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Pitch Counts: Good or bad for high school baseball?

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We have all seen it. A coach that really wants to win a game, tournament, or championship. These coaches throw out all the stops. They hit and run, squeeze, maybe even try and steal runs by executing the dreaded "rundown" play with runners on first and third. There is one thing they do they may be overlooked for this quest to win.

Overuse of their pitchers

It is quite common. The ace pitcher throws a complete game and two days later comes in relief to close the game out. Three days later he starts again. I am sure everyone can think of a time either through their youth or even watching their kids play where this scenario has happened. The kid pitches great, the team wins, and everyone is happy. Right?

Wrong..and wrong in a big way when it comes to the health of the athlete

You see it all over baseball with arm injuries to pitchers. The dreaded "Tommy John" surgery, where the ulnar collateral ligament (in between the two bones of the elbow) tears, and surgery is needed with at least a 12 month rehab time. The number one cause of this ligament tear? Overuse. It's a cumulative injury where the pitcher has thrown too much, or thrown with bad mechanics, or has thrown with too much stress on the elbow. Most of these injuries can be traced all the way back to when these athletes were young pitchers in high school, or even before that. Science says the more stress one may put on a certain part of the body, the more likely that part of the body will break down sooner. It's really common sense. So what can be done to help bring these rash of major injuries down?

Pitch Counts

Pitch counts can be seen all over baseball now-a-days. You see them as you watch a game, along with the count, outs, and runners on base. Little League baseball has instituted rules on the number of pitches one can throw, and the days rest associated with those pitches, all the way up to the Little League World Series. High schools, colleges, and even Major League Baseball teams have coaches charting pitches and keeping an eye on pitch counts, in theory, to protect the health of the pitcher. To combat the rash of arm injuries, the American Sports Medicine Institute released guidelines as to the amount of pitches, days rest, and types of pitches one should throw.

This seems to be universally accepted as the best way to keep pitchers healthy, and advance their careers without threat of injury. Dr. James Andrews, maybe the most famous orthopedic surgeon in the world, who has operated on hundreds of Major League pitchers, seems to agree. In a quote from an ESPN article, Andrews gives his opinion on pitch counts and the health of the player:

High school pitchers should not throw more than 90 pitches in a game and they should have to take at least five days rest before they pitch again anywhere. No way should they throw more than 100. The elbow isn’t ready for that workload. I understand coaches are under a lot of pressure to win, but coaches need to know your No. 1 priority is the health and safety of your young pitchers and baseball players. Your job is to deliver them to the next level without injury.... Dr. James Andrews

So, you have the world's most famous orthopedic surgeon endorsing the idea of strict pitch counts. The problem is, Andrews states in the same ESPN article, is that the pitcher won't see the effects right away of overuse:

Pitching too much in one game, one week or one season is a very high risk factor. The problem is the injuries don’t always show up when they pitch too many pitches at age 15. When you see a pitcher at age 22 start developing a problem, you go look at their history and most times you find out they threw too much as a teen.... Dr. James Andrews

So that settles it. A pitch count should be strictly enforced. Right?

Not so fast

In an interview with five anonymous Cleveland area high school coaches, three of them said they adhere to strict pitch counts, while two others use the "eye test" and "common sense" approach when evaluating when a pitcher should be taken out of the game:

You can usually see when a pitcher has had enough. It really differs as to whom you have pitching. If you have a kid who throws 80 pitches, and 40 of them are curveballs and sliders, you watch him more carefully, as opposed to a fastball-changeup type pitcher with good mechanics, you may let him go a little further into the game.... Cleveland area high school baseball coach

It's a trend that has followed in college baseball. The University of Arizona, the 2012 National Champions, have allowed their pitchers to go deep into games. In a quote to baseballnews.com, Wildcat pitching coach Shaun Cole explains his approach:

From a pitch count perspective, our magical number is 125 pitches. Once a pitcher hits that number, we really watch him carefully. We usually make a decision at that number, but we also watch pitchers throughout the game and monitor their velocity. If it drops or command starts being an issue, we might pull them.... Arizona Pitching Coach Shaun Cole

Cole went on to say that there are other factors that go into the decision on how many pitches one can throw:

If it is early in the season, why would any coach press a pitcher to go 125 or 130 pitches? But late in the year if a pitcher is conditioned well and his velocity hasn’t dropped, you probably should consider letting that pitcher go a little longer depending on the game, but at the same time, nobody really knows what the exact number should be in a pitch count. From a coaching standpoint, you never want to hurt a young man’s arm. Staying consistent with what works well helps tremendously. Knowing what a pitcher can handle is important as well....Arizona Pitching Coach Shaun Cole

Supporters of this common sense approach with bring up the fact that there are more injuries to pitchers NOW, after monitoring pitch counts than there were before. Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan once averaged 155 pitches per start in the 1970's, pitched for 24 years, and never had arm problems. Pitchers in the 1970's and even into the 1980's maintained a sense of pride in finishing what they started, pitch count be damned. Very rarely did anyone hear those pitchers having arm trouble.

No matter what side of the argument you may be on, there are some things that both sides agree on, as far as building arm strength, and maintaining the present and future health of the pitcher involved:

  1. Mechanics.... Learn to throw correctly, then how to pitch correctly. A pitcher with proper mechanics (i.e the "equal and opposite" way of pitching, the proper trunk and shoulder rotation based on the pitchers arm slot), will put less strain on the arm, and build proper endurance.
  2. Proper teaching of pitches.... Teach kids how to throw correctly, then how to throw a fastball correctly, then how to throw a change-up correctly. Why this order? Well, curveballs put a lot of stress on the arm, for one. Secondly, if a pitcher can command his fastball, then he will throw more strikes. If he throws more strikes, more balls will be put in play. The more balls are put in play, the chances of getting "quick outs" are increased, which lowers the pitchers total pitch count.
  3. Pitchers only "long toss" up to 120 feet.... It used to be widely accepted that playing long toss, even up to as long as 300 feet, strengthens the arm and leads to higher velocity. For pitchers, it may do more harm than good. Studies have shown that while it may strengthen one's arm, it messes with a pitcher's mechanics if throwing more than 120 feet. Why? Because as you increase your distance, the tendency is to throw and finish from your back foot and not your front foot, as most pitchers need to do to have proper mechanics.
  4. Off season rest.... 2-3 months of no throwing at all is suggested, and a four month time frame is recommended, to allow one's arm to rest
  5. No matter what the pitch count, loss of mechanics will lead to injuries.... If a pitcher loses velocity throughout the game, misses "high" with his pitches, the arm slot falls, and his elbow drops, it is a sign of mechanical breakdown and fatigue, and should be watched closely
  6. Any report of soreness.... Have the pitcher stop throwing immediately

Bottom line is, overuse leads to injuries. One can argue the pitch count argument, and one can argue using the common sense approach as to keep pitchers healthy. The answer to the question about high school baseball adopting pitch counts is a difficult one. It is a SUBJECTIVE answer, and not an OBJECTIVE one. If the two theories can mesh together, it would be a way to avoid injuries in the short and long term, and keep kids pitching without the fear of getting hurt.

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