Dec 04, 2016

Coaches: Pitch Limits in High School Baseball Are Both Fair and Foul

Reporting Texas

There is no rest for the high school baseball pitcher. But the University Interscholastic League is trying to correct that.

On Oct.1 7, the governing body of high school sports in Texas set a limit of 110 pitches per game, effective the 2017 season. The UIL enacted the policy to protect young arms from damage and reduce long-term injuries, including so-called Tommy John surgery, a procedure named for a former Major League Baseball pitcher who suffered ligament damage to his pitching arm.

The policy is a response to a call from the National Federation of State High School Sports Association baseball committee, which met in Indianapolis in June to come up with ideas to combat the risk of overuse in pitcher’s arms. The federation called on each state to establish pitching restrictions.

In Texas, that will mean the most pitches a player can throw without a day of rest is 30. For 110 pitches, players must have four days of rest.

The policy reflects widespread concern for the health of pitchers’ arms at young ages. Yahoo Sports baseball writer Jeff Passan researched the prevalence of pitching injuries for his best-selling book, “The Arm,” published in April. A study from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago reported this year that Tommy John surgeries were more common in 15- to 19-year-olds than in any other age group.

Still, some coaches in Texas wonder whether the UIL policy is the answer.

“I don’t know that high school baseball, because we play so few games, really has more to do with it than when kids get involved with summer ball,” Dallas Jesuit head coach Brian Jones said.

Dallas Jesuit played 46 baseball games last season: 14 district and 13 in the post-season. The rest were pre-season tournament play.

Pitch-count policies have been enacted elsewhere. Perfect Game USA, a scouting service that hosts summer baseball tournaments in Texas and across the country, established pitch counts in May. The counts vary by age groups, with 15- to 16-year-olds having a limit of 95 pitches a day and 17- and 18-year olds limited to 105.

Many coaches say the problem lies in summer tournaments that don’t have pitch-count policies.

Some tournament coaches do keep track. Jeff Johnson, the head coach at Mesquite Poteet High School, has coached summer baseball in the Dallas area for years. He said he monitors pitch counts for his summer teams and supports the UIL policy.

“In my 17 years, I’ve had two kids with Tommy John injuries,” Johnson said. “That’s a pretty good number.”

Other authorities say the solution is better exercise for players.

“We’re having kids that aren’t properly taught how to manage their shoulder and their arm to get it in shape so that they can stay healthy for an entire season,” said John Shields, a former trainer in the Houston Astros’ minor-league system.

Shields emphasized exercise during rest days to keep muscles loose and stretched. He supports throwing within 24 hours of a game.

Trevor Bauer, a pitcher for the American League champion Cleveland Indians, spends up to 30 minutes three to five days a week practicing long tosses of up to 400 feet.

“The Cleveland Indians do a really great job of arm recovery, arm health, mechanics, and they’ve got guys throwing 100 pitches every five days and they’re totally fine,” said Michael Boyle, a coach for the Texas Premiere Baseball Academy in Tomball. “The biggest part of arm health is biomechanics and knowing how to take care of your arm.”

The lack of rest for a baseball player remains a key concern for coaches and players.

“We’re in a world right now where kids specialize so often, they don’t take time away from the game of baseball,” said Jones, the coach at Dallas Jesuit. “August, November, December is the only time kids take off if they are baseball only. Now kids are doing pitching lessons too, so there’s a lot more things that go into it than high school baseball and the pitches they are throwing in the games.”

Former Texas A&M and minor league baseball player Barret Loux has played year-round his entire career. But baseball injuries bounced him from team to team. After a labrum surgery in 2013 and a Tommy John surgery a year later, Loux made three starts for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs in 2015 before ending his baseball career due to shoulder injury.

Loux now is a private pitching coach in Tomball. He said he sees a lifetime of baseball as the reason for injury.

“I started pitching at 9 or 10 years old,” Loux said. “The issue that you’re seeing now is not so much pitch count as it is you see people starting at a younger age before high school playing year-round.”

Johnson, the coach at Mesquite High School, said that while there is more to do, the pitch count regulations will increase awareness of injury.

“I think the biggest thing this is going to do is hopefully start the conversation between parents, kids and coaches of all types and just emphasizing smart pitch counts and rest,” Johnson said. “The most valuable thing for them to do is take a six-week break of no game-site throws and let their arms rest and recover.”