High school baseball coaches monitor their pitchers with obsessive diligence. They log every pitch, watching for any dip in mechanics that could prompt a change at the mound.
Next year, they’ll be doing the same for opposing pitchers, too. In an effort to curb mounting arm injuries among youth baseball players, the National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations announced last week that every state will be required to implement pitch-count limits before the start of the 2017 season.
Previously, all but five states limited pitchers to a certain number of innings. Now, each state athletic association will be charged with setting its own specific pitch-count restrictions.
The directive has been at least two years in the making. According to Elliot Hopkins, the federation’s director of sports, sanctioning and student services, the decision was based largely on medical findings indicating that surgery on overused, teenaged arms has grown in recent years. Representatives from the federation and USA Baseball met last summer to discuss a potential change, which was finalized Friday.
“We saw this coming for some time,” said Andy Warner, the executive director for the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. “Frankly, we were going to have further discussions regardless of whether the federation passed a rule or not for this coming fall.”
Like most states, Maryland public schools have used inning totals to cap pitchers. Current Maryland regulations dictate that “a pitcher may pitch in a maximum of 14 innings in any seven calendar day period and a maximum of 10 innings within a three calendar day period.”
League officials will consult with coaches in the coming months to hammer out the new rules. A number of factors influence pitch counts and rest periods, including weather, time of year and level of play.
The Alabama High School Athletic Association, which instituted pitch counts last year, limits varsity players to 120 pitches in a day, junior varsity players to 100 and junior high/middle school players to 85. If a varsity pitcher throws 76 or more pitches in a day, three full calendar days of rest must be observed.
Northern states such as Minnesota, Hopkins said, will have to accommodate their colder climates by starting with a smaller pitch count, then building up as the spring progresses. Individual states could also take that approach to distinguish between the opening weeks of the season, when teams are cycling through pitchers to evaluate depth, and the final weeks, when more important games demand more from staff aces.
The MPSSAA Board of Control will finalize Maryland’s pitch count limits at its biannual meeting in December. The Virginia High School League, which abides by similar innings restrictions, will go the same route with its executive-committee meeting in December.
D.C. State Athletic Association schools are in the same boat. The D.C. association’s executive director, Clark Ray, said he would consult with neighboring states before making final decisions.
“I’m hoping we can come to an understanding between the three of us,” Ray said. “There needs to be some uniformity. Our teams all play each other. It’s not like they’re traveling far to go out of state.”
How will pitch counts be enforced? That’s the biggest question on the minds of many coaches wondering who will keep track of pitches and whether they will be logged in a public database.
“I leave that up to each individual state association,” Hopkins said. “They know their state and their coaches and their schools better than anybody else.”
Vermont became the first state to adopt high school pitch counts, doing so eight years ago. An adult or student manager in each dugout tracks both pitchers, meeting behind home plate between innings to verify the number of pitches. Any discrepancies are resolved by the home plate umpire. If the umpire isn’t sure, he defers to the home book.
Colorado uses MaxPreps to display up-to-date pitch counts, while other states utilize GameChanger.
Bob Johnson, the associate executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, said he has not heard any reports of serious arm injuries since his state implemented pitch counts in 2008, compared to “a couple” in prior years. However, the league does not have statistics to indicate a downward trend.
Though he supports the change, Chantilly Coach Kevin Ford noted that high pitch counts can be misleading figures. Senior left-hander Forrest Wagner lasted 125 pitches in Chantilly’s 4-2 win over Centreville in this year’s Virginia Conference 5 final, but he wasn’t laboring by game’s end; long offensive innings had given ample rest between frames, allowing him to look sharper as the game progressed. He tossed 100 more pitches a week later against McLean before pitching in the region and state finals.
“I’m not a big proponent of the magic number,” Ford said. “Everybody talks about 100. I’ve been at Chantilly for 20 years, and we’ve had multiple, multiple, multiple times in a year where kids have thrown over 100 pitches in games. The amount of arm problems that we’ve had for the most part have come from kids coming in with them from the summer, not during our season.”
Indeed, pitching in summer ball is often completely unregulated, especially at the youth level. Growing specialization in youth sports has many kids playing baseball year-round, so a three-month high school season marks only one step in a longer churn.
“I think that’s where most of the problems exist,” said Tommy Rey, who stepped down last month after 12 years coaching at Paint Branch. “There’s eight-year-olds that are out there throwing over 100 pitches that pitched the day before.”
The Washington Catholic Athletic Conference is not directly affected by the new pitch-count mandate, but the conference will vote on the matter this winter. Area private schools don’t have firm pitching limitations in place; they use coaches’ discretion.
“It only saves injuries if coaches listen to kids and watch their bodies as opposed to just watching a number,” DeMatha Coach Sean O’Connor said. “I think the pitch count is a small part of why pitchers are hurt.”