High school pitch­ers wait­ing for new num­bers game

Dorchester Star - - Sports - DAVID INSLEY

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.

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