With pitch counts taking effect, area baseball coaches face new questions

For The Baltimore Sun
High school pitch counts "could be a nightmare, but the nightmare is OK as long as we're making kids safe."

When Patterson Mill junior Austin Koehn takes the mound this spring, he'll have more on his mind than simply working hitters. With new pitch count restrictions going into effect, he'll be looking to do it in as few pitches as possible.

"I definitely think it will be harder," said Koehn, an All-Metro first-team pick a year ago. "You'll have to use more strategy. You'll have to attack the hitter more then nibbling around. You're going to have to go right at him. You don't want to get deep in counts."

In what could amount to the most significant rule change at the high school level in decades, Maryland public school pitchers this season will be held to strict pitch limits and mandated to take specified numbers of rest days, with the goal of preventing some of the serious arm injuries that increasingly have derailed the careers of young baseball players.

Following guidelines set by Major League Baseball and USA Baseball under a new program called PitchSmart, which has renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews among its advisers, juniors and seniors will be limited to 105 pitches in a game, and freshmen and sophomores 95. And the more they throw, the longer they must sit out.

Those who throw 31 to 45 pitches will be required to rest at least one full day; 46 to 60, two days; 61 to 75, three days; and 76 or more, four days.

Under previous rules, players could throw an unlimited number of pitches as long as they didn't appear in more than 10 innings over three calendar days or 14 over seven. But with players throwing harder and pitch counts escalating in recent years, officials thought it was time for a change.

"You can't just keep repeating a violent action like throwing a baseball when the shoulder isn't designed to do such a thing," said Ty Whittaker, president of the Maryland State Association of Baseball Coaches. "You've got to give the body time to rest and adjust in order to avoid these injuries. These kids are throwing harder at an earlier age, and it's difficult to analyze how much damage they're doing. You can clearly see by the injuries that something must be happening."

Studies suggest that the number of Tommy John surgeries — in which a damaged elbow ligament is replaced by a tendon from somewhere else in the body — has risen steadily since the 1990s. Historically, 15 to 20 major league pitchers per year have undergone the surgery, but that has increased to more than 30 per year since 2010.

A 2012-13 survey of active players found that 25 percent of major league pitchers and 15 percent of minor league pitchers had undergone the surgery at some point in their careers.

Arm problems also are developing at younger ages, according to PitchSmart.

While youth and high school-age pitchers accounted for just a tiny fraction of the surgeries in the mid-'90s, that number ballooned to 25 percent by the mid-2000s. And from 2007-2011, the number of high school players undergoing Tommy John surgery increased by about 9 percent per year, according to a study of national insurance records.

"Now, with kids playing summer season, spring, fall, it's just way too much on their arms," Reservoir coach Adam Leader said. "Personally, I think [the new rules] should be in all areas of baseball — travel league, rec league and everybody. But it's going to start with the high schools, and hopefully it spreads from there."

With the new rules, however, come challenges, particularly for smaller teams.

Lake Clifton coach Todd Henning, for instance, worries that many teams in Baltimore City will struggle to find serviceable pitchers to cover innings.

"It's a huge game-changer, especially for the city," Henning said. "It's really going to hamper teams' abilities to play quality baseball. I think a lot of teams are training pretty much everybody to be a pitcher, because you just never know how many pitchers you're going to go through in a game. There are going to be games where it's going to be a walk-fest and the score might be 20-19."

Though coaches, including Henning, universally agree the rules will help prevent pitchers from burning out, they worry that smaller squads — including some in the city with as few as a dozen players — will be put at a competitive disadvantage.

"I think the spirit of it is a good move, [but] I don't think the little guys were necessarily considered when it was being done," Poly coach Corey Goodwin said. "Some of the smaller programs in the city only have two or three arms, so it's going to force some people to coach and teach people how to pitch."

Several coaches said they are emphasizing the importance of getting ahead of hitters with first-pitch strikes, as well as pitching to contact and using their defenses, instead of aiming for strikeouts. And instead of pitching around big hitters, coaches said they might choose to issue more intentional walks, an automatic procedure at the high school level that doesn't require the throwing of a pitch.

"Any way that we can save some pitches, the better," Leader said. "We're definitely going to want to be more in the strike zone more often. We're doing a lot of mechanical work just to make sure kids are throwing strikes."

The new rules also make it less possible to simply ride the hot arm of a staff ace, while putting more of a premium on pitching depth. Consider a scenario in which rainouts have forced a team to play four games in a week, but its top pitcher already has used his allotted pitches by Monday.

More than ever, teams will need solid production from their second, third and fourth starters, who are more likely to find themselves on the mound in big games.

If an ace struggles through 35 pitches in the first inning, does a coach pull him more quickly, allowing him to return to the mound just a couple of days later? Or should he allow him to try and grind through it, which might leave him out of action for the next four days?

"I don't know if there is one particular way to manage this. It's the biggest change we've seen since they changed the coefficient of the bat [eliminating more powerful aluminum bats in 2012]," said Whittaker, also the associate head coach at Eastern Tech. "It kind of changes your strategy. Now you have a situation where, 'All right, if I burn this kid now, I'm going to have to wait. Or do I try somebody new?' I have not wrapped my head around the perfect strategy yet, and I don't really think anybody in this area has one."

Then there's the matter of who is keeping the counts, and what happens if they aren't accurate.

Each team will have a designated pitch counter — in most cases, a team manager, teacher or parent. The counters are expected to sit together during the game, frequently comparing notes to make sure they're on the same count.

Communication will be critical, since a team potentially would need to forfeit if its pitcher starts against a new batter beyond his pitch limit. Umpires will have no jurisdiction, though officials will be assigned to serve as counters for the state semifinals and finals.

If the counters disagree, the number kept by the home team will take precedence. Coaches then would need to go through their athletic directors and county or league officials to protest.

"The problem comes up when I've got my kid throwing his 105th pitch, and the next guy has him at 106, and they're the home team," Chesapeake-Anne Arundel coach Ken King said. "The penalty for Anne Arundel County is, we'd forfeit the game. That will certainly be a little bit of an issue."

Coaches in most counties will be required to post updated pitch counts online by noon the day after a game. Some worry that self-reporting leaves open the possibility of cheating.

"The downfall of this is that we have to be our own police, so it's an integrity-based system," Goodwin said. "It's for the kids' safety, so you shouldn't fudge numbers with that in mind. It could happen and it probably will … but we are prepared for that. We have punishments in place in case someone tries to get over."

Coaches are hoping that keeping pitch counts eventually will become as commonplace as balls and strikes. For now, though, the new system is certain to be a learning experience.

"It could be a nightmare, but the nightmare is OK as long as we're making kids safe," King said. "That's why were in it. We don't want to hurt kids. We want to get them ready for the next level. If we can do that safely, then we're doing our job."

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