Tony Arnold was playing for Irving, Texas, when he threw 280 pitches in a 15-inning, 2-1 district loss to Duncanville, Texas, and its ace, Keith Creel. The next day, after icing his arm for the first time, Arnold was a little sore. Creel, who threw 253 pitches, didn’t feel that great either.
The game took place in 1977, long before many high school coaches paid attention to pitch counts. The single-game marathon, with two pitchers combining for 57 strikeouts, didn’t hurt either player’s career. Arnold and Creel went on to room together at the University of Texas. Arnold was an All-American in his junior year and pitched two seasons for the Baltimore Orioles, and Creel played for three teams in a four-year major league career.
Last season, however, when current Illinois State pitcher Brady Huffman threw 167 pitches in a 10-inning game for Genoa-Kingston (Genoa, Ill.), editorials across the country demanded a change.
Little League Baseball adopted stringent pitch-count guidelines in 2007. It took a decade, but this season, national pitch-count limits are coming to the high school game.
Arnold, the pitching coach for the Akron RubberDucks, the Cleveland Indians’ Class AA minor league affiliate, would never allow a pitcher to throw 280 pitches, but he also says a pitching count is just one tool to protect a pitcher’s arm.
“In one game, I don’t necessarily think you’re going to injure yourself from throwing a number of pitches,” Arnold said. “If you do that multiple times, or if you do it on short rest, then yes, you can hurt yourself. … It’s hard to compare now with back then, but it never hurts to protect kids with pitch limits. If you keep it down, then you know that’s one less thing that could cause (pitchers) to be hurt.”
An increased number of arm and shoulder surgeries, particularly ulnar collateral ligament surgeries (the UCL is a ligament in the elbow) required for high school pitchers and pitchers just out of high school, helped fuel concern that led to the rule changes. A 2015 study by the American Orthopedic Society of Sports Medicine found that 56.7% of Tommy John surgeries to replace the UCL between 2007 and 2011 were performed on 15- to 19-year-olds.
NFHS led push for pitch-count limits
The National Federation of State High School Associations in July mandated that participating state associations enact pitch-count limits, and 44 state high school associations have since done so. Four states — Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Idaho — do not sanction baseball, so no limits were passed. Massachusetts and Connecticut do not follow NFHS rules.
The NFHS did not dictate what those limits should be, and they vary widely. In Oklahoma, a pitcher can continue as long as at the beginning of an inning he hasn’t thrown 120 or more pitches. In Maryland, only juniors and seniors are allowed to throw as many as 105 pitches and underclassmen are limited to 95 pitches or fewer. Nearly all states also factor in how much rest a pitcher has in the pitch-count limits, following Pitch Smart recommendations from USA Baseball and Major League Baseball.
According to the guidelines, a 17- or 18-year-old pitcher should throw no more than 105 pitches in a day and needs a minimum of four days rest before throwing again once he reaches 76 pitches. Pitchers who are 13-16 should throw a maximum of 95 pitches; 13- and 14-year-olds need four days rest when they reach 66 pitches, and 15- and 16-year-olds need four days rest when they reach 76.
While most high school starters do not throw 105 pitches or more in a game, and even fewer throw 120, nearly 10% of all high school starters threw more than 105 pitches in 2015, according to statistics compiled by GameChanger, a free scorekeeping mobile app that is the first official tool certified by Pitch Smart. While not all high schools use GameChanger, of the thousands that do, the average number of pitches thrown by starters last year was 72.31, down from 72.69 in 2015.
The amount of rest between outings is important, according to a study by the University of Michigan, published by the American Journal of Sports Medicine in May, which analyzed 104 major league pitchers who had UCL elbow reconstruction surgery and found some commonalities, the biggest of which was not enough rest days between consecutive games. Other factors: a less-pronounced horizontal release location; smaller stature; throwing harder; and greater pitch counts.
Toronto Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ says a pitch-count limit for high school players could protect players from abuse.
“I know I probably wouldn’t have been too happy if someone had told me I was stuck to a pitch limit, but I think in the long haul it would probably be beneficial to some arms,” Happ said. “I remember throwing 186 pitches once (in a high school summer league game). That was a lot. I guess we’ll never know how much damage that did or didn’t do, but I would say there should potentially be a cutoff somewhere.”
