Preventing arm injuries not just a matter of strict pitch counts
The great pitching debate is a lot more complicated than simply calling balls and strikes. And there is no umpire behind the plate.
With major league pitchers dropping like flies — see three-fifths of the New York Yankees starting rotation in CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova — longtime baseball experts are trying to figure out if less means more when it comes to pitch counts.
But on the high school and collegiate levels, hurlers are throwing for pride, not bucks. Should they be treated differently than the guys who are making millions of dollars playing for their livelihood?
Depending on who you talk to, younger scholastic and collegiate pitchers should either be throwing less or building up their strength to pitch even more.
Unlike Little League or Babe Ruth, there are seldom established pitch-count regulations for high school pitchers throwing in the sectionals or the state tournament. The same goes for college hurlers competing in their conference tournament or the NCAAs.
Dr. Richard D’Ascoli of the Schenectady Regional Orthopedic Associates believes proper training and technique is the key, especially for the top pitchers.
“We haven’t noticed any real increase in the amount of pitching injuries in the last 15 years or so, but we have noticed quite a change compared to the last 30 years,” said D’Ascoli. “By the time a pitcher is maybe a junior in high school, players with arm problems have generally been weeded out. In high-performance athletes, they throw in a different way than the rest of us. An elite pitcher winds up differently and is able to stretch his arm much further than the average person. He has the proper technique that allows him to pitch without injury.
“In high-performance athletes who play at an elite level, the problem is not technique or mechanics. It’s usually wear and tear.”
D’Ascoli believes pitch counts are important, but especially so for the younger, developing pitchers.
“The developing athlete shouldn’t be trying to pitch too much. If problems arise, he needs to be evaluated and seek advice from a sports therapist or trainer.” D’Ascoli said.
D’Ascoli works with athletes from Union College and also with some local high school players. His expertise is more with the shoulders and hips, but he said there are doctors at Schenectady Regional Orthopedic Associates who deal with elbow surgeries, such as Tommy John surgery, where the ulnar collateral ligament in the medial elbow is replaced with a tendon from somewhere else in the body. The procedure, undergone by many collegiate and professional athletes, was first made famous by former Los Angeles Dodgers team physician Dr. Frank Jobe, who died this year.
University at Albany head coach Jon Mueller, who pitched for Stillwater High School and at Eckerd College before becoming a professional slugger in the minor leagues, said college coaches and high school coaches have different problems with handling their pitching staffs.
“I really feel for the high school coaches,” said Mueller. “They are trying to win, just like all of us coaches. But most high school teams have just one dominant pitcher, and maybe one other guy who is OK. The rest of their pitchers are position players.
“As most of us know, pitching a baseball is an unnatural act. It’s not like throwing a softball.”
Like D’Ascoli, Mueller believes technique and conditioning are extremely important for pitchers at any level.
“I think the No. 1 thing is to throw the ball properly,” he said. “You need to teach the kids the proper technique, and you need both the kids and their coaches to stick to discipline. I once had a kid named Sean Gregory who pitched 97 games for me. He threw sidearm, and he never had any arm problems.
“But for the average college team, I don’t see a problem with a kid throwing between 105 and 125 pitches, as long as he’s given the proper rest, and he’s stretched out properly.
“The biggest challenge for high school coaches is the amount of games they have in a short time. You can’t have a guy throw seven innings on a Monday and then come back on a Wednesday and throw five more.” Mueller said.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute head coach Karl Steffen, whose Engineers have made 26 postseason appearances since 1985, was a pitching standout for Troy High School and Ithaca College before being selected in the 1978 Major League Baseball draft. He played for the Class A Oneonta Yankees and was promoted to Class AA the next year.
“I never had any problems in high school, but in college, I did develop some elbow issues with some tendonitis, which I managed throughout my college career,” Steffen said. “Once I warmed up, I was fine, but afterwards, I had to have ice baths and things along those lines. Once I got warmed up, I was just fine. Once I got to pro ball, I didn’t have any issues. I got stronger, and I handled things differently.”
Steffen, who later pitched in the Albany Twilight League, said even 25 to 30 years ago, there were pitch-count limits, but nothing was etched in stone.
“When I pitched, even in pro ball, our limit was probably 120 pitches,” he said. “I chuckle a bit when I watch some college games on TV, because they make such a big deal when a guy would start to go over 100 pitches. That was just standard procedure in the old days.
“A lot of it has to do with training. It’s how you train your pitchers. If you just pitch them 70 pitches at a time, and then 100 pitches, it all depends on how easily you get to the 120 mark. If you throw 30-pitch or 40-pitch innings, chances are you could have issues, and you could start to get tired. If you’re throwing with a clean delivery and with good mechanics, and you are not struggling, you can go a little over. As long as you’ve been trained to handle a higher work load, 120 pitches is not a big deal.”
