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VHSL preparing to use pitch count limit next baseball season

Monday, Jul. 25 | By Jeff Malmgren

Ace pitchers such as Kettle Run's Will Merriken should benefit from being regulated by pitches rather than innings. --Fauquier Times Staff File Photo/Randy Litzinger
Next baseball season, every pitch will count.

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) announced earlier this month that all of its member state associations, including the Virginia High School League (VHSL), must adopt a baseball “restriction policy based on the number of pitches thrown in a game” by each pitcher.

While every state association is free to develop its own unique pitch-count policy, the NFHS's goal is “to afford pitchers a required rest period between pitching appearances.”

“I think it's a good rule,” Liberty coach Jeff Crane said while explaining that his teams have always emphasized the importance of rest for pitchers regardless of VHSL or NFHS rules. “You never want to do anything to jeopardize a kid's arm, and we always err on the side of caution as opposed to trying to win a ballgame. You don't want to hurt a kid's arm and mess up his chances to pitch later in life.”

VHSL has tried to achieve that ideal in the recent past by limiting the number of innings thrown by pitchers. The league significantly tightened its innings limit prior to the 2013 season, a tweak that including a cap of 14 innings pitched per seven days for each player and a minimum of one day of rest required for anyone who pitched at least two innings in a day.

Many coaches, however, felt that approach lacked the proper focus.

“You could put a guy out there and he may end up only throwing a very low number of pitches in an inning, but it could limit [his availability] later in the week,” Crane said. “You can throw one pitch and that counts for a whole inning. … A pitch count, I've always said, is the way to go.”

In theory, using a pitch-count limit rather than an innings limit will benefit the best pitchers on each team. No longer would a pitcher who allows one hit on 12 pitches in one inning be equated to a pitcher who allows 12 hits on 51 pitches in one inning.

“If he has a good outing and his pitch count is low, he'll be able to pitch later in the week,” Crane said. “I can't really think of anything” negative about the rule change.

That, of course, depends on the specific number of pitches VHSL decides to use as its limit.

“Obviously, the League staff is not going to develop a pitch count number and say to membership 'here it is, what do you think?'” VHSL Director of Communications Mike McCall said. “Our first step is … putting together a list of all the stakeholders … for input and insight,” including coaches, medical professionals, athletic directors, principals, etc.

“We will look at what other states have done and are doing,” McCall said. “We’re in the process of developing a process and a time line.”

A handful of state associations implemented a pitch-count rule prior to the NFHS decree this month. The Colorado High School Activities Association, for example, sets it limit at 60 pitches in one day and 110 during any three-day period, while the Vermont Principals Association sets it limit at 120 pitches in one day with three days of rest required after throwing more than 75 pitches in any day.

Regardless, a pitch count likely still falls short of a perfect solution for protecting the arms of pitchers.

“Every kid is different,” Crane said. “You might have a pitcher that could pitch, regularly, 120 pitches. And then you might have another kid that you know … he's done after 80 pitches. It's depending on their physical makeup and stamina.

“And some kids are more serious about their pitching, and they do a lot of running and a lot of lower, core-area conditioning and lifting and building their legs up,” he said. “And they might have really good mechanics while other kids are unconventional [with their delivery] and they don't work as hard in the offseason preparing themselves. So there's a lot of variables.”

Crane said he typically limits Liberty's pitchers to 80 pitches early in the spring season and tries to never exceed 105 pitches even late in the season.

Crane used a similar strategy when he ran the Central Virginia Sting travel team prior to coaching Liberty.

“A good rule of thumb that we tried to use was one hour of rest for every pitch that they threw in a game situation,” he said. “It's just something we came up with through going to clinics and listening to doctors … that talk to the coaches about protecting the arms of players.

“It always seemed to work well,” Crane said, “and we never had many kids get injured.”

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