How many pitches is too many

Brian Pardoe grew disgusted as he watched his son's 13-under baseball team face pitchers who threw at least 125 pitches -- two of them topping out at nearly 150 -- in four consecutive games earlier this summer.

That epidemic of Tommy John surgery at the professional level? No question in his mind where it starts.


"Coaches are culpable," said Pardoe, a pitching coach for two Sykesville Cyclones youth travel teams and the Sykesville Junior American Legion team. "Parents are, too."

Jim Miller watches a familiar scenario play out at virtually any game attended by college or professional scouts.


"When scouts show up the first thing they do is pull out a radar gun," said Miller, the Liberty High School baseball coach. "And when I get a call about a kid the first question is 'How hard does he throw?' It's not, 'How good of a pitcher is he?'"

The convergence of an era when kids can pitch pretty much year-round, largely unhindered by pitch restrictions, with bigger, stronger pitchers throwing at ever-increasing velocity is taking a toll on elbows.

In 2014 alone, some 66 pitchers in major league organizations have undergone the ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction named for John, who four decades ago became the first to have it done and wound up with 288 wins. That list includes high-profile hurlers like Jose Fernandez, Josh Johnson and Matt Moore.

This epidemic is occurring even as major league teams are being more careful than ever with prized young arms, severely cutting back on the number of innings and the number of pitches they allow their pitchers to throw.


That's because the damage has already been done by the time the pitchers become professionals.

"Kids are throwing more competitive pitches than ever before [sometimes] getting to their peak velocity by puberty," Pardoe said. "The human body won't tolerate that."

Miller can relate. He grew up in a baseball family, was pitching by age 8, and played competitively until undergoing Tommy John surgery after his sophomore year in college.

Miller is only 31. He didn't grow up in some long-ago era when complete games were the norm. Still, pitch count was rarely mentioned when he played.

"It wasn't as big of a deal as it is now," he said. "There really weren't people talking about pitch count in Little League or summer ball right up through high school."

Miller said he has looked back at data from when he was a star pitcher at Liberty in 2000 and 2001 and says he averaged 125-130 pitches per game.

"Way more than I would let any of my kids pitch today," Miller said.

He isn't blaming anyone for his surgery; he understands much more is known today about how elevated pitch totals correlate to elbow injuries.

Pardoe probably knows more than most.

A former pitcher at Westminster High and in college who also had his career ended by injury, Pardoe, 42, was asked by a friend to help out with some coaching a few years ago. He decided if he was going to do it, he wanted to really know what he was doing.

So Pardoe did his research and then spent a week at the University of Southern California under the tutelage of former major league pitcher and coach Tom House, who has authored a number of instructional books and is the co-founder of the National Pitching Association.

"I felt like I was in Disney World," said Pardoe, an admirer of House's because of the way House combines his vast personal experience with science.

He said he learned a lot.

"it's one thing to throw, it's another thing to pitch. Throwing off a mound is three times harder on your arm," said Pardoe, who laments the loss of yesteryear's sandlot baseball in favor of today's more structured approach.

Pardoe said he learned that injuries are tied to arm stress. Once a pitcher begins to labor and loses the strike zone, he said, that pitcher may well have reached "muscle failure." That's a dangerous place to be.

"If you take a kid to muscle failure, every pitch he throws after that multiply it by three," he said. "We need to really focus on what's best for the kids."

Pardoe is NPA certified and spends much of his time championing the NPA guidelines. They include:

-- The number of competitive pitches any pitcher should throw in one year should not exceed the pitcher's age multiplied by 100;

-- Starting pitchers 9 to 12 years old should throw 60-75 pitches per week and starting pitchers 13 to 16 should throw 75-90 per week;

--Pitchers should throw fastballs 65-70 percent of the time with that number growing to 80-85 percent of the time for those under 13.

Of course, for any guidelines to work, they have to be adhered to.

Little League now has strict pitch counts, limiting 11-12 year-olds to an 85-pitch maximum in any game and requiring four days rest for any pitcher who throws at least 66 pitches.

But that's just one organization. Many travel leagues have no pitch limitations, but rather innings restrictions. That's how it is with the organization that governs Maryland high schools.

"Innings limits are a starting point," Miller said.

But all innings are not created equal. While one pitcher might be able to get through seven innings in 75 pitches or so, another might need 100 pitches just to finish the fifth.

At Liberty, Miller said they impose their own pitch limits. He said he won't allow one of his pitchers to throw more than 80 pitches before spring break or more than 100 after spring break.

"Even if you have a no-hitter going," he said.

Of course, high school ball is just one part of a long season for most talented young pitchers, (who are generally bigger, stronger, faster and harder-throwing than any previous generation thanks to genetics, improved instruction and weight training).

"They go from 20-some high school games to 40 in the summer to 20 or 30 more in the fall," Miller said. "I can't be there to monitor them."

And there is ample incentive for good pitchers to throw as many innings as possible, regardless of the risk. Coaches want to be successful. Parents want scholarships or pro contracts. Every time out is another opportunity to be seen by a scout.

Miller said he thinks his players do a good job monitoring themselves. After all, "pitch count" is much more a part of the baseball lexicon now than it was when he played.

Of course, so is the phrase "Tommy John surgery."

" I don't know if young pitchers are better off today," Miller said. "The good thing is there is a wealth of knowledge out there."

It's knowledge Pardoe is zealous about trying to impart.

"I'm just so passionate about it," he said. "I want to spread the message."

Reach staff writer Bob Blubaugh at 410-857-7895 or bob.blubaugh@carrollcountytimes.com.



The 10 commandments of arm care


1. Use common sense when reading the research and err on the side of caution

2. Count game pitches

3. Monitor and count pregame and bullpen pitches

4. Follow pitch ratios (fastballs, breaking balls, curveballs, etc.)

5. Do not allow youth pitchers to throw breaking balls unless good mechanics are

followed and the athlete has good functional strength

6. Do not allow youth pitcher to throw split-finger fastballs unless good mechanics

are followed and the athlete has good functional strength

7. Have pitchers throw more on flat ground and pitch less on the mound

8. Remember that dealing with muscle failure requires ice AND aerobic activity

9. Heavy resistance training is OK 24 hours after mound work, but never 24 hours

before mound work

10. Never allow pitchers to work on their mound skills or pitch in competition when

the athlete is in muscle failure due to pitch totals or resistance training

Source: National Pitching Association

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