The National Federation of State High School Associations has revised its pitching restriction policy, choosing to focus on pitch counts rather than innings thrown to determine when a pitcher needs rest.
Each state is now responsible to fill in the details such as the maximum number of pitches thrown in a game, the required amount of rest based on that number, and penalties for breaking the rule. The Kansas State High School Activities Association’s current rule limits pitchers to no more than nine innings in one day and a maximum of 12 innings during a 48-hour span.
Jeremy Holaday, the KSHSAA assistant executive director in charge of baseball, said Kansas was already planning to shift toward a pitch-count rule before the ruling. Holaday said he met with 10 coaches and athletic directors last month to create a proposal that will be examined by the KSHSAA executive board in September. He would not reveal specifics or what the maximum number of pitches in a day will be.
“It’s a long time coming,” Maize coach Rocky Helm said. “It’s a move that Kansas needs to make and I think it will make baseball in Kansas better. Obviously it’s important to protect kids’ arms and the inning rule in theory is a good thing, but we’ve got to have some rules to follow on how many pitches a kid can throw. The whole innings rule did nothing but bad things for kids’ arms.”
In May, three Class 6A teams were found to have broken the innings limit in a regional. West’s Colby Pechin threw 157 pitches and 10 innings in a 16-inning win over Garden City to send West to the state tournament. Pechin and his coach, Jeff Hoover, were suspended by the KSHSAA for the first game at the state tournament, which West lost.
A 2015 study by the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine discovered more than half of elbow-ligament (Tommy John) surgeries performed between 2007 and 2011 were on 15- to 19-year-olds.
For the past four seasons, Holaday has pushed for a switch to pitch-count restrictiosn. Last season he implemented pitch-count data on the KSHSAA website that logged more than 9,000 entries from around the state. According to Holaday, only 200 or so would have violated the maximum number of pitches they have proposed. Finding common ground with the coaches on what the maximum number should be is the proposal’s most difficult challenge.
“We have enough data right now that shows overuse is causing injuries in adolescence baseball players’ arms,” Holaday said. “The best way to track overuse is pitch count, but what is the right number? I don’t think anyone will know for sure because 100 pitches for me is different than 100 pitches for you. But what we can try to do is find a number that protects and also allows for fair competition, and I think that’s what we’ve done.”
Some coaches said a variety of factors go into figuring how many pitches is acceptable.
“I think the age of the pitcher matters,” Bishop Carroll coach Charlie Ebright said. “With younger guys, we need some common sense, but most older kids are capable of handling 90 to 100 pitches. And if you have a senior who isn’t playing college baseball and it’s the last game he’ll ever pitch in his life, if you want to run him out there over 100 pitches I don’t see a problem with that. I just hope (KSHSAA) takes a common-sense approach to it.”
“I think in theory this change is a good idea, but in high school you have so many kids that are so much different from one another,” Augusta coach Doug Jefferson said. “I don’t know if this is going to be fair to everyone because it really does depend on the kid and the coach. As a coach, you have to be able to tell when a kid is getting tired because that’s when injuries happen. You have to know your kids.”
Some coaches are beginning to implement throwing programs, geared toward preventing arm injuries by strengthening them. Ebright is a firm believer. Although he said he rarely keeps pitchers in long enough to accumulate more than 100 pitches, he doesn’t think there should be a restriction if the coach deems the pitcher capable of handling the workload.
“Some guys believe the more you throw, the healthier and stronger you build up your endurance,” Ebright said. “I believe we have so many arm injuries because our kids don’t throw enough. And I’m talking about long-tossing and building up that endurance of the arm. When it comes down to it, I really think it just depends on the kid.”
While coaches will have to wait until the KSHSAA implements new restrictions, several have already been operating under their own systems. At Maize, Helm has developed pitch-count tiers that result in different requirements for days off. Starting at 50 pitches, Helm sets a mandatory day off for pitchers with anything more than 85 requiring at least two days off.
“I would like to see a cap, no doubt,” Helm said. “Probably the most important thing to me is the days’ rest after a certain number of pitches. I think there needs to be different categories and depending on how many pitches you throw, that’s how many days off is required.”
Eisenhower coach Cary Dinkel rejected the need for change.
“It’s just so hard to put a number on it for me,” Dinkel said. “I understand where people are coming from and I get all of that stuff, but if you’re a 1A school and you only have two guys that can throw, then what are they going to do? And then you look at it and are they going to put a count on how many times a catcher has to squat and throw the ball back to the pitcher? I think these things are being blown out of proportion with social media and how much attention they are gaining these days.”