Baseball

Pitch-count rule appears ready to pass in IHSA, rest of U.S. with potential NFHS rule

Organization could pass rule as soon as next week requiring each state to have pitch count

On March 21, McHenry ace Bobby Miller was dealing. 

The Louisville commit had held Antioch hitless for five innings while striking out nine batters, including four in a row at one point. A big, round zero sat on the scoreboard in the hit column. Yet, the number Warriors coach Brian Rockweiler was concerned with was his pitch count. 

When he saw that Miller had thrown 82 pitches, Rockweiler decided it was too early in the season to stretch out his ace, and pulled him with a no-hitter.

At a time when arm injuries for youth and high school baseball players have grown fivefold to sevenfold since 2000, coaches are increasingly faced with tough decisions about how to use their pitchers. 

But plans are in the works for the National Federation of High Schools and the Illinois High School Association to pass increased pitching safety measures that could guide the way coaches use their pitchers. Vermont and Colorado have moved to a pitch-count system, and several others states (including Alabama, Oklahoma, Maine and Oregon) are at different stages of adopting a similar system.

In Illinois, IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson has expressed his desire to see such a measure added in baseball before the start of the 2017 season. In late August, a committee will convene and Dr. Preston Wolin, the head of the IHSA sports medicine advisory committee, will present his recommendations for a 105-pitch limit, a number based on recommendations from USA Baseball’s Pitch Smart program. 

No matter the result of that meeting, pending legislation from the NFHS could force all state associations to adopt a pitch-count rule. The NFHS’ rules committee has proposed a mandate that would require each state to adopt a pitch count, a number that can vary by state. The Board of Directors is expected to make a final decision on the rule change as soon as the end of next week (July 8). 

“I think Texas knows what’s in the best interest for Texas. Alaska knows what’s in the best interest of Alaska," said Elliot Hopkins, the NFHS director of sports, sanctioning and student services. "Each state association that has a sports medicine advisory committee is better suited to come up with a number that they can all live with and not put a child at risk.”

A coach’s decision 

Hampshire coach John Sarna likes to play by his own rules. 

In addition to limiting the number of pitches his athletes throw, Sarna typically doesn't play his pitchers on defense the following day, and he tries to avoid having the shortstop be a pitcher.

When Trey Schramm was in high school, for example, Sarna forced him to move from shortstop to first base to preserve his arm. It paid off, as Schramm and his 90-plus mph fastball helped Xavier win the Big East championship this spring.

Even still, Sarna and many other coaches are somewhat reluctant to give up decision-making to the NFHS or IHSA.

“Those of us who have been doing this long enough don’t want to see a governing body come in and tell us how to do our job,” Sarna said. “None of us want to see that.

"I’ve always felt education is the answer. There’s so much ignorance out there. I think there should be mandatory training. Not many people attend clinics anymore. Not many people get in those discussions that are healthy for young coaches.”

A pitch-count rule might not be as big of a change as some believe. At Prairie Ridge, for example, starters averaged only 66 pitches during 38 games this year, according to in-house stats. Only four times did a starter exceed 90 pitches.

A 105-pitch limit such as the one Dr. Wolin has suggested would change virtually nothing for the Wolves because they already are following common guidelines. 

“Honestly, that won’t even affect us,” Prairie Ridge coach Glen Pecoraro said. “(Pitching) coach (Andy) Deain does a great job of monitoring our pitchers. Very rarely do we throw a kid over 90 or 100 pitches. We’ve got bullpen guys. We’ve got a closer. He always builds a bullpen with 10 or 11 guys. I’m very fortunate to have a guy that monitors all that and watches very closely.”

Instead, the measures would act as a safeguard against more extreme cases, such as when Genoa-Kingston coach Roger Butler allowed senior right-hander Brady Huffman to throw 167 this past season.

“The rules are for the outliers,” said Dr. Wolin, who also serves as the director of sports medicine at the Chicago Center for Orthopedics at Weiss Memorial Hospital. “The rules are not for the overwhelming number of coaches who know how many pitches or how many innings a young man or young woman should be throwing."

Who’s counting?

