High school baseball remains a game defined by numbers.
Ninety feet between the bases.
Sixty feet, six inches from the rubber to home plate.
Twenty-one outs in a game.
But a new set of numbers has altered the game in Idaho and throughout the nation.
The National Federation of State High School Associations mandated all 50 states and the District of Columbia create a pitch count limit for high school pitchers starting this season. The federation left it up to each state to set its own specifics, but the message was clear — player safety comes first as Tommy John elbow surgeries become more and more common. A 2015 American Orthopedic Society study found 56.7 percent of the Tommy John surgeries performed between 2007-11 were on 15-to-19-year-olds.
“The days of just riding one or two horses, like I assume some schools might have to do, those days are gone,” said Nampa Christian coach Marc Harris, who is in his 35th year leading the Trojans. “You better have more than two horses in your stall.”
Five weeks into Idaho’s season, we take a look at the state’s pitch count rule and its effects.
WHAT IS THE RULE?
Like most states, Idaho previously limited its pitchers by the amount of innings they threw, requiring 24 hours of rest after seven innings. To meet the new national requirements, the Idaho High School Activities Association installed a two-tiered system.
▪ For 30 days after the first practice, pitchers are limited to: 1-28 pitches (no days rest), 29-49 pitches (one day rest), 50-70 pitches (two days rest), 71-88 pitches (three days rest).
▪ The rest of the season, pitchers are limited to: 1-35 pitches (no days rest), 36-60 pitches (one day rest), 61-85 pitches (two days rest), 86-110 (three days rest).
Pitchers can finish a batter if they reach 110 pitches in the middle of an at-bat, and no pitcher can be used on three consecutive days, regardless of how many pitches he’s thrown. Any discrepancies between two team’s pitch counts defaults to the home team’s scorebook.
The IHSAA then requires each team to enter the amount of pitches each of its players threw on MaxPreps.com before the start of the next game.
For your starters, the rules have been spot on. Because there are guys that are playing their pitchers for 150-plus pitches. We’ve seen it, and it’s absolutely crazy.” Rod Williams, Meridian coach
ARE TEAMS FOLLOWING IT?
Research by the Idaho Statesman shows 35 percent of the 232 games involving at least one Treasure Valley team through Saturday did not have complete pitch count data from both teams on MaxPreps.com as of 5 p.m. Monday.
The Statesman dug through the publicly available information on MaxPreps.com for all 34 baseball-playing schools in the district. It counted games against out-of-state competition as fully reported if only the Treasure Valley team’s pitch counts were entered.
35 Percent of the high school baseball games involving at least one Treasure Valley team with incomplete or missing pitch counts on MaxPreps.com.
Penalties for violating the new rule range from a $200 to $400 fine, to player and coach suspensions, to forfeiting games and even forfeiting postseason eligibility if it’s a consistent problem, said Terry Beck, the president of the District Three Board of Control.
Beck said no one has reported any issues to the board, and the board doesn’t have the resources to investigate rule violations on its own. It relies on submissions from schools, which he said self report 90 percent of the violations the board handles.
“This is new, and we’re working through it,” Beck said. “The board of control, our job is to educate and work through this. If it becomes a huge issue, there will be penalties in place if it comes to our attention.”
Cole Valley Christian has yet to enter the pitch counts from any of its nine games on MaxPreps.com. Chargers coach Nate Hoiosen said his team has struggled to link the account of their stat program with the website, and he’s keeping a hard copy of his pitch counts.
“I know we’ve been having a hard time getting it to work early on,” Hoiosen said. “I know talking with other coaches that’s been a problem, too.”
Coaches throughout the Treasure Valley said they don’t think anyone is trying to cheat or purposefully avoid the rule. But in the rule’s first year, plenty of games have fallen through the cracks, frustrating those who do report their pitch counts.
“I guarantee nobody is doing it intentionally,” Meridian coach Rod Williams said. “But the issue is at some point are we really going to take it seriously and are we really going to enforce it? Or are we not going to enforce it?
“Let me put it this way. The pitch count is probably being taken serious, but the documentation of it is not. It’s obviously not being enforced.”
WHAT EFFECT IS IT HAVING?
Mountain View coach Matt Rasmussen said he was curious how the rule would change the game entering the season. But after a month, he said seismic changes have yet to materialize.
A light schedule early in the season, combined with coaches slowly building up their pitchers’ workloads, has avoided many issues at the top end of the pitch count. But Rasmussen and Williams said the largest effect has come with the required off days for their bullpen.
For example, if a reliever throws 65 pitches over three innings on Tuesday, he’s not available to pitch again until Friday. In the past, he could have thrown Wednesday and then again Friday.
“It has not affected us in that way other than after the game you have to go in and report it, and you know he can’t throw tomorrow. That’s good,” Williams said. “That’s ultimately the goal — to make sure you better have more guys.”
That advanced planning has Rasmussen and the Mavericks utilizing three pitch counts for their own players — one hard count in the dugout, one on their iPad scorebook and another in the stands. Plus, Rasmussen said he’s tracking opposing pitchers for the first time.
“We’re kind of forced to, and it has opened everybody’s eyes,” Rasmussen said. “This new rule has trained everybody to pay attention a little bit closer than maybe they have in the past.”
WHAT ABOUT SMALLER SCHOOLS?
Meridian and Mountain View began their search for extra arms in the offseason to prepare for the rule. But at smaller schools, the demand for depth stands out as players don’t have the ability to focus solely on pitching.
Nampa Christian fields 12 to 13 players on its varsity team each year. When the season began, Harris tried out eight players to see who could get the ball over the plate and burn innings when needed.
He settled on three main starters, one closer and three emergency pitchers, a luxury at the 2A level. Harris said if the Trojans get a big lead or fall way behind, he’ll turn to his inning burners in order to save pitches on his starters.
He admits the calculus required to navigate the new rule has forced him to make moves that cost him games.
“It hasn’t been a terribly bad thing, but it definitely has changed the game,” Harris said. “It’s changed the way the game is going. You’re constantly like, ‘What pitch is he on? Where is he at?’ ”
One hundred (pitches) was already kind of our top. But our guys prided themselves on how many (complete games) you can get in a year. That language doesn’t even get talked about anymore.” Marc Harris, Nampa Christian coach
Wilder coach Kyle DalSoglio said a rough first or second inning can cause a coach to start sweating bullets. Once a pitcher is past 35 pitches, he needs a full day of rest. So a coach has to consider, can he work his way out of it? If he doesn’t, who can I go to? How will that affect my staff the rest of the week? And is this game worth burning through two arms for?
Those decisions will only become amplified at the state tournaments. In the three-day tournaments for the 5A to 2A levels, teams often used their ace for a complete game on Thursday and brought him back for the championship Saturday. That’s no longer an option.
And at the two-day state tournament for the 1A classification, a team can play as many as five games. So once a pitcher crosses 35 pitches, he’s done for the rest of the tournament.
“It’s hard. You’re sacrificing the potential of your team,” DalSoglio said. “The safety of the kids is the most important thing, and I do agree with that. I don’t know if there is a way to adjust it for the smaller schools. But if there was a way, it’d be nice.”