Hagen Danner, a UCLA signee from Huntington Beach, Calif., could be drafted in the first round of the MLB amateur draft in June. He said he decided to put himself on a limit of 80 pitches in his senior year to protect against overuse.
He sees the value in the new rules, although he says California’s limit of 110 pitches is too many.
“I believe it is necessary, though, because there have been way too many injuries to younger players lately,” he said. “I think the new rule is still a little high on pitches. I believe it should come down in the 90s. A kid as old as me should not be throwing over 100 pitches.”
While it’s hard to change a pitcher’s mechanics or size, and throwing more slowly isn’t a very good competitive option, a pitch count can limit some of the factors for arm injuries. Because of that, most of the high school coaches USA TODAY Sports contacted favored pitch-count limits.
“I think it is great for the game,” J.L. Mann (Greenville, S.C.) coach Brian Simpson. “It adds an exciting dynamic to managing a game and is beneficial to the players in the long run.”
Others, such as Malvern (Pa.) Prep coach Fred Hilliard, say the rules are a start in the right direction.
“I think they’re long overdue with how some kids have been overused but could be fine-tuned better,” Hilliard said. “Starting a kid for 100 pitches on Monday and then doing the same on Friday is still legal and not good for a kid.”
Enforcement of the rules vary, with some states requiring coaches to keep track of pitches thrown and others using an independent official to keep track. In late-inning situations, teams might be inclined to take more pitches to force off the mound an opposing pitcher who is near the limit. In tournament play, with more games within one week, deep pitching staffs will be a must.
“I think it will be great for saving pitchers’ arms and also developing more kids on the mound,” Easley (S.C.) coach Joshua Warner said.
Year-round play a factor in injuries
Others say the rules won’t stop overuse injuries that are caused by year-round play.
“When I was growing up, you never played as much as they play now,” Arnold said. “You played high school ball and, for a short time, summer ball. That was it. You didn’t play year-round.”
In a release from the Baylor College of Medicine, Bruce Moseley, an orthopedic surgeon, says pitch counts won’t stop injuries if young pitchers don’t get enough rest from throwing in a calendar year.
“The downside is that every time they are throwing it is putting stress and potentially wear and tear on their joint,” Moseley said. “The body has the ability to repair normal wear and tear every day to maintain the health of the tissues, but if the wear and tear exceeds the body’s ability to repair, there will start to be gradual, permanent damage to tissues.”
Jason Grilli, now with the Blue Jays, was the No.4 overall pick in the 1997 MLB draft out of Seton Hall. He says the most he pitched in a game in college was between 110 to 120 pitches but that the issue is about more than how many pitches you throw.
“I think there’s a correlation between how much you pitch and how well you know how to take care of your arm,” he said. “There’s more to the story than just, ‘He threw 100 pitches.’ Well, OK, you threw 100 pitches, but are you doing the care and the conditioning to continue to maintain that, even prior to the season? I don’t think there’s enough emphasis on teaching kids that part of the program. Nowadays everybody’s got a workout regimen or a program. It’s different.”
Darren Murphy, baseball coach of reigning California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Division II champion South Hills (West Covina, Calif.), says the changes, while good, won’t solve the root problem.
“(The limits) won’t really affect us because we don’t overthrow kids already, but it will affect playoffs and ability to return kids or not in back-to-back games,” Murphy said. “It’s unfortunate in one regard — it wasn’t a high school issue. It’s a travel-ball issue with kids playing on multiple teams in the offseason, but pitch-count limits are a good thing if it raises awareness on the health of our young pitchers and their futures.”
Arnold’s mega-pitch outing wasn’t his last. He threw 14 innings in another game during his senior year at Irving and as a college junior threw 15 innings in a conference tournament for Texas. In all three cases, he says he didn’t miss his next start.
Still, he sees a pitch-count rule as a positive that his two sons could have used when they were growing up.
“It’s probably a good idea, because some of the coaches I watched my kids coming up with aren’t educated, and they’re leaving guys out there when they’re losing their deliveries and they’re getting underneath pitches and they’re exposing their shoulders and elbows to stresses that could get them hurt,” Arnold said.
Contributing: Ted Berg