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Prep Baseball: Right count on pitches? Depends who you ask

By ADAM HIMMELSBACH

King George pitcher Damion Carroll was playing in a summer league game last year, and his arm felt good.

His fastball was zipping, his curveball was swooping, and time was flying. He threw pitch after pitch and had no plans of exiting the nine-inning game.

By the time he reached the dugout, his team had secured a win, and he realized he had thrown 159 pitches.

“It didn’t bother me, because I’m young, and my arm never hurts,” Carroll said. “The next day I felt the same as I always feel.”

Carroll is now a senior for the Foxes, and most games he is surrounded by major league scouts with radar guns. And under the guidance of head coach Thad Reviello, he never throws anywhere close to 159 pitches anymore.

The pitch count is one of baseball’s great enigmas. Some say it is much ado about nothing, and others say it must be tracked religiously.

At the high school level, there are varying approaches. On the one hand, most players will not go on to professional or even college careers, so their arms needn’t be handled as carefully as good china.

But on the other hand, their arms are still developing, potentially leaving them more susceptible to injury.

Colonial Forge coach Sean Szakelyhidi recalled a game several years ago in which the opposing starter threw more than 180 pitches.

“It left you scratching your head,” Szakelyhidi said. “We saw him later in the year, and you could tell he was still pretty tapped out. We use that as an example for our guys.”

DIFFERING APPROACHES

In 1990, the National Federation of State High School Associations required states to create pitching restrictions of some kind.

The Virginia High School League has innings limits, but it does not have pitch-count limits.

Current VHSL rules state that a pitcher may not throw more than 10 innings over two consecutive days. If a player throws just one pitch in an inning, that counts as an entire inning for the purpose of these guidelines.

The VHSL considered a new proposal last week that put a greater emphasis on mandatory rest periods.

It was more of a tiered system. A pitcher would not be allowed to throw more than 15 innings over a seven-day period, or more than nine innings in one day.

Further, if a pitcher threw four or five innings in a day, he would be required to rest for two days. Six or seven innings pitched would require three days of rest, and eight or nine innings would require four days of rest.

The VHSL instructed its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee to continue to research the issue and present possible new legislation in September.

VHSL assistant director Tom Dolan, who is in charge of baseball, said pitch-count limits have been brought up at league meetings over the years. The main holdup, Dolan said, was the difficulty in policing the rule.

“I think 90 percent of our schools already monitor pitch counts,” Dolan said. “But having mandatory pitch counts could lend itself to some issues.”

Szakelyhidi, for one, agrees: “You might have some teams calling each other out.”

Vermont is the only state high school association that currently has pitch count regulations. Players cannot throw more than 120 pitches in a game, and the length of the ensuing rest period is related to how many pitches they threw.

New York City’s Public School Athletics League installed pitch count guidelines that went into effect last spring. Players are limited to 90 pitches in junior varsity games, and 105 on varsity.

RUBBER ARMS

Eastern View coach Daniel Nobbs understands there are good reasons to be cautious with a high school pitcher’s arm.

But he also thinks people might be getting a bit oversensitive.

When Nobbs attended Culpeper High in the late 1980s, he said he would routinely throw six or seven innings in an American Legion game on a Tuesday, then head back to the mound on a Friday.

He would be sore the next day, but never in pain.

“You’d have a pitcher you called a bulldog,” Nobbs said. “A coach would look at you, ask if you can throw, and you kind of feel your arm and say, ‘Yeah, I’m good for a couple.’ You weren’t thinking about your future; you were just thinking about that moment.”

Nobbs said he first heard about pitch counts when he was a junior playing for Shepherd University. He ended up suffering a severe arm injury that season when his pitching coach tried to alter his mechanics.

Colonial Beach coach Steve Swope spoke wistfully about the “rubber arm” era of the 1980s, when complete games were the norm.

He recalled a sturdy pitcher named Norm Trivett, who seemed capable of starting every game.

“He was a big mound of a guy,” Swope said. “Today, we put ice on an arm and rub it down with heat at night. Back then, if your arm hurt, you threw some grass on it.”

