With new rule, these pitches count

Herald file photo
Starting this season, pitch counts are mandated nationwide in high school baseball. Each state sets its own guidelines, and locally, stances vary about how the rule in Indiana was drafted.

By BRENDAN PERKINS
bperkins@dcherald.com

How high can you go?

As it relates to the number of pitches thrown in a high school baseball game, those who’ve been around for a while have witnessed pitch counts spike to otherworldly levels. Within the last few years, Northeast Dubois coach Brian Kirchoff saw an opposing pitcher labor through 150 pitches in one evening.

“It was not pretty,” Kirchoff recalled.

Heritage Hills coach Greg Gogel can top that.

“The highest one I ever saw was 165,” Gogel recalled of another team’s star hurler a few years back. “I felt bad for the kid. And what do you know, end of the season, his (velocity) dropped 6, 7 miles an hour. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he had arm issues.

“That kind of stuff is what creates rules,” Gogel added.

On cue, and in response to safeguarding from injuries that have become more widespread among teenage hurlers, the National Federation of State High School Associations mandated last July that each state enact a pitch-count rule based on the number of pitches thrown in a game, instead of the previous method of number of innings pitched. The IHSAA rolled out its regulations that are in use for the first time this spring, and depending on who you ask, reactions to the new guideline vary — some are indifferent, some are confused about the enforcement of it, some grumble and some are all for it.

“I don’t mind it from a safety standpoint. For that reason, it’s just not a bad rule,” Southridge coach Dave Schank said. “ You’ve got kids now that are getting Tommy John surgery in middle school, and that shouldn’t happen. There are some Southridge kids — and I could name them for you — that I think were over-pitched when they were young kids, and I think it hurt them. Hopefully these pitch count rules, if the coaches follow them, I think will just protect the kids.”

Before, the limit for a varsity pitcher was 10 innings in a three-day span. Now, coaches have charts in the dugout with five levels correlating to number of pitches thrown and the number of days of required rest in each of those stages. Anyone tossing 35 or fewer pitches in an outing is not required any rest days. From there, the tiers are 36 to 60 pitches (one day of rest); 61 to 80 pitches (two days); 81 to 100 pitches (three days); and 101 to 120 pitches (four days). Once a pitcher reaches 120, he can finish the at-bat he’s on but then must be taken out.

Jasper pitching coach and former Wildcat standout Phil Kendall considers it a “non-issue” since, as of last week, no JHS pitcher had breached 83 pitches in a game even as Wildcat starters typically go deep in games. Likewise, it hasn’t triggered any reformations with Kirchoff and the Jeeps since “we’re generally once-a-week starting pitchers anyway,” he said.

“My first thought is the upper end of it, the 120 pitches, is way too many,” Kirchoff said. “I’m not sure how they arrived at 120. We had two kids in that regional throw in both games (last season) and still never reached 120 pitches. I just don’t foresee any reason to totally adjust how we go about our gameplanning and pitching rotation just because somebody put levels of a pitch count.”

The consensus is the ones feeling the squeeze most are smaller schools with limited staffs and thinner numbers. Vincennes Rivet, the smallest school on Jasper’s schedule, had to cancel next Tuesday’s game because of low numbers of available arms.

“I’m also expecting it to happen more and more on the JV and freshman levels as pitchers are gobbled up by the varsity,” said JHS athletic director and former University of Evansville pitcher Andy Noblitt. “That’s going to limit the number of JV games that we play.”

Others are repurposing some of their everyday players in key positions to augment the pool of pitchers. Gogel is having his shortstop, Mitchel Becher, handle a few late-inning relief situations. Similarly, Schank has tried out shortstop Isaac Englert on the mound. Raider senior Colton Gasser — who’d never pitched in a high school game prior to this season — is also on his coach’s radar since Schank saw a good arm and a crafty lefty and figured he could turn Gasser into a hurler.

