Prep baseball: Pitch count rule was a matter of time
Too many kids were getting hurt.
For every story of a kid walking to the mound and becoming the hero of a doubleheader, there are stories of young adults deciding whether they will ever throw again.
More than half of the Tommy John surgeries performed between 2007-2011 were done on people between the ages of 15 and 19, according to a 2015 study by American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine.
Not all injuries can be prevented, but taking unnecessary risks with the health of a young athlete is not worth the risk. With that in mind, the National Federation of State High School Athletics Association mandated last June that each state require a certain amount of rest for each pitcher correlated to the number of pitches he or she throws.
Every state has had to implement a new set of rules. In the past, Wisconsin had a rule that a single pitcher could only throw seven innings every three days.
Now, WIAA requires pitchers to have a full day of rest if they throw between 31 and 49 pitches. If they throw between 50 and 75 pitches, they are required to have two days of rest and if they throw 75 to 100 pitches, they are required to take three days of rest.
A pitcher is not allowed to exceed 100 pitches.
READ: WIAA Pitching Restrictions (external link)
Minnesota has imposed a similar rule. During the regular season, pitchers are allowed to throw a maximum of 105 pitches a game. In the offseason, pitchers are allowed to throw 115 pitches in a start.
All of that is old news, though.
How has it changed things?
Coaches have to be thinking ahead. Coaches have to be much more prepared to pull a pitcher who is consistently getting into jams — even if they escape without giving up runs.
"With the new pitch count rule, you have to pound the zone," Spring Valley head coach Brad Baker said. "You aren't afforded much liberty there to waste pitches. The rule makes us focus on working on that even more."
When teams have five games in seven days, and other similar situations, they must prioritize which pitchers are going to pitch on which day and how many pitches they can throw on a given day.
Plum City head coach Brent Blegen says that can make things more interesting.
"I have to be more organized than I've had to be in the past," Blegen said Friday, April 7. "I have to be paying attention all the time. I know that Wyatt can only pitch 49 pitches tomorrow because he is going to be extended up to 100 on Monday (against Spring Valley)."
Most schools have always tracked the number of pitches that a pitcher is throwing and wouldn't push a kid to keep throwing if the kid had reached a point of being tired. Though there are differences, there are similarities too.
Cottage Grove Park (Minn.) coach John McGowan said that most of the challenge lies within the administrative aspects of tracking pitches because the safety of the athletes was always important.
"It's just something we have to remember to record," McGowan said. "For us, it's always been something in our head. We've always known the pitch count, and where our pitchers are at. But we've never pushed guys longer than they need to go."
How is it affecting games?
The athletes are the ones that the rule was intended to protect. When the rule was mandated for Wisconsin by WIAA, Prescott coach Jeff Ryan said that he had noticed other coaches around the state throwing one pitcher far more often than made sense to him.
"The pitchers for some of these schools, it's unbelievable," said Ryan in an interview in June. "You will have kids that have 13,14, 15 decisions and have thrown 130, 140 innings in a season. I'm thinking, 'Come on.' Unfortunately, there are stories out there like that."
Plum City senior Wyatt Holt said he understood why the rule would be good for pitchers, but that it would change the way he pitched a little bit.
"Before the rule was changed, when I was pitching I was just focusing on winning," Holt said. "I knew that I could go seven innings and pitch into the hundreds if I needed to and handle it just fine. All I was worried about was winning."
When Ellsworth and Prescott met for the first time this year, Ellsworth pitcher Jacob Sigler allowed one run after the bases were loaded with no outs.The senior returned to the dugout and asked how many pitches he had thrown. He threw 25. With a grin he said he could get through four innings with that pace.
He was thinking about it.
Sigler cruised through inning two, three, four and five. He got one out in the fifth inning before issuing a walk on his 98th pitch of the game.
Ellsworth coach Ryan Christenson said he thought Sigler was getting tired, but ultimately, he couldn't go over 100 pitches.
Prescott saw that as an opportunity.
"He was reaching 100 pitches there and everybody in the park knew that," Ryan said. "That gave us a window, not to discredit the young man that came in after him, but when you have an experienced three-year guy on the mound, like Mr. Sigler, it is going to make a difference when he goes out of the game."
Prescott took advantage and tied the game in the top of the seventh inning before Ellsworth won 7-6.
It wasn't like Prescott was trying to drive the pitch-count up to get Sigler out of the game. That would be a strategy for teams to employ against a pitcher, but to this point the rule has just been a positive step toward keeping arms healthy.
"The new pitch count is obviously a good thing in the best interest of the kids," River Falls coach Ryan Bishop said. "I've had a couple arm surgeries myself, so you could say I'm extra cautious with not overthrowing our pitchers."
After coaching three players who are currently in the minor leagues, Bishop recognizes that developing players can be more important than just winning the next game.
"You never know when another J.P. Feyereisen, Marty Herum or Alex Call are going to come along," Bishop said. "The last thing I'd ever want on my name is to say I cost them their dream because I wanted to win a high school game."
Big schools and small schools
All of the coaches interviewed for this story said they agreed with the intentions of the rule.
There are coaches that say the rule doesn't affect them. There are coaches that think the rule creates a hassle administratively. There are coaches who are working hard to develop more pitchers.
"(Health of our pitchers) is one of the main reasons we work to develop every player as a pitcher also in their early years," Bishop said. "The schools who don't develop a lot of pitchers will need to adapt the most."
Without a doubt, a small school like Plum City, which has an enrollment of 98 students, is going to be more handcuffed by the rule than a school like River Falls with an enrollment of 977.
Blegen had to get to work in the offseason to prepare pitchers for the all-hands-on-deck effort this season.
"We've had more pitchers coming in more often early so that we have more pitchers into the fold," Blegen said. "We've had some guys throwing live a couple of times per week so that we can be positioned for the pitch count rule.
"I'm not worried about running out of pitchers, but what I'm not saying is that the fifth and sixth pitcher are going to be able to shut down a top-notch lineup. I do have confidence, though, that those pitchers will all be able to throw strikes and get outs."
Baker agreed with Blegen in the sense that teams would have to strategize within the schedule to be as competitive as possible.
"Now we have to look at our schedule and see how many you want each guy to throw," Baker said. "If you want to save a guy, now we need to have another guy ready to save a guy for games later in the week."
The challenge that Baker and Blegen share is to make sure they are developing enough pitchers to remain competitive and legal.
"It is what it is," Baker said. "We knew it was coming, so we're just going to develop more pitchers. Other schools will figure out ways to deal with it and make it work.
"The key going forward is to get JV guys going and throwing to be ready for varsity in the coming years."
Plum City doesn't have a JV schedule, which makes development more of a challenge.
"It's a weird rule," Plum City senior Connor Hinrichs said. "We already know that we'll have to strategize a lot more. It's going to be a lot more of a game of chess; it's not checkers anymore."