A Year of Pitch Counts

July 23, 2018

This spring marked the first high school baseball season with nationwide pitch count rules, put in place by the NFHS to curtail arm injuries. The new requirement was applauded by many but did bring up some questions and unforeseen consequences. In addition, new research has shed a light on the effects of throws made during warm-ups and the risks of playing both pitcher and catcher.

The mandate from the NFHS required states to implement their own “pitching restriction policy based on the number of pitches thrown during a game to afford pitchers a required rest period between pitching appearances.” In North Carolina, for example, recovery periods are one day after throwing 31 to 45 pitches, two days for 46 to 60 pitches, and three days for 61 to 75 pitches.

One effect of the change is that it has put pressure on small schools with fewer players. To adjust, some have opted to shorten their schedules by exclusively playing in-conference games. “We can’t afford to overextend ourselves,” Hayesville (N.C.) High School Head Baseball Coach Jeff Vardo told the Citizen Times. “Our pitching staff is thin at best. When your numbers are limited, you have to manage things differently. Part of that was scheduling less games.”

Other coaches in North Carolina are more supportive of the pitching rules but would like to see some changes. “I wish the pitch count numbers were a little higher,” Murphy High School Head Baseball Coach Adam Clonts told the Citizen Times. “I think adjusting those numbers would benefit smaller schools and help them with the strategy aspect of the game. I think 60 pitches is too low for two days of rest. I’d like to see that number at 75.”

Another part of the discussion is whether throws made by pitchers outside of competition have been adequately factored into pitch count limits. A study recently published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine by a team of researchers from the University of Florida suggests many throws from warm-ups or bullpen sessions are going uncounted.

After observing and tallying nearly 14,000 pitches by 115 starting pitchers in Florida during the 2017 high school baseball season, researchers found that 42.4 percent of the players’ throws were unaccounted for in pitch counts. They recorded that the typical player threw about 69 pitches during game action, but that average jumped to more than 119 when warm-ups and bullpen throws were added.

“The volume of pitches being thrown is much greater [than] what is being counted,” lead author Jason Zaremski, MD, CAQSM, FACSM, FAAMR, Clinical Associate Professor in Florida’s Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation, told Futurity.org. “It’s not just the effect of one game. Overuse has a cumulative effect over the course of a month, a season, or a career.”

Glenn Fleisig, PhD, Research Director at the American Sports Medicine Institute and Chair of USA Baseball’s Medical and Safety Committee, believes that warm-up and bullpen throws were taken into account when drafting pitch count rules, but that the new research is still important. “Pitch count limits are based upon studies that correlated game pitches to arm injuries, so the limits are therefore just the game pitches,” he explains. “The underlying assumption is that the pitchers in the studies and pitchers who follow the limits should have a corresponding number of warm-up throws. But the study is valuable in adding to our understanding of what typical numbers are for warm-up throws.”

While it may be impractical to count every warm-up throw, Fleisig suggests that teams monitor these pitches and limit them when necessary. He says the most important factor to keep in mind, regardless of the pitch count limit, is fatigue.

“The strongest finding in our research is that the pitchers who kept pitching after they were fatigued were the ones who ended up having serious injuries,” Fleisig explains. “Even when there is a pitch count in place, coaches still need to recognize when a pitcher is tired. There’s no measurement for fatigue, but it’s something you feel and you know, and that’s where communication comes in.”

Another recent study says pitchers should not double as catchers. Those who do are nearly three times more likely to be injured, according to research published in the Journal of Athletic Training. Following 384 high school pitchers over three years, the study found that those who also played infield or outfield had an injury rate of 5.4 percent. But those who doubled as catchers endured an injury rate of 15.6 percent.

“All positions have some hard throws, but catchers have a lot of