“A team that has some depth, that’s going to be an advantage for them, and it probably should be,” Schank said. “Depth is an important part of having a good team.”

But away from somewhere like Jasper — where strike-throwing pitchers seem to grow on trees and Gobert’s goal every season is to cultivate seven or eight options on the mound — others have to scramble to stay within the bounds of the rule.

Forest Park began the season with a primary varsity roster of 11. Last week when the Rangers faced Evansville Mater Dei amid a stretch of four games within five days, coach Jarred Howard used a freshman and two sophomores on the mound who hadn’t thrown in a varsity game and would normally be pitching for the JV. Howard’s trying to solve the riddle of maximizing his personnel, which can get tricky in a two-month regular season that’s already clogged with games and sometimes has games stacked on top of each other with make-up contests.

“It’s like anything else: You have a couple that make bad mistakes and everybody else has to suffer from it. I’m sure there’s been guys in the state that’s misused pitchers. I don’t think we ever have,” Howard said. “We’ve never had arm injuries because of pitching, we’ve always taken care of arms. But they make rules, and you have to follow them.”

So Howard and his staff have remained vigilant at tracking the numbers. He’s taken pitchers out once they’ve reached 59 pitches — right before that 61 threshold where they’d be unavailable for an extra day. Howard relies on his assistants for all that, and they track pitch counts both via their statkeeping app and a manual clicker.

“I tell them, ‘Tell me when I need to take them out of there, because I’ve got to throw them in two days,’” Howard said. “You have to watch it, but who it hurts is it really hurts small schools. The 1A schools, they’re just not that deep. We’re not that deep. So what are you going to do when you get in the (state) tournament and you’ve got to play the next night? The bigger schools have deeper pitching staffs, they’re at an advantage because they can leave a guy out there and know they’ve got another guy coming in the next day. We’re sitting here trying to figure out what we’re going to do all the time.”

Gogel has no problem with the crux of the rule. His beef is with its enforcement: “There’s no teeth to it,” he said.

Essentially, it’s a self-governing and good-faith mandate. Coaches are required to submit pitch count info to their athletic directors as proof of being in accordance with the rules. Teams can be subject to sanctions if they self-report themselves for a violation.

But if Team A’s pitcher exceeds that 120-pitch ceiling, Team B can’t bust them for it. Umpires don’t track pitch counts, either, so they wouldn’t order a hurler past the 120 mark to leave the game. That rarely comes into play in the regular season, but as Noblitt expects, “first time you’ll see that discussion will be at sectionals, regionals and semistates” when it comes to teams riding pitchers deep into ballgames or over multiple contests.

Gobert acknowledged that in a tournament situation if he had a pitcher who was grooving with just a few outs to get, “it’d be hard to take a ball away from a (Cal) Krueger or a Kendall because he’s at 120,” he said. “Every kid is different, but that would be the toughest thing, I think, in the tournament. By then our guys are throwing once a week and have been conditioned on it. Early on (in the season) we do a pretty good job of babying arms so in the tournament, they’re prepared to take it.”

That’s one of the reasons, Kendall and Gobert pointed out, that not all pitch counts are created equal. They’ve seen guys hit the wall at 70 pitches and others look unbothered at 120. Schank almost has to laugh about the attention heaped on pitch counts now, considering “when I played, there were no pitch counts,” said Schank, who pitched for Indiana University for three years after starting at USI. “When I played, a pitch count was a coach going, ‘Are you OK, can you go another one? How’s the wing hanging? I don’t know that people kept pitch counts, believe it or not.’”

Now, the count is on. And as the way Gogel sees it, he can live with the extra detail work the rule creates because of what it aims to prevent.

“I went under the knife. I had shoulder surgery. I don’t want any of those kids to have it,” said Gogel, who tore his labrum in college though he suspects it was faulty mechanics instead of overuse. “That’s why I tell these guys: I’d rather shy on the safe side.”




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