High school pitchers waiting for new numbers game
A big change looms for high school baseball.
Early last week, the National Federation of State High School Associations directed its members to limit the number of pitches a high school player throws in a game, instead of the number of innings they pitched.
Currently, Maryland has an innings-pitched limit. No pitcher can throw more than 10 innings over three consecutive days, with a maximum of 14 over seven days.
In Maryland, if a pitcher enters the game and throws a pitch or makes a play in the field — like trying to pick off a runner — it counts as an inning pitched. So, a pitcher who gets the final out in the third inning, pitches the fourth and fifth, then walks the leadoff man in the sixth before being relieved, has pitched four innings under Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association rules, not 2 1/3.
Things can get more complicated with suspended play, caused by weather or darkness. When play resumes, the inning limitations on the original and
new play date, both apply. And there have been games postponed during play twice a few times in my memory.
That being said, it seems pretty strict on its face. Isn’t it enough?
With the evolution of sports medicine, and the increase study on youth athletes and the effects of certain activities, data shows injury rates are high enough to warrant further discussion and work — the National Institutes of Health estimate five percent of youth pitchers suffer some sort of injury in their first 10 years.
Is this, then, a proactive measure by the federation, rather than a reaction to an increase?
Andy Warner, executive director of the MPSSAA, said: “I think this is something that is proactive, but also something that is a little bit reactive, not necessarily from a Maryland standpoint, but from a national standpoint, but ... national data, which was a focus point of the PitchSmart task force stuff.
“That’s looking at national stuff, and it’s ... reactive from seeing it and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve seen people throw too many pitches and there are injuries’ ... and that, we can fix,” Warner said. The MPSSAA hasn’t set its pitch count yet, according to Warner. Several states already have pitch-count limits, while others have used such numbers prior to the federation’s directive.
Not all states are the same. Not every state has the same climate (Minnesota and Florida tend to be a bit different in late March). And seasons can vary in length by state as well. Florida plays 25 or more games, while Maryland’s regularseason cap is 18.
What will Maryland’s number be?
“We are in the process of working through that,” Warner said. “We have been on an innings-pitched rule for many years, and over the course of the last couple years, there has been a bit of discussion among and between the state’s Baseball Advisory Committee and Sports Medical Advisory Committee about using pitch counts.”
According to Warner, a lot of discussion has to happen before Maryland sets its limit.
“We’ll [still] be working on this after the school year begins,” Warner said. “It’ll be into the fall, I’d say.”
PitchSmart, an initiative by USA Baseball and Major League Baseball to which Warner alluded, cites an ever-growing mountain of research, and calls its policies “a series of practical, age-appropriate guidelines to help parents, players and coaches avoid overuse injuries and foster long, healthy careers for youth pitchers.”
According to PitchSmart’s website, studies show pitchers throwing while experiencing fatigue are 36 times as likely to suffer an injury to their shoulder or elbow than those who don’t.
One of the more recognizable names who has worked with PitchSmart is Dr. James Andrews, known for the ligament-replacement procedure commonly known as Tommy John surgery. A pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, John was the first to undergo the procedure in 1974.
Arm injuries can happen regardless of the number of pitches thrown. So, will this help?
According to PitchSmart, while there is no full-proof remedy, pitch counts are the “ideal way” to properly gauge the use of pitchers’ arms, thus helping minimize the risk.
Adopted by a number of college leagues, as well as Little League Baseball, PitchSmart offers suggested pitch limits for players from ages 7-22. Little League’s pitching limitations are exactly the same as PitchSmart’s suggestions, with two minor exceptions.
First, Little League covers players as old as 18, while PitchSmart rules, devised to cover college-level pitchers, go to age 22. Second, Little League has the Threshold Rule.
Each rest-day increment of pitches represent new “thresholds,” and a small workaround has been added. If a 9-year-old has thrown 34 pitches, he can start one more batter. If the inning ends, or the batter’s plate appearance is resolved and the inning doesn’t, then he is considered to have thrown 35 pitches for rest and usage purposes. So, instead of needing two days’ rest for throwing 36 pitches, he is considered to have thrown only 35, no matter how many he delivers to his last batter, as long as said batter is declared his last before a pitch is thrown to him.
While this will lead to a little rule-bending, it’s not going to fundamentally imbalance the system. In my 14 consecutive years of covering Little League, a pitcher has, perhaps, thrown five to six pitches above a given threshold, hardly enough to cause significant concern. Throwing 39 pitches isn’t much different than 35. It’s throwing 82 versus 35 that makes a difference.
Local coaches agree in principle, perhaps, but also are leery of another level of regulation on something which several have said they already take into account.
Colonel Richardson High head coach Dan Mangum has used pitch counts for quite some time, the season itself dictating it better than a blanket number might.
Pitching in cold weather takes more of a toll on young arms in particular, Mangum said. “With baseball season starting in late March, it’s cold here in Maryland. And arms aren’t as loose in March, obviously, as they’re going to be in May. So kids don’t need to, and really, they can’t, throw a ton of pitches.
