Debating Pitch Counts

November 30, 2017

Coaches, athletes, and sports medicine professionals are debating whether a pitch count limit is necessary for the health and safety of softball players. There are many different perspectives to take into consideration.

According to The Denver Post, many softball players and their coaches believe that softball pitchers, unlike their baseball counterparts, are not at risk of injury from throwing too many balls. Ali Kilponen, who plays softball for Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch, Colo., said she pitched every inning this season and feels comfortable doing so.

“I know I’ve prepared myself to throw as much as I have this season, and I always want the ball,” Kilponen said. “I’m definitely not the only pitcher in the state who feels that and who feels like I can throw all the games when it matters most.”

Stephen Nicholas, MD, Director of the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma in New York City, disagrees. In his view, softball pitchers face the same risk for overuse injuries than baseball pitchers.

“We’re abusing softball pitchers’ shoulders because we’re not allowing them to recover appropriately from the stress incurred during a game,” Dr. Nicholas said. “The main factor in those resulting injuries is chronic overuse, period. No matter what, the arm needs time to rest, and that has to be addressed.”

One of the concerns is that overuse can stem from the arm mechanics of throwing a softball. Although softball pitchers use an underhand throw, Kristen Thomas, MD, an Orthopedic Surgeon at Legacy Health in Portland, Ore., states that players still get injured and require surgery.

“There’s this conception that softball pitchers don’t get injured, but biomechanics studies have shown that throwing a pitch underhand is equally as stressful as throwing an overhand pitch to the shoulder, and in fact, it has a higher rate of stress to the biceps tendon than an overhand throw,” said Dr. Thomas.

Another concern is the sheer amount of times softball pitchers are called to the mound. It’s not uncommon for a high school pitcher to throw every game of her high school season and then pitch dozens of times during the travel season.

“Travel ball and those elite summer teams is where we’re really having trouble, because what we know from epidemiological work at the high schools is that girls who had more seasonal exposure—in other words, more pitches per season—were at a higher risk,” said Steve Jordan, MD, an Orthopedic Surgeon for the Andrews Institute in Gulf Breeze, Fla. “What we found is that some of these girls are pitching as many as 1,000 or more pitches in a weekend summer tournament—which is equal to the risk factors we saw in an entire season of high school ball.”

Dr. Jordan goes on to report seeing softball pitching injuries increase by about three times in the last 10 years.

“I’m hearing it from the grassroots—people are saying we need guidelines, we need pitch counts, we need more effective long-toss programs,” he said.

Despite these concerns, Sandy Searcy, the NFHS' Director of Sports, said there is not enough data to support limiting how many times softball pitchers throw or requiring them to rest for a few days after pitching a game.

“There really hasn’t been a ton of information out there to indicate that overuse injuries in softball are prevalent,” Searcy said. “So, as far as pitch count, when NFHS instituted a pitch count in baseball, everyone turned to softball and wondered if that would be good for that sport, too. But everything we’ve been presented with by (High School RIO) and our Sports Medicine Advisory Committee has not indicated there is the need to create a pitch-count rule or mandatory rest days for softball.”

Dawn Gaffin, who coaches softball at Legacy High School in Broomfield, Colo., opposes pitch limitations but said coaches need to use proper judgment.

“Good grief, I hope coaches are using common sense enough that they’re not injuring their girls,” she said. “Or else [the Colorado High School Activities Association] would have to step in and impose some kind of pitch count.”

Although the debate for how much is too much with pitching is ongoing, both sides agree that coaches are responsible for keeping an eye on pitchers to determine when they need a break.

“It’s a checks-and-balances type of situation—you’ve got to constantly be checking in with your pitchers, and you need to know your kids,” Gaffin said. “You know what your kid looks like when they’re fatiguing and when there’s no more pop left in their pitch, or you can even tell by the look on their face and their mannerisms on the mound.” 

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