Written by Matt Wixon
Baseball playoff intensity, schedule raises pitch-count debate for HS pitchers
After going the distance Saturday to help Frisco Liberty win its playoff series, pitcher Michael Cantrell said he wasn’t tired. The senior had thrown more than 100 pitches in the decisive Game 3, but he was ready for more.
“I could pitch Game 4,” Cantrell said.
That’s the attitude you expect from pitchers. Their competitiveness makes then want to stay on the mound. But how many pitches in a game are too many?
“It depends on the kid,” said Rockwall-Heath coach Greg Harvey, whose team plays Humble Atascocita this week in the 5A Region II semifinals. “But the warning flag starts going up at 100.”
Last week, Rochester (Wash.) pitcher Dylan Fosnacht blew past the warning flag and nearly lapped it with 194 pitches. The buzz concerning his pitch count undoubtedly got a boost from the current rash of elbow injuries to MLB pitchers such as the Rangers’ Martin Perez, whose Tommy John surgery will sideline him for at least a year.
Elbow-ligament injuries are becoming more common in the pros, and some believe the elbow damage starts when pitchers are kids. Dr. Adam Kouyoumjian, an orthopedic surgeon in the Plano-Frisco area, has seen overuse injuries in pitchers as young as age 12.
“You stretch out that ulnar collateral ligament, and you’re looking at trouble,” he said. “Some of these guys are really setting themselves up for some long-term problems.”
The best medicine is often rest, Kouyoumjian said. But for many high school baseball pitchers, the high school season isn’t the only season. They also play for club teams and participate in showcase events as they try to get scholarships.
A high school coach can’t control any of that. But when deciding how far his pitchers can go in the playoffs, he can feel the pinch when simultaneously trying to win and protect a player’s arm.
In district play, most teams play twice in a week. But when the playoffs bring three games in three days, coaches want to get the most out of their trusted guys, and pitch counts can soar.
One notable example was in the 1995 playoffs, when Grand Prairie’s Kerry Wood threw 175 pitches while starting two games in the same day. Wood, the Chicago Cubs’ top pick in the 1995 amateur draft, went on to become the National League Rookie of the Year in 1998. But the rest of his career, which ended in 2012, included three arm surgeries and 16 trips to the disabled list.
Nobody knows if the early workload led to future problems, and the University Interscholastic League has no pitch limits. A UIL pitcher can throw unlimited innings in a game and up to 10 innings in two games the same day.
Plano coach Rick Robertson, whose team faces Klein Collins this week in the 5A Region I semifinals, said the 100-pitch mark is when he starts watching a pitcher closely. But each case is different, based on the heat, a player’s size and strength, the types of pitches he throws and other variables.
Liberty coach Scott McGarrh limits players to 90 pitches in district play. In the playoffs, he uses speed-gun readings to help evaluate a pitcher.
“If their velocity is about the same from the start of the inning until the end, I’ll let them keep going,” he said. “It’s when their velocity drops that we get them out.”
It’s often difficult to convince the pitcher. Harvey, whose star pitchers have included Jake Thompson, the Detroit Tigers’ second-round pick in 2012, has had some heated arguments on the mound.
“They don’t want to come out, and I don’t blame them,” Harvey said. “But I say to them, ‘You know, your future and your career is more important to me than winning any game.’”