Pitches count more than ever under new IHSA baseball rules
Editor's note: This piece was named honorable mention for sports features by the Illinois Press Association.
WHY IT MATTERS: An alarming increase in elbow surgeries to teenage baseball players caused high school associations nationwide to implement new rules that limit pitch counts and mandate rest between outings. Those rules, in effect for the first time this spring, are having a significant impact on the way coaches schedule and plan, and even on the outcomes of games.
The playoffs are underway in the first baseball season under the new IHSA pitch-count rules.
High school coaches have had to manage their pitchers to comply with pitch limits and mandated rest periods. Some small schools, with fewer pitchers on their rosters, have shortened their seasons to cope with the new rules, which were implemented in response to the rising number of arm injuries due to overuse.
According to a Columbia University Medical Center study cited in ScienceDaily.com, 444 patients had elbow surgery between 2002 and 2011 to repair the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). The operation is known as Tommy John surgery, named after the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher who underwent the procedure in 1974. The study said UCL surgeries increased nearly 200 percent over the sample years and almost all of the growth occurred in 17- to 20-year-olds.
Last summer, the National Federation of State High School Associations announced pitch-count restrictions and mandated rest periods for baseball. State associations adopted specific rules.
In December 2016, the Illinois High School Association adopted rules that would not allow a pitcher to throw more than 105 pitches in a regular-season game or 115 in a postseason game. If a pitcher throws more than 75 pitches, he is required to rest at least four days before pitching again. The rules include a sliding scale that mandates length of rest based on number of pitches thrown.
Coaches are required to have someone count each pitch of every game for both teams. The two designated counters must meet after every even-numbered inning to ensure both teams have accurate pitch counts. If there is a discrepancy between the two numbers, the teams are supposed to add the two numbers and divide by two. Additionally, coaches must enter the numbers from the game into a system that keeps track of when pitchers are allowed to throw again and if there is a pitching restriction.
If a team uses a pitcher that throws too many pitches or comes back before the mandated rest period, the IHSA will investigate.
Sam Knox, IHSA assistant executive director in charge of baseball, said some schools have self-reported violations and other schools have reported opponents violating the pitch count policy.
“After learning the facts, and when we determined that there was a pitch-count policy violation, the school has forfeited the game,” Knox said.
To assess the impact of the new rules on coaching decisions, the Journal Star spent a week with the Tremont baseball team.
Tremont had four games scheduled for the week of May 1-6. Coach Robb Wicks planned to throw Max Bolliger in a Heart of Illinois Conference game against Heyworth on Tuesday. Max Garey would take the mound on Wednesday against Fisher, and staff ace Silas Israel would throw against LeRoy on Thursday for a shot to win the regular-season title. Saturday’s nonconference game at Illini Bluffs would combine the efforts of relievers Luke Barrow and Jordan Wagenbach.
Tuesday vs. Heyworth
Before Bolliger could take the mound, the Turks spotted him a nine-run lead in the top of the first inning. The coaches discussed throughout the game whether they should remove Bolliger to allow him to pitch again later in the week or let him finish the game. Since this was Tremont’s first game in six days, they decided to leave him in.
“He had to get his full amount of work in,” Wicks said. “We focused on his changeup and working on things. We have to balance the pitch-count rules and giving guys things to work on.”
Tremont won the game 14-1 in five innings. Bolliger threw 81 pitches, allowing five hits and one run while striking out six and walking two. Since Bolliger hit the maximum pitch count category (76-105 pitches) he would not be allowed to throw in a game until Sunday, with a 90-pitch limit, or Monday with the 105-pitch maximum.
Wednesday vs. Fisher
Rain was forecast for Wednesday and Thursday. The pitch-count rules go by day, not games, so any pitches thrown in a game that is stopped and postponed will require appropriate recording and days’ rest.
Tremont and Fisher got their game in on Wednesday. Garey threw 94 pitches in a complete-game, 3-0 win. He allowed four hits, one walk and struck out five. The rain, which never came, played a factor in Wicks’ decisions to let Garey pitch.
“The nice thing that we have is a fourth and fifth pitcher,” Wicks said. “If the rain kept up, I figured I’d take (Garey) out after 30 pitches. Having Barrow and Wagenbach makes that an easier decision.”
If Garey threw 30 or fewer pitches, he’d be allowed to throw 90 pitches on Thursday. Before the new rules, coaches determined rest periods.
“If Garey throws 45 pitches last year I would give him a day’s rest, but the fact is that if he goes over 30 pitches (this year) he is demanded a day’s rest (by the rules).”
Thursday vs. LeRoy
The game was postponed due to poor field conditions.
Saturday vs. Illini Bluffs
Because the original plan to throw Israel against LeRoy on Thursday was scrapped by rain, Wicks decided to start Israel against Illini Bluffs and use either Barrow or Wagenbach in relief, if needed.
For the second time during the week, the Turks spotted their starting pitcher a lead before he took the mound. Tremont led by three after the first half-inning and by 10 going into the bottom half of the second.
Israel ended up throwing 41 pitches in three perfect innings, in which he had two strikeouts. Tremont’s defense helped keep pitch counts down against an aggressive IB offense.
“It’s easier toward the end of the year because of our defense,” Wicks said. “I probably would have let him go another inning to see the top of their lineup again, but now he can throw on Tuesday,” when Tremont would play Delavan.
Wagenbach relieved Israel and threw 26 pitches in two innings. He would be able to throw a maximum of 90 pitches on the next day, or 105 pitches after a day of rest.
Illini Bluffs was placed in a different position after starter Cam Scott threw 66 pitches in two innings and exited with a 10-0 deficit. Coach Jim Belleville contemplated pulling Scott before he reached 60 pitches so that he could throw again in three days, but Belleville thought such strategizing could send a negative message to his team.
“If you think too much about the pitch count, the team could think that you’re giving up,” he said.
Due to the nature of the pitch-count rules, some coaches might not throw one of their better pitchers to limit damage and save him for a more competitive game. Belleville faced this scenario when he threw freshman Drake Koehl the rest of the game.
“I would burn him out with all of his pitches if I had to,” Belleville said. “He’s a bulldog and throws a lot of strikes.”
Koehl used 41 pitches in the final three innings and allowed only two hits and struck out one.
Belleville believes there are other aspects of pitching that need to be taken into consideration. For example, Scott threw 66 pitches in two stressful innings due to the number of hitters he faced and how long the innings lasted. In comparison, Koehl’s innings were low-stress because there weren’t a lot of base runners.
“Not all kids are created equal,” Belleville said. ”(The IHSA) has to make some sort of accommodations for kids whose arms are built up.”