bases 90 feet apart. This standard dimension is referred to as “60-90.” Travel baseball standards are fairly clear that 9 and 10 year olds play with a 46-foot pitching distance and bases that are 65 feet apart (46-65). The 11 and 12 year olds usually play 50-70 (although USA Baseball actually plays these ages at 51-75).
There is a rising conflict on what dimensions the 13’s (7th graders) should play. The vast majority of 13u baseball has been played at 54-80 for many years; however, there are geographic preferences for 13u at 60-90, and this seems to be a fast growing trend.
The 54-80 dimension emerged in the early 1950’s when the Pony League (now PONY Baseball) decided to make a transitional diamond for 13- and 14-year-old players to bring them from Little League fields to full size 60-90. This logical concept spread across the country and by the late 80s became the standard. The Southeast US was the one geographic holdout and continued to play these age divisions on 60-90 fields (sanctioning bodies such as AABC and NABF also kept 14’s at 60-90). Sometime between the late 90s and today, the 14-year-old travel teams went back to 60-90 fields. This trend has moved much slower for 13-year-old travel teams. The vast majority of Triple Crown Sports events play 13u at 54-80, although several 13u events including the Myrtle Beach Summer Nationals and Florida Fall Nationals play 13u at 60-90. This is in line with most of the sanctioning bodies for travel ball including USSSA and Nations.
If you are coaching a 13u team, you have options to consider. There are many opinions on this subject that involve the players’ safety and development. I simply want to give you a true story with my personal experiences on this subject. Before I became a college coach, I was an assistant coach for seven years at a program that ran 13u and 14u elite travel teams.
My experience occurred in the late 90’s in Michigan, right when this field dimension dilemma was reaching its peak at the 14u level. Each year, our team consisted of 13- and 14-year-olds who all loved the game and all had aspirations of playing at a higher level. Our team philosophy was to develop character and to have fun. The league play and local tournament options we had offered only 54-80 fields. We did like to travel, and the national events that we chose to play to end our summer were all 60-90.
Our coaching staff decided to take the approach that the players would all be moving to 60-90 within the next year or two, so we wanted to make sure they were able to adapt to either field dimension. We prepared most of our fall season on 54-80 fields and stayed at that dimension early in the spring to keep us prepared for 54-80 league play. We chose 54-80 tournaments throughout April and May. By early June, we would start getting our pitchers bullpen work at 60-90, and we usually finished June in a 60-90 tournament (even if that meant that we had to play in the 15u age division). By early July, we were practicing and playing only on 60-90 fields and preparing ourselves for our national event at 60-90 that occurred at the end of July.
Here are some observations including the pros and cons as well as some tips that we learned:
The 54-80 Dimension Game – General Observations
The pace of the game is much faster at 54-80. Ground balls get through the infield easier and players can get down the line in a hurry. Also, power pitchers are rewarded for just blowing the ball by hitters.
• Encourages infielders to develop faster transfer and footwork skills
• Helps hitters develop bat speed
• Home runs are more prevalent which is fun for the players
• Reaction time for pitchers and infielders is a safety concern
• Many have concerns about limiting preparation for high school baseball
• Some standard baseball measurements are off at this dimension (i.e. home-to-first time, steal times, etc.)
The 60-90 Dimension Game – General Observations
For many 13-year-olds who have not fully developed, there seems to be some awkward transitional time at this dimension. There is a lot of ground to cover in the outfield, and players who do not have above average arm strength are exposed a little more. After going through this transition, the players seem to adapt fairly easily (within 2-3 practices and 1-2 games).
• You see more success defensively on some basic baseball plays such as 6-4-3 and 5-4-3 double plays
• Pitchers are encouraged to locate, change speeds and generate movement as they cannot be as reliant on the fastball
• Hitters are forced to develop an approach to hit pitch with movement, and have more time to recognize pitches
• Concern on arm health mainly for pitchers throwing from a further distance, but also all fielders
• Base stealing becomes harder, so one could argue that it takes some excitement away from the game
• Home runs are harder to come by
Tips for Making Your Decision
• One of the things we found right away was overall, it was easier to transition from 60-90 to 54-80. Players just seemed to adapt quicker to moving to the smaller field. Pitchers had a much easier time going from 60’6” to 54’ than they did the other way around. If you play 54-80 and want to move up to 60-90, several practices are highly advised!
• At some point, travel coaches should help the players make the transition from 54-80 to 60-90. Whether you decide to do that toward the end of the summer, or into the fall, it is not a good idea for a player to go right from 54-80 to a high school tryout at 60-90.
• Be flexible. The players adapt fairly easily to the field that they are playing on. Keep that in mind.
• Some players benefit from the transition year at 54-80 and other players benefit in the long term by going directly to 60-90. From a team standpoint, there are really very few negative consequences from trying out both dimensions (if the opportunity is available).