The 8-inch scar runs from Prairie Ridge righty Ethan Routzahn’s biceps to his forearm, a permanent sign of his reconstructive elbow surgery. 

Two years ago, when he was barely 16 years old, Routzahn tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm and required Tommy John surgery. Although the injury occurred on a high school diamond, Routzahn firmly believes his injury stems from mismanagement and overuse at the youth level, when he would throw three or four times in a given weekend, starting when he was 9.

“The main thing that will forever be a struggle is the communication between a pitching coach and the pitchers,” said Routzahn, who has committed to play at Dallas Baptist. “Pitchers will always say their arm is fine. The coach will ask, 'Can you throw today'? And the pitcher will say, ‘Yes, sir.”

Some coaches will point out that, although pitching restrictions are aimed at preventing arm injuries, this will only control what happens a few months out of the year. The new mandates would do nothing to safeguard against travel baseball coaches who push their pitchers too far or showcases that encourage pitchers to throw all out when they may not be in condition to do so. 

Cary-Grove coach Don Sutherland has seen several instances when a pitcher shows up on the first day of high school baseball season with a sore arm because of offseason training. Stu Gaulke, a 2011 graduate, didn’t throw a pitch at the high school level during his junior year because of lingering soreness from offseason training. 

“You’ve got to monitor pitching during the season,” Sutherland said. “But can you count the number of pitches a kid throws in a warehouse in January?”

Dr. Wolin has heard these arguments and recognizes travel leagues and showcases can present problems.

“They make excellent points,” Dr. Wolin said. “My thought and the committee’s thought is, well, all of that is true, but nevertheless, we have the opportunity to at least intervene when these players are under the control of the IHSA.”

What’s next?

Despite some opposition, it appears likely pitch counts are coming to Illinois, if not this year, then soon. 

Little League Baseball, Pony League Baseball, Dixie Baseball and Cal Ripken have adopted USA Baseball’s Pitch Smart guidelines. 

“If Dixie and Pony and Little League are all using Pitch Smart, by the time little Jimmy comes to Mount Carmel High School, his mother and father fully expect that the high school will monitor his arm just the way they did for the last five to 10 previous years,” Hopkins said.

Should these rules come to fruition, injuries won’t be completely eliminated. But you certainly won’t see any more 150-plus pitch outings. 

“We can’t stop all injuries,” Dr. Wolin said. “But, if we can prevent injuries, we’ve done a service to the baseball community.”

2016 Prairie Ridge starting pitcher pitch counts

March 19 Jon Tieman 71

March 21 Ethan Routzahn 61

March 23 John Hanley 65

March 26 Jon Tieman 60

March 28 Ethan Routzahn 87

March 29 Ryan Schmit 58

March 30 Joey Hanley 81

April 2 Ethan Routzahn 41

April 4 Ryan Schmit 73

April 5 Joey Hanley 82

April 7 Jon Tieman 80

April 9 Ethan Routzahn 20

April 11 Joey Hanley 88

April 12 Ethan Routzahn 74

April 13 Jon Tieman 106

April 15 Scott Nygren 41

April 16 Joey Hanley 67

April 18 Ethan Routzahn 57

April 22 Jon Tieman 67

April 23 Joey Hanley 74

April 26 Scott Nygren 47

April 28 Ethan Routzahn 62

April 29 Joey Hanley 43

May 2 Scott Nygren 57

May 3 Jon Tieman 77

May 4 Joey Hanley 16

May 5 Ethan Routzahn 83

May 7 Ryan Schmit 67

May 9 Jon Tieman 100

May 11 Joey Hanley 99

May 13 Ethan Routzahn 70

May 14 Jon Tieman 91

May 17 Robbie Masini 46

May 18 Joey Hanley 65

May 19 Ethan Routzahn 72

May 25 Ethan Routzahn 18

May 28 Jon Tieman 55

June 1 Ethan Routzahn 82

In 38 games this year, Prairie Ridge starters averaged 66 pitches. Only four times did a starter exceed 90 pitches. Twice Jon Tieman pitched 100 or more. A 105-pitch limit, such as the one Dr. Wolin has suggested, would have a minimal impact on the Wolves' approach to pitching.

