2017-04-05 / Columns

TIME OUT

By John Bernhardt

A USA Today feature this spring demonstrated the reason the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHSA) has mandated that member states institute mandatory pitch counts in school baseball programs this spring. The NFHSA left it up to each individual state to put in place their own pitch count dictums, but it is mandatory that every state under their jurisdiction move to protect the arms of young guys who pitch a baseball.

To demonstrate the necessity of the NFHSA mandate, Jim Halley of USA Today recapped a classic high school baseball encounter, a 1977 showdown between two Texas high schools for a district championship. On that historic day in 1977, Irvington High School squared off against Duncanville High with a future major league pitcher on the mound for both the competing squads. The game was a single-game marathon, a nail biter of epic proportions with Duncanville edging Irvington, 2-1 in 15 innings.

The starting pitchers that day, Irvington’s Tony Arnold and Duncanville’s Keith Creel, both pitched complete games. Arnold tossed an incomparable 280 pitches as the losing pitcher. Creel, the winning pitcher threw 253. The two high school pitching phenoms struck out a combined 57 batters. That contest depicts an incredible, almost hard to believe testimony of the stress, and some would argue abuse, placed on a young pitcher’s arm by coaches long ago.

Fast forward to the spring of 2016. Last season, a high school senior pitching for Genoa Kingston, a high school in Illinois, a kid named Brady Huffman, threw a 10-inning complete game. Huffman, who pitched this spring for Illinois State, threw 167 pitches. Newspapers across the country were outraged, printing stinging editorials about the misuse of the talented senior pitcher.

Growing list of injuries

Baseball fans have read about and are well aware of the explosion of UCL elbow tears, that’s the ulnar collateral ligament that has become almost an epidemic among major league pitchers in recent years. More and more, it seems like UCL surgery is now a ‘right of passage’ for a major league pitcher.

What people are basically unaware of is the explosion of those same UCL surgeries in youth baseball pitchers. A study by American Orthopedic Society of Sports Medicine revealed that 56.7 percent of all Tommy John surgeries, that’s the name of the UCL procedure to replace the torn UCL, between the years 2007 and 2011 were performed on kids, kids between the ages of 15 and 19. It’s data such as this that pushed the NFHSA to act.

Pitch count mandates vary state by state across the country. Three factors generally play into a state’s pitch-count dictum. First, the age of the young man throwing the baseball, second, the pitch cap for each age group, and third, the number of nights rest required based on the number of pitches a young guy throws all are addressed by each state. Sounds complicated. It is.

Mandated nights rest between pitching outings might be a surprise to many readers. Interestingly enough, those rest periods might be the most important part of the new pitch-count regulations. In May, the Journal of Sports Medicine reported on results from a study of 104 major league pitchers who had Tommy John surgery. Researchers were looking for commonalties they might use to help prevent UCL tears in baseball pitchers. Although the researchers discovered some casual commonalities, nights between consecutive games was the biggest injury factor. Less pronounced were things like pitch counts, the physical stature of the pitcher, a less pronounced horizontal release location when the pitcher lets go of the baseball, and throwing harder.

A game changer

The pitch count mandate will undoubtedly change the game. Certainly, small public schools like those in Delaware County, will need to try and develop deep pools of pitchers. Strategy, too, will come into play with the mandated pitch count. Will pitchers waste 0-2 pitches trying to entice batters to offer at pitches off the plate as they worry about the total number of pitches they have thrown? Will batters become less aggressive early in pitch counts trying to run up the total number of pitches a starter has thrown to try and get him removed from the game? Will coaches use two pitchers at a time, throwing their ace against the top of a team’s batting order, and a lesser skilled hurler against the bottom three or four batters in the line-up? All interesting questions soon to be answered this spring.

One thing is certain; pitch counts will be front and center in high school baseball in the spring of 2017.

Pitch Count Charts

Maximum # of Pitches

Varsity JV/ Frosh Modified
96-105 76-85 61-75
66-95 46-75 41-60
31-65 31-45 21-40
1-30 1-30 1-20

# of Nights Rest

Varsity JV/Frosh Modified
444
333
222
111

Varsity pitch counts are expanded during the post season with the nights rest between levels remaining the same. Level 1 - 103 to 125, Level 2 - 72 to 103, Level 3 - 41 to 71, Level 4 - 1 to 40

1. If a pitch is thrown on a balk call, the pitch will NOT count for the purposes of this rule

2. A pitcher at any level who reaches the pitch count limit in the middle of an at-bat will be allowed to finish that hitter.

3. Schools will have the responsibility to maintain all pitching charts. They will also be required to make any game chart available to any school prior to any game to show availability of pitchers for that given day.

4. During games, each team will record pitch counts on the official New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) pitch count form, this should not include warm-ups or pick off attempts. After each half inning, the pitch counts will be confirmed by both teams. Any discrepancy will be resolved based on the records of the home team pitch count chart.

5. At game’s conclusion, the NYSPHSAA pitch count form will be signed by both head coaches or designated representative.

6. Any violation of this rule will be considered in the same light as a school using an ineligible player. The game will be forfeited.

7. As per the NYSPHSAA handbook, any additional penalties may be imposed at the school or section level.

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