Nearly once a year, a high school pitcher in some corner of America throws a Herculean amount pitches for his team, and the same script follows.
National headlines chastise the coach, doctors cite the rising amount of Tommy John surgeries for young pitchers and then the story fades away, waiting for next year’s outrage.
But the National Federation of State High School Associations seeks to change the script, instructing all 50 states and the District of Columbia last week to establish pitch-count limits for the 2017 season to protect high school baseball players from coaches — and themselves.
The move drew widespread praise with even Major League Baseball issuing a press release in support of it. But Idaho coaches remain wary and are waiting to see the details.
The NFHS has not set the rules itself, instead leaving it up to each state to find its own balance.
“You see more and more Tommy John surgeries now with younger kids than you ever have before,” said Ty Jones, executive director of the Idaho High School Activities Association. “Risk minimization is a big push at the (national) federation — concussions, heat index, sudden cardiac arrest and now pitch counts.
“They are constantly — and they should be — looking at ways to make the game safer for kids.”
56.7 Percent of Tommy John surgeries between 2007-11 performed on 15-to-19-year-olds, according to the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine.
PITCHES VS. INNINGS
Idaho follows most states with an innings limit for high school pitchers. IHSAA rules require Idaho hurlers who throw seven innings, in both games of a doubleheader or on consecutive days a full day’s rest before pitching again.
The rule allows for a formula to emerge at state tournaments: Throw your ace on the opening day Thursday, have him play in the field Friday and then bring him back Saturday for the championship.
“You throw 140 (pitches) on Thursday, and you could come back pitch another 140 on Saturday. That’s ridiculous,” Skyview coach Ryan Bobo said. “Kids need to be protected against that.
“But at the same time, if you put 120-pitch limit on something, does that mean the kid can’t pitch for two days? Well, could he come back for an inning and throw 20 pitches? Yeah, I think he could.”
Innings limit vary across the 50 states from Idaho’s full day of rest to California’s limit of 10 innings a week to Illinois’ rule of seven innings a day only in the postseason.
Illinois has no rule during the regular season, leading Genoa-Kingston High’s Brady Huffman, an Illinois State recruit, to throw 167 pitches in an extra-innings loss in April. No major league pitcher has thrown that many pitches since knuckleballer Tim Wakefield in 1993, showing not all innings are created equally.
“The bad thing about innings is one inning for you, you might throw one pitch and I might throw 25. But it still counts as one for both of us,” Jones said. “Pitch count is a little more general. We just have to figure out what that number is going to be.”
Vermont pioneered the pitch count at the high school level, switching away from an innings limit eight years ago. Colorado followed suit last spring, and Alabama passed pitch-count limits in 2015 set to take effect in 2017.
The three states follow a similar model: a maximum pitch count that allows a pitcher to finish the batter he’s facing followed by a prescribed numbers of days off. The more pitches he threw, the more days off required.
Vermont limits varsity pitchers to 120 pitches in a game. If he throws 76 or more pitches, he needs three full days off — so if throws Monday, he can’t throw again until Friday. If he throws between 51-75 pitches, he needs two days rest; 26-50 pitches one day; less than 25 he can pitch on back-to-back days.
Alabama also caps its pitchers at 120 pitches and Colorado at 110. Both states follow a tiered structure for rest days similar to Vermont’s.
Colorado has an additional rule limiting high schoolers to 60 pitches in two days to prevent short outings on multiple days. Both Colorado and Alabama require schools to submit data to their state association, while Vermont requires schools to keep a hard copy of their pitch counts available upon request.
Alabama fines schools $250 for violating the pitch counts and forces them to forfeit the game.
With the mandate coming down last week from the NFHS, Jones said Idaho is still gathering information for its plan. He said he has reached out to baseball coaches and athletic directors around the state, setting an Aug. 26 deadline for proposals in order to have a final plan approved by the IHSAA Dec. 6 board meeting.
Bishop Kelly coach Jeff Cammann said he already maintains a pitch count for his staff, only allowing one pitcher to hit 102 pitches this spring. Bobo said he doesn’t have a set limit, operating via feel for when his pitchers tire. But he added 110 or 115 pitches would be a lot for Skyview.
But both agree whatever the pitch-count limit the IHSAA sets, it’ll change the game in Idaho. Coaches will need to search for more pitchers, particularly relievers who can fill in a couple innings to finish games or the week. And opposing coaches will start ordering hitters to take pitches in order to hike up the pitch count of the ace they are facing.
“Your dominant pitcher, he might start being the last-two-innings guy of a game instead of starting him,” Cammann said. “That guy might be in a different role, which I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”
Pitch Smart recommendations
MLB and USA Baseball joined forces in 2014 to develop Pitch Smart, a program that sets age-appropriate guidelines to help pitchers, parents and coaches avoid overuse injuries. Below are the recommendations for high school-aged players, which includes four days of rest for anyone throwing 76 or more pitches.
Required rest (pitches)