On March 21, McHenry ace Bobby Miller was dealing. 

The Louisville commit had held Antioch hitless for five innings while striking out nine batters, including four in a row at one point. A big, round zero sat on the scoreboard in the hit column. Yet, the number Warriors coach Brian Rockweiler was concerned with was his pitch count. 

When he saw that Miller had thrown 82 pitches, Rockweiler decided it was too early in the season to stretch out his ace, and pulled him with a no-hitter.

At a time when arm injuries for youth and high school baseball players have grown fivefold to sevenfold since 2000, coaches are increasingly faced with tough decisions about how to use their pitchers. 

But plans are in the works for the National Federation of High Schools and the Illinois High School Association to pass increased pitching safety measures that could guide the way coaches use their pitchers. Vermont and Colorado have moved to a pitch-count system, and several others states (including Alabama, Oklahoma, Maine and Oregon) are at different stages of adopting a similar system.

In Illinois, IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson has expressed his desire to see such a measure added in baseball before the start of the 2017 season. In late August, a committee will convene and Dr. Preston Wolin, the head of the IHSA sports medicine advisory committee, will present his recommendations for a 105-pitch limit, a number based on recommendations from USA Baseball’s Pitch Smart program. 

No matter the result of that meeting, pending legislation from the NFHS could force all state associations to adopt a pitch-count rule. The NFHS’ rules committee has proposed a mandate that would require each state to adopt a pitch count, a number that can vary by state. The Board of Directors is expected to make a final decision on the rule change as soon as the end of next week (July 8). 

“I think Texas knows what’s in the best interest for Texas. Alaska knows what’s in the best interest of Alaska," said Elliot Hopkins, the NFHS director of sports, sanctioning and student services. "Each state association that has a sports medicine advisory committee is better suited to come up with a number that they can all live with and not put a child at risk.”

A coach’s decision 

Hampshire coach John Sarna likes to play by his own rules. 

In addition to limiting the number of pitches his athletes throw, Sarna typically doesn't play his pitchers on defense the following day, and he tries to avoid having the shortstop be a pitcher.

When Trey Schramm was in high school, for example, Sarna forced him to move from shortstop to first base to preserve his arm. It paid off, as Schramm and his 90-plus mph fastball helped Xavier win the Big East championship this spring.

Even still, Sarna and many other coaches are somewhat reluctant to give up decision-making to the NFHS or IHSA.

“Those of us who have been doing this long enough don’t want to see a governing body come in and tell us how to do our job,” Sarna said. “None of us want to see that.

"I’ve always felt education is the answer. There’s so much ignorance out there. I think there should be mandatory training. Not many people attend clinics anymore. Not many people get in those discussions that are healthy for young coaches.”

A pitch-count rule might not be as big of a change as some believe. At Prairie Ridge, for example, starters averaged only 66 pitches during 38 games this year, according to in-house stats. Only four times did a starter exceed 90 pitches.

A 105-pitch limit such as the one Dr. Wolin has suggested would change virtually nothing for the Wolves because they already are following common guidelines. 

“Honestly, that won’t even affect us,” Prairie Ridge coach Glen Pecoraro said. “(Pitching) coach (Andy) Deain does a great job of monitoring our pitchers. Very rarely do we throw a kid over 90 or 100 pitches. We’ve got bullpen guys. We’ve got a closer. He always builds a bullpen with 10 or 11 guys. I’m very fortunate to have a guy that monitors all that and watches very closely.”

Instead, the measures would act as a safeguard against more extreme cases, such as when Genoa-Kingston coach Roger Butler allowed senior right-hander Brady Huffman to throw 167 this past season.

“The rules are for the outliers,” said Dr. Wolin, who also serves as the director of sports medicine at the Chicago Center for Orthopedics at Weiss Memorial Hospital. “The rules are not for the overwhelming number of coaches who know how many pitches or how many innings a young man or young woman should be throwing."

Who’s counting?

The 8-inch scar runs from Prairie Ridge righty Ethan Routzahn’s biceps to his forearm, a permanent sign of his reconstructive elbow surgery. 