Steffen said that common sense is the answer.
“The first time out, you shouldn’t be throwing more than 70 pitches. As the season goes on, we try to have our guys throw every day,” he said. “I believe in that. Every person is different, and not everybody can handle the same work load. Some people’s delivery is suited for short work. There is not a specific number to hit before a guy is going to get injured.”
Steffen said there were times when he threw 140 or 160 pitches.
“I tended to strike out a lot of people, so your pitch count goes up, compared to a ground-ball pitcher,” he said. “But every case is different. We’ve been fortunate here at RPI, where we’ve only had a couple of arm issues. In 30 years, we’ve had only about five surgeries, and one was Doug Drum, who had a labrum tear, but still got drafted by the Giants.”
Steffen said it’s a different world when it comes to flame-throwers.
“I don’t think kids throw a lot developmentally, and all of a sudden, they are in college and pro ball, and they are throwing more,” he said. “Guys are bigger and stronger now. Some guys throw 95 mph or 100 mph. You can have all the caution in the world, but injuries will happen with a guy like that.”
Summer baseball leagues, like the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League, treat their pitchers differently, because most of them have already pitched a complete college season in the spring.
“I’m not a big pitch-count guy, but I’m always a believer that being around 100 is probably a good thing,” said Amsterdam Mohawks general manager and president Brian Spagnola, who used to coach both the Mohawks and the Amsterdam High School team in his 25-year coaching career.
“I usually go by feel,” he said. “I know when a guy starts to get stressed. I think college pitchers can go 120 to 130 pitches, and they seem to be fine. I try to protect our guys and make sure they get the proper rest. With the Mohawks, we cut guys back in the beginning of our season. We throw them maybe four or five innings and then build them back up. I don’t like to see guys trying to throw a complete game until they build up their stamina. Last year, we had only one or two kids throw a complete game. Our job in the summer league is to get the kids better and send them back to their college team. That’s why we get guys every year. Coaches know we’re not going to hurt their pitchers.”
Local high school coaches must be more careful with their pitchers, who often play other positions.
“My biggest thing is that everybody gets scared off by the No. 100 in pitches, but we tend to really err on caution,” said Phonsey Lambert, who just completed his 28th year as head coach with the Saints.
“If a kid is going into the seventh inning, and he’s around 88 pitches, we look at a couple of factors. What we do is make sure the kid is still on top of the ball and still dominating. We also look at the lineup and see where he is in the order. We still don’t like to see a guy go much over 105 or 110 pitches. Then, you’re getting into trouble. These kids play multiple positions. The next day, he may play third base.”
Lambert tries to use his ace pitchers at designated hitter the next day, so they don’t have to throw the ball at all.
“All kids are different,” Lambert said. “When we had [current San Diego Padres pitcher] Tim Stauffer here pitching for me, he was the type of pitcher who needed five complete days off. We never pitched him between starts. We gave him the amount of rest he needed.”
But there were other guys with rubber arms.
“A kid like Billy McDonough had an incredible arm. He could play short and then come back the next day and pitch a complete game. That kid’s arm was incredible, and he could bounce back really quickly. I also had a kid named Dennis Healy from Ballston Spa. He was a kid who could throw all day.”
Lambert said he includes all types of throwing in the mix.
“I count pregame pitches, and I factor in whether the kid is playing shortstop or center field,” he said.
Former Mechanicville High School head coach Tom McBride said the time of year and the type of pitcher factored in his pitching decisions.
“We monitored the pitch count, but we never had a number where we had take a kid out,” he said. “A lot depended on what type of pitcher the guy was and what time of year it was. We’d be more careful in April than we would be in May or June. Plus, every pitcher is built differently. A lot depended on the guy’s mechanics. I always made my decision on feel.”
Help may be on the way for high school and youth-oriented coaches in the form of a new app, developed by orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, a noted expert on Tommy John surgeries, along with longtime physical therapist Dr. Kevin Wilk. Called “Throw Like a Pro,” the app will include a pitch counter, rest calculator and recommendations for specific exercises and tips, according to a recent story on ESPN.com.
But common sense seems to be even more helpful.
“Kids need to strengthen their arms when they are
8- , 9- , 10- and 11-years old,” said Mueller. “Then, they gradually build up. I like to take my freshmen along slowly. In fact, sometimes, I put them in for just one inning and then take them out in their first start. Then, I like to stick around 100 pitches until late in the season. Once you get to 120 pitches, that’s a lot of pitches for most players.”