Local high school baseball coaches have always monitored their pitchers closely to ensure good health and make sure they were meeting national regulations.
After a rule change last week, however, coaches are going to have to take an even closer look at their pitching staffs.
The National Federation of State High School Associations Baseball Rules Committee will now "require a pitching restriction policy based on the number of pitches thrown in a game" in an effort to prevent overuse of young arms. The previous pitching restriction was based on innings.
Westminster varsity coach Mark Winebrunner hadn't heard about the rule change last Monday, but his immediate impression was that it's good for the players.
"I would hope it's a little more limiting than what the rules are now," Winebrunner said.
The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association will be charged with implementing its pitch-count policy, according to information on the NFHS website.
The old regulation for high school pitchers in Maryland was a maximum of 14 innings over seven days or 10 in three days. That allowed pitchers to max out at two complete games per week, but didn't mandate any limit with pitches. That meant pitchers could routinely surpass the 95-pitch limit for 15 and 16-year-olds and 105-pitch limit for 17 and 18-year-olds in USA Baseball's Pitch Smart Program guidelines.
Winebrunner said he doesn't think a pitch limit will cause him to do anything different at Westminster. His starters usually pitched once per week during the regular season, he said, and sometimes made relief appearances for an inning or two later in the week depending on how many pitches they threw in their start. That was a rarity for the county champion Owls, though, who boasted Times Player of the Year Brandon Martin. The college-bound Martin was 5-0 with a 3.18 ERA and 33 strikeouts on the mound.
Century's Ethan Kiple, a Times all-county selection last spring who starred at pitcher and infielder, was a little more skeptical of the rule change.
Working on a strict pitch count adds another thing for a pitcher to worry about on the mound, said Kiple, who also learned of the rule change last Monday. Kiple said it usually takes him 20 to 30 pitches "to get locked in" on the mound, which could shorten his outings.
"It's just easier to focus and not worry about that when you're pitching," Kiple said.
As a member of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association, Gerstell Academy coach Cap Poklemba's team won't have to follow the new NFHS guidelines unless the Falcons are taking on a public school team, but he supported more regulation for pitchers. Poklemba recounted six or seven games where the opposing pitcher threw at least 125 pitches against his squad this spring.
Poklemba said he keeps his pitchers to a strict pitch count — usually around 90 pitches — but is flexible depending on the style of pitcher and his skill level.
Poklemba lifted pitcher Reece Early, the No. 4-ranked player in the state in the Class of 2019 according to Prep Baseball Report, before the seventh inning of a game this season in which Early was throwing a no-hitter.
"I feel like now you have guys throwing a lot of different pitches," Poklemba said. "It used to be a fastball count all the time. I would say 75 percent of the pitches back then were fastballs. Now you see kids throwing all sorts of different stuff. … When it comes down to it, it all falls to the coaches. The coach has to have the mindset of the kid first, not the win first."
Both Winebrunner and Kiple pointed out that a side effect of the rule change could trickle down to how teams construct rosters and the different roles players will have to fill.
"You'll probably need more pitching as a team," Kiple said.
"I think it might be more limiting," Winebrunner said. "I would assume that whatever they come up with won't be the equivalent of 14 innings within a week, so I would assume that it might be a little more limiting on what we're able to do."
The goal is to protect the arms of young baseball players coming up through the high school ranks, and there's not a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of arm injuries. Players are built differently and able to handle different workloads, Poklemba said, while where a player plays in the field after pitching can also impact his arm.
"I think there's a lot of factors that go into it more than just the innings," Winebrunner said.