Two years ago, when he was barely 16 years old, Routzahn tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm and required Tommy John surgery. Although the injury occurred on a high school diamond, Routzahn firmly believes his injury stems from mismanagement and overuse at the youth level, when he would throw three or four times in a given weekend, starting when he was 9.

“The main thing that will forever be a struggle is the communication between a pitching coach and the pitchers,” said Routzahn, who has committed to play at Dallas Baptist. “Pitchers will always say their arm is fine. The coach will ask, 'Can you throw today'? And the pitcher will say, ‘Yes, sir.”

Some coaches will point out that, although pitching restrictions are aimed at preventing arm injuries, this will only control what happens a few months out of the year. The new mandates would do nothing to safeguard against travel baseball coaches who push their pitchers too far or showcases that encourage pitchers to throw all out when they may not be in condition to do so. 

Cary-Grove coach Don Sutherland has seen several instances when a pitcher shows up on the first day of high school baseball season with a sore arm because of offseason training. Stu Gaulke, a 2011 graduate, didn’t throw a pitch at the high school level during his junior year because of lingering soreness from offseason training. 

“You’ve got to monitor pitching during the season,” Sutherland said. “But can you count the number of pitches a kid throws in a warehouse in January?”

Dr. Wolin has heard these arguments and recognizes travel leagues and showcases can present problems.

“They make excellent points,” Dr. Wolin said. “My thought and the committee’s thought is, well, all of that is true, but nevertheless, we have the opportunity to at least intervene when these players are under the control of the IHSA.”

What’s next?

Despite some opposition, it appears likely pitch counts are coming to Illinois, if not this year, then soon. 

Little League Baseball, Pony League Baseball, Dixie Baseball and Cal Ripken have adopted USA Baseball’s Pitch Smart guidelines. 

“If Dixie and Pony and Little League are all using Pitch Smart, by the time little Jimmy comes to Mount Carmel High School, his mother and father fully expect that the high school will monitor his arm just the way they did for the last five to 10 previous years,” Hopkins said.

Should these rules come to fruition, injuries won’t be completely eliminated. But you certainly won’t see any more 150-plus pitch outings. 

“We can’t stop all injuries,” Dr. Wolin said. “But, if we can prevent injuries, we’ve done a service to the baseball community.”

2016 Prairie Ridge starting pitcher pitch counts

March 19 Jon Tieman 71

March 21 Ethan Routzahn 61

March 23 John Hanley 65

March 26 Jon Tieman 60

March 28 Ethan Routzahn 87

March 29 Ryan Schmit 58

March 30 Joey Hanley 81

April 2 Ethan Routzahn 41

April 4 Ryan Schmit 73

April 5 Joey Hanley 82

April 7 Jon Tieman 80

April 9 Ethan Routzahn 20

April 11 Joey Hanley 88

April 12 Ethan Routzahn 74

April 13 Jon Tieman 106

April 15 Scott Nygren 41

April 16 Joey Hanley 67

April 18 Ethan Routzahn 57

April 22 Jon Tieman 67

April 23 Joey Hanley 74

April 26 Scott Nygren 47

April 28 Ethan Routzahn 62

April 29 Joey Hanley 43

May 2 Scott Nygren 57

May 3 Jon Tieman 77

May 4 Joey Hanley 16

May 5 Ethan Routzahn 83

May 7 Ryan Schmit 67

May 9 Jon Tieman 100

May 11 Joey Hanley 99

May 13 Ethan Routzahn 70

May 14 Jon Tieman 91

May 17 Robbie Masini 46

May 18 Joey Hanley 65

May 19 Ethan Routzahn 72

May 25 Ethan Routzahn 18

May 28 Jon Tieman 55

June 1 Ethan Routzahn 82

In 38 games this year, Prairie Ridge starters averaged 66 pitches. Only four times did a starter exceed 90 pitches. Twice Jon Tieman pitched 100 or more. A 105-pitch limit, such as the one Dr. Wolin has suggested, would have a minimal impact on the Wolves' approach to pitching.

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