A changeup in the dirt was the start of Anthony Apreda’s nightmare.
It seemed like an ordinary pitch in an ordinary game that April day in 2012.
The Bergen Catholic (Oradell, N.J.) sophomore did not think much of it, even as he felt his arm “tighten up.” He then threw a fastball that just wasn’t right.
His velocity suddenly had vanished. Soon his control was gone.
Apreda battled through that third inning against Paramus Catholic and into the fourth, before being knocked out of the game and into the unknown.
“The next day, I couldn’t throw the ball five feet,” said Apreda, who threw in the 85-87 mph range and was expected to be the Crusaders’ ace that year. “I didn’t want to face it. I’d never been hurt. I thought I was indestructible. …
“But even days later, I couldn’t throw it more than 20 feet. That’s when I knew I had to go get it checked out.”
Another young pitcher had hurt his arm. Apreda underwent Tommy John surgery three weeks later.
In an effort to reduce the mounting number of arm surgeries among high school athletes, the National Federation of State High School Associations recently mandated pitch-count limits, effective for the 2017 season. The restrictions will replace the innings-limit policy utilized in past seasons.
The NFHS has charged every state’s high school athletic governing body to formulate its own specific restrictions.
New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association officials met Thursday to begin devising its much-anticipated “magic number” and corresponding rest days as well as how these pitch counts will be monitored, according to assistant director Larry White.
The plan is expected to be finalized by early November at the latest, White said.
It will come too late for pitchers like Apreda. Almost 57 percent of Tommy John surgeries from 2007 to 2011 were performed on 15-to-19-year-olds, a 2015 study conducted by the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine revealed.
However, pinpointing exactly why a ligament tore or cartilage shredded is difficult to determine in the age of specialization, experts say. The summer showcase circuit, club ball and fall ball – nearly all of which are unregulated – take a significant toll on young arms. Some athletes now pitch competitively eight or nine months of the year or pitch for multiple teams at once.
Poor mechanics and improper training regiments also can inflict as much damage as high pitch counts and inning totals.
Many have applauded the new regulations. Yet they also have staunch critics, including legendary pitching coach Leo Mazzone.
His laid-back southern drawl quickly filled with anger when the topic was raised.
The guru responsible for developing some of the best major league pitching staffs in the 1990s and 2000s with the Atlanta Braves vehemently opposes the new restrictions.
RELATED: Will pitch counts help?
Mazzone, 67, believes pitchers should throw more – not less – but do so intelligently. It was the philosophy that Hall of Famers such as Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz applied under his guidance.
“The bottom line is this: Pitchers at that age need to be throwing more often, with less exertion,” said Mazzone, whose tenure with the Braves included a 14-year run of division titles and a championship in 1995. “Everyone is so enamored with how hard kids throw now. Youngsters see this guy throwing 88, this guy throwing 90, and getting scholarships and signing professionally.
“To them, they’re thinking they need to hit a certain number on the [radar] gun. And in trying to get there, they are tearing apart their arms. It’s not pitch counts.”
Mazzone is not alone in his beliefs.
“Honestly, I hate what they’re doing with baseball now with these pitch counts,” Apreda said. “These things depend on the kid. …
“I’ve learned a lot of things since that injury that I wish I knew back then. I wasn’t doing the things the right way to keep myself ready or keep myself healthy. Going to a pitch count isn’t going to solve the problem.”
Mazzone contends that poor coaching and misguided philosophies inflict more damage than high pitch counts. He argues that coaches who cannot recognize when to remove a starter without a pitch count “shouldn’t coach.”
“Kids need to learn how to pitch,” Mazzone said. “Youngsters now are throwing 87 miles per hour, and you’ve got coaches saying they’ve got to hit 91-92 to raise their signability. Maybe Maddux and Glavine wouldn’t be going to the Hall of Fame if that was the case with them coming up.”