The Virginia High School League on Thursday will vote on a proposal that will further restrict the number of innings baseball pitchers can throw in certain time frames, strengthening a current rule in an effort to protect young pitchers.
Area coaches are balking at the proposal. They say a rule based on innings pitched might be too arbitrary to serve its intended purpose. They think basing the rule on how many pitches their hurlers throw — a statistic most teams keep anyway — would be a more accurate way to track the workload on young arms.
The National Federation of State High School Associations mandates that each state have its own pitching restrictions. Vermont is the only state that tracks its pitchers by pitch count, an option not part of the VHSL proposal.
In Maryland, a pitcher may pitch in a maximum of 14 innings in any seven calendar-day period and a maximum of 10 innings within a three calendar-day period. Virginia’s current rule states that a pitcher cannot throw in more than 10 innings in any two consecutive calendar days, and that pitching one ball or more in any one inning is considered as having pitched an inning.
The new rule, if passed, would allow a pitcher to throw as many as nine innings in one day but not more than 15 in any seven-day period, with other restrictions and mandatory rest periods based on the length of a particular outing. For example, a six- or seven-inning stint would require three days of rest.
In its February meeting, the VHSL Executive Committee came within one vote of approving the innings standard.
McLean Coach John Thomas, president of the Northern Region Baseball Coaches’ Association, said he heard back from 15 to 20 coaches in his organization in regard to the VHSL proposal. All opposed it.
“It doesn’t bother me at all that we’re looking at putting some guidelines in for protecting pitchers,” Thomas said. “But if you’re going to put arm restrictions in place, it has to be about pitches and not innings. If they’re going to do it, we’ve got one chance to do it right at the beginning.”
Thomas cites an example of a game this season in which his ace, All-Met Josh Sborz, a Virginia recruit, needed only 52 pitches in a five-inning mercy rule win. The opposing starting pitcher threw many more pitches than Sborz but lasted less than three innings.
Based on the proposed VHSL rule, Sborz would not be allowed to pitch for two days, but the other pitcher would require only one day of rest, even though he threw far more pitches than Sborz.
“It’s somewhat of an uneducated rule as to what exactly happens in baseball,” said Chantilly Coach Kevin Ford, who thinks players do more potential damage to their arms in summer and fall league baseball than they do during a 20-game high school regular season. He thinks the new rule could force young pitchers to the mound before they are ready.
“It kind of takes away your knowledge of what your kids can do and what kind of competitors they are and how good they are with their mechanics,” Ford said. “There are different kids and different body types. It’s all about knowing your kids.”
Vermont has used a pitch-count system, broken down into varsity, junior varsity and middle school standards, for the past several seasons because coaches in the state thought a pitch count provided a better snapshot of pitcher use, said Jeff Stetson, in his 31st season at Mount Abraham High in Bristol, Vt., and a former member of the NFHS rules committee.
Teams use clickers to chart pitches, and each team compares numbers after each half-inning to make sure they have the same pitch count. The coaches sign off on the charts at the end of the game. During the postseason, after the end of each half-inning, the teams report the number of pitches thrown to the home plate umpire, who keeps track on the back of the lineup cards.
“Everybody pretty much bought into the idea that it’s about the health of the kids,” Stetson said. “From a strategic standpoint, what it forces you to do is develop more guys to be able to pitch. We’ve decided that’s not a bad thing.
“We’re all competitors. But when push comes to shove and you get in the heat of the moment, there are a lot of people thinking, well, how much would 25 more pitches hurt this kid? And the bottom line is it would hurt that kid, so we need to take care of him.”
Tom Dolan, an assistant director with the VHSL whose responsibilities include baseball rules, said coaches in many parts of the state have no interest in a pitch-count rule because they find that unmanageable — there are 316 high schools in Virginia and 90 in Vermont. He added that medical experts are not in agreement as to how many pitches is too many.
“Our sports medicine people feel like we need to offer something a little stricter, but they didn’t think pitch count was in the best interest of member schools,” Dolan said.
“If I’ve got a team in Virginia Beach playing a weekend set of games in Northern Virginia, how do I know what the pitch count is? People could tell anybody anything. Who’s the official pitch-count person? I’ve been told it could be parents, but that’s not something you want, parents arguing about 69 or 70 pitches in the stands at a game. Administratively, that’s a nightmare.”