New pitch-count rules mean big changes to prep baseball


It will be interesting to see if the new rules limiting pitch counts for Arizona’s high school baseball pitchers will have an effect on game scores.  More rest should mean stronger pitching, which should translate to lower scores this season.

But, of course, that’s not the objective.  It’s merely a potential by-product of the ruling.

And there are arguments that the new rules will create new problems.

Back in 2011, the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) began requiring online testing for high school athletes as a method of creating a baseline for concussion testing.

Arizona became the first state to mandate the testing, which was aimed primarily at football.  In fact, then-governor Jan Brewer issued a proclamation declaring Aug. 20 Concussion Awareness Day in the state.

Now the AIA, the governing body for high school sports in this state, has taken another big step in protecting young athletes.  But this time, Arizona isn’t the first to step boldly into new territory.  And football isn’t the target sport.

The rules limiting the number of pitches each game went into effect at the start of this high school baseball season, but forty-eight states had already taken action to install some form of pitch-count rule, following a mandate issued last July by the National Federation of State High School Associations that follows USA Baseball Pitch Smart program guidelines.

Each state was given the opportunity to come up with its own required pitching limit that would be sufficient to give players a chance to rest and help prevent overuse of the arm.

Recent findings by various sport medicine organizations are driving the need for a mandated pitching limit for high school players.  The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, for example, released statistics that show that 56.7 percent of all ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgeries – better know as Tommy John surgeries – were performed on 15-to 19-year olds.  And they have been increasing at a rate of nine percent a year.

The problem is even more prevalent in a state like Arizona, where the weather allows for year-round play.  Young arms too often don’t get enough rest to protect their growth plates.

Thirty years ago it was practically unheard-of to have a high school pitcher undergo that kind of surgery.  And any coach will tell you, once a player has had reconstructive surgery, chances are good that he will never be the same again.

Thankfully, Arizona has set up some of the strictest standards in the country.  This season, high school juniors and seniors are limited to 105 pitches each game; freshmen and sophomores are limited to 95 pitches.  There’s more to it than that, however; there are all kinds of additional factors that relate to the number of days of rest required, charted out for each grade level.

That means more paperwork for the coaches.  Not only do they need to keep track of pitch counts during games, making sure to sign the official forms at the conclusion of each game, but it also requires making sure their pitchers adhere to the days-off requirements.

While the new ruling won’t be as difficult for the larger schools, the schools with smaller enrollments will be hard-pressed to find enough pitchers to cover three games a week, which is often required, particularly during tournaments.

The solution for the smaller schools will likely be to have players on the roster who are not considered part of the pitching staff, but who are able to handle the mound duties for a couple of innings.  A good example is Camp Verde High School, which head coach Will Davis says has a roster that carries 11 different players that can get the ball over the plate, if needed.  Or Desert View High School in Tucson, which carries eight players who can pitch.

But those in favor of the rule, and that includes just about all of the high school coaches in the state according to the AIA, point out that it’s not a bad idea to have to develop more players at that position.  All the pitchers on the team get more of a chance to play, and that keeps them more involved in the game, knowing their number could be called at any time.

And it’s good for the team, they reason, since having a deep pitching staff logically makes a team better.

The downside comes for the better pitchers, the ones who will have to be pulled from a game when they’re on course to pitch a shut-out, or just having a really good outing that would improve their won-loss record or overall ERA.

With the new rule in place, there’s little chance that one or two aces will still be able to carry a team through the season, or win a tournament or state title.  Once they hit their count limit, it’s up to someone else to take over and get the job done.

There’s no denying the new pitch-count rules will be good for the high school baseball pitcher who is already maxed out with tournaments, travel club ball, camps, private pitching lessons, and the like.  But it will take some time to chart the statistics to determine the impact of the new guidelines.

In the meantime, these rules mean there could be fewer teenagers that blow out their arms before even getting a chance at a college career.

And that far outweighs the relatively few objections that have been raised so far.