“There are a lot of games where even a kid throwing a good game, he comes out around 80 pitches early in the season, because 100, 110 is just too many at that point,” Mangum said. “And then you have the issue of making a blanket rule for every kid, when every kid’s different. You have to take it on an individual basis.”
Maryland’s high school season lasts, at most, a little over nine weeks, and that’s if you make the state championship.
Little League runs from April to potentially August, a period of as much as 20 weeks if an 11-12-year-old team reaches the World Series final in Williamsport, Pa.
“They need some kind of limit there at times,” Mangum said. “But really, for high school, this is a case-by-case thing. Take us, for example. If you have an 18-year-old kid like Jaret Bennett, who’s got a strong arm, who plays more than just high school ball, he can handle more pitches than someone who only plays in the spring on varsity.
“I’ve had pitch limits. I’ve kept to them,” Mangum continued. “Early in the season, it was 70, maybe 80 pitches. My magic number to pull a guy has never been higher than 110, and that, again, that’s someone like Jaret, who’s a Division-I ballplayer who’s well-conditioned. There’s no way you can throw every kid you have 100, 110 pitches. That’s just not realistic.”
St. Michaels assistant Donnie Gowe, like Mangum, has coached on multiple levels, which includes seven years as an assistant at Chesapeake College.
In college, American League pitching rules are used, Gowe said. “With those rules, you can, in theory anyway, throw any pitcher, at any time.
“But I can tell you, in my experience, this is not something that’s done a lot,” Gowe said. “I have seen a time where a kid from [another college] pitched nine innings in a playoff tournament on Friday, and when they advanced to play Sunday, he came out and pitched that day, too. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it happens.”
With more colleges adhering to new guidelines, many following PitchSmart’s recommendations, high school, college, American Legion, and Little League players are going to be on the same page. Legion ball isn’t “fully compliant” by PitchSmart standards yet, but is “Select
Compliant.” The only difference, though, is that fully compliant organizations have coaches’ meetings which include educational segments on PitchSmart guidelines. So, Legion ball is about as close to full compliance as it can be.
That leaves, most notably, travel baseball.
Travel ball is organized outside of a structure like Legion or Little League. And while they’re indistinguishable from more heavily-policed organizations, Gowe said he’s “never been given pitch counts, or inning limits, or things like that for my team in travel ball.”
“When I coached the (Eastern Shore) Hurricanes, all the tournaments that I ever played in, what they would tell you in their pretournament meeting, ‘You are responsible for your pitchers’ arms. Please take care of them,’” Gowe said. “And we used pitch counts. We kept an eye on innings. But some coaches don’t.”
Pitch counts, Gowe added, have “not been an issue at St. Michaels. [Longtime head coach] Brian Femi will take you out even if you’re throwing a no-hitter.”
Don’t read this as an indictment of travel baseball. It’s supplanting Little League and Legion, to some extent, because people want to play more. Whether it suits their schedule, or it’s a better showcase for players who want college looks, travel ball has a lot of proponents.
But let’s be honest. If this is going to work, we need just about everybody on the same page.
Maybe travel and showcase teams will do the same thing and it’s just a matter of time. After all, Maryland high schools used inning limits rather than pitch counts. And as Warner pointed out, “innings could be pretty different. You might throw 40 pitches in an inning, or you might throw five. With pitch counts, you have exact numbers and the studies to back them up.”
For now, the burden of setting a limit is with the MPSSAA. But there are also questions that must be answered when a limit is set.
For example, in Little League, a pitcher who throws 41 or more pitches in a single appearance is not allowed to play catcher for the remainder of that game. Will this be included in the new Maryland rule?
Will inning limits during high school still be included, or will it simply be a matter of pitch counts?
Does a change in pitcher usage necessitate MPSSAA talking to umpire organizations about calling a larger zone? And if so, will umpires comply?
Who will be the official pitch counter? Does each team have to keep track of opposing pitchers, and if so, which count is right if there’s a discrepancy between scorebooks?
“Those are all questions that we have to answer before we get to a final decision, a final number,” Warner said.
A pitch-count rule as recently as 2013 might have changed local sports history. On May 17, 2013, Cambridge-South Dorchester played St. Michaels for the Class 1A Region title. Both starters — C-SD’s Junior Harding and St. Michaels’ Zach Correa — pitched into the final frame of that 10-inning game — a 4-2 Viking victory. Harding, who struck out 13, pitched a complete game, while Correa faced all but the last few batters.
“How much differently do you think that might have turned out?” Gowe asked. “Imagine if Junior and Zach had pitch limits?”
We’ll never know about that. But come next spring, we’ll see teams handle it. Those short on pitching might struggle.
My guess? I think MPSSAA will either adopt PitchSmart rules by age, or cap all pitchers at 110. Nationwide, numbers vary. Texas has a 125-pitch limit. Minnesota’s is 105 during the regular season, and as much as 120 during the playoffs.
“It’s going to make it interesting, I’ll say that,” Mangum said. “Everybody’s going to need more pitchers.”
Colonel Richardson pitcher Jacob Zebron, seen here in May, is one of many pitchers nationwide whose pitches will be counted during varsity starts next season, thanks to a recent decision by the National Federation of High Schools.