Nobbs said today’s pitchers seem to have decreased velocity, and he attributes that to decreased arm strength.

He said that in the rush to protect arms, many players simply aren’t throwing enough. Eastern View’s pitchers usually have two or three long-toss sessions per week.

“There’s a lot of arms missing today that I think were there before,” Nobbs said.

SETTING LIMITS

Area coaches said pitch counts are increased throughout the season, and plenty of other factors—age, weather, game situations—are considered.

“We tell our players it’s a lot like driving a car,” Szakelyhidi said. “You can’t just stomp on the gas and go 60 mph. You’ve got to ease into it.”

Baseball tryouts typically begin in late February, when grass is sometimes still brown, the ground is sometimes still hard and the air is sometimes quite cold.

It is hardly the early-season atmosphere for a pitcher to loosen up his arm.

“You probably don’t want a kid throwing 95 or 100 pitches when it’s 38 degrees out,” Reviello said.

Szakelyhidi generally allows his players to throw 30 pitches in early-season scrimmages as they build up arm strength. Each week, they add about 10 pitches, progressing to 50 or 60 by the first regular-season game.

Szakelyhidi plans to use two or even three arms in early-season games. By year’s end, Colonial Forge pitchers usually top out around 90 pitches. Szakelyhidi said he rarely, if ever, lets a pitcher reach 100.

Swope said he builds up the Drifters’ pitch counts through a season, and he prefers to max out around 90.

But he said a coach also has to be careful, because while an arm might be stronger late in the season, it is not necessarily fresher.

“As you go down the stretch, some of these guys are wearing out,” Swope said, “so it’s a Catch-22.”

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

Freshmen are often on a shorter leash than seniors, although exceptions are sometimes made for particularly strong or burly young pitchers.

For younger players, the type of pitch thrown can be just as important as the quantity.

Curveballs can be taxing on an arm, so Reviello limits the amount of curves his younger pitchers can throw.

“I’ve seen younger players whose arms were ruined by throwing curveballs too much,” Reviello said. “I’m not a doctor, but they say you shouldn’t throw a curveball until you’re 15.”

Pitch counts can also fluctuate based on a game situation.

Eighty pitches in a tense game, filled with base-runners, can be more taxing on an arm than 100 pitches of smooth sailing. Also, an excessive number of pick-off throws can be taken into consideration.

“A pitcher in a high-stress game with a lot of base runners might not be able to go as long,” Nobbs said. “It takes a toll on the mind, which takes a toll on the body. Your body tenses up a bit more.”

Several coaches said it is important to build up arm strength to be prepared for grueling outings. But it is a deceptive strength, developed by high-rep, low-weight lifting rather than maxing out on a bench press.

Nobbs said Eastern View’s pitchers do shoulder lifts with light weights to stabilize their shoulders and strengthen their rotator cuffs.

Szakelyhidi does not let his pitchers lift weights past shoulder level. They focus on high-repetition exercises.

Coaches save the heavy lifting for the legs, which are just as important to a pitcher’s success as his arms.

“We’re not looking for our guys to get real big,” Szakelyhidi said.

WORTH THE WAIT

Carroll, King George’s ace pitcher, has proven that he is capable of throwing all day long.

But that doesn’t mean he needs to.

Reviello once allowed Carroll to throw 120 pitches, but he prefers to keep him just over 100 in tight games.

And if King George has a comfortable lead, Reviello will often pull Carroll out soon after his pitch count passes 90.

“Why put undue stress on him?” Reviello said. “If I [can] save pitches here and there, I will. Sure, I could send him out for another 15 pitches, but over the course of the year, those are going to add up.”

And that seems to be the common sentiment among coaches. No one is completely certain about the benefits of throwing 80 pitches rather than 120, but they know that sometimes it is best to err on the side of caution.

Carroll, for one, loves the feeling he gets from pitching a complete game, but he is also fine with the alternative.

“It’s great for me,” he said. “I actually like the rest.”

Adam Himmelsbach: 540/374-5442

ahimmelsbach@freelancestar.com

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