Roncalli pitcher Michael McAvene knows several friends who already have had Tommy John surgery, the procedure to repair torn arm ligaments named after the Terre Haute-born pitcher. According to the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, 15-to-19-year-olds made up 56.7 percent of all Tommy John surgeries in the U.S. between 2007-11.
“The teams that have a good pitcher, they’re going to use him as much as they can because they want to win,” the Louisville commit said. “Sometimes that requires more pitches than they can handle.”
In an effort to curtail the increasing number of arm injuries to young pitchers, the National Federation of State High School Associations announced a rule change Tuesday altering the pitching restriction policy for high school baseball.
Previously, pitchers were limited to a certain number of innings. Now, they will be limited to a certain number of pitches. The prior limitations varied by state; Indiana High School Athletic Association member schools limited pitchers to no more than 10 innings in three calendar days.
The Kentucky High School Athletic Association had similar inning-limit rules until January, when the organization adopted a pitch-count limit. Among the mandates for varsity players: no days rest after 1-25 pitches, one day of rest after 26-50 pitches, two days of rest after 51-75 pitches, three days of rest after 76 or more pitches and a maximum of 120 pitches in a single day.
Each state will develop its own new pitch-count policy.
Phil Gardner, an assistant IHSAA commissioner who oversees baseball, said the specific policies have not yet been determined, but “will be in place for Indiana in the very near future.”
“A common figure to this point is 100-125 pitches, but we’ll have to look,” he said. “I wouldn’t predict how much time in between. There will be a number that will have to be regulated and calculated on a very tight schedule.”
Glenn Fleisig is the research director for the American Sports Medicine Institute and the chairman of the USA Baseball Medical & Safety Advisory Committee. In the late 1990s, he began to notice an increase in injuries to young pitchers. Fifteen years of research found that “how much you pitched correlated with who ended up having elbow or shoulder surgery,” he said.
Ten years ago, USA Baseball made a recommendation that all amateur baseball leagues should use pitch counts rather than innings to monitor pitcher use. By 2014, Major League Baseball and USA Baseball teamed up to create “Pitch Smart,” a site dedicated to offering guidelines for pitcher workload limits based on age and number of pitches thrown. According to the website, there are 20 baseball organizations that are “fully compliant” with the guidelines.
The NFHS and USA Baseball committees had a joint meeting last summer to discuss a potential change, which was made official Tuesday.
“(I’m supposed to) identify things and trends on the radar before the blip gets really big,” said Elliot Hopkins, Director of Sports, Sanctioning and Student Services for the NFHS. “This thing was getting about as big as an elephant. It was telling me it was time we did something, or at least have a discussion at the rules committee level … Once we got the research and medical people together, that was a lead-pipe cinch that we had to move forward and make this recommendation.”
Many high school baseball coaches already keep a close eye on pitch counts.
“You’re not really doing your job if you don’t,” Roncalli coach Aaron Kroll said. “If we’re going to extend a starter 90-100 pitches or slightly more, we’re going to absolutely make sure he gets a minimum of four days’ rest just like a big leaguer would.”
Center Grove coach Keith Hatfield said there are multiple factors that play into pitcher fatigue.
“If he has one or two guys on every inning and is throwing a lot of high-stress pitches, he could throw 80 pitches in a game and be really sore for the next day or two,” he said. “If he isn’t throwing a lot of high-stress pitches, he could throw 100 and feel great the next day.”
Zionsville coach Jered Moore, whose team featured one of the elite pitching staffs in the state this season, said this solution “is putting a Band-Aid on a major cut.”
“Two of the kids I saw throw more than anybody else in high school were (former Brownsburg stars and current major leaguers) Drew Storen and Lance Lynn,” Moore said. “They both had an unbelievable ability to throw that much and not get hurt. I think it’s more on conditioning.”
According to Moore, conditioning pitchers to throw fewer pitches, especially at younger ages, is actually detrimental.
“Pitchers are conditioned to throw very few pitches, and as they get older, they’re asked to do something they’re not conditioned to do,” he said. “Since we put pitch counts on the young kids, they never develop properly.”
The new rule also creates the potential for in-game strategy. If a pitcher hits his limit in the middle of an inning, a new pitcher will have to be ready to enter the game. Hopkins said “consensus thinking is you finish the batter,” although specifics will be left up to state associations.
“The fact that they’re changing that is going to save a whole lot of arms for the generations to come,” McAvene said.
Follow IndyStar reporter Matthew VanTryon on Twitter: @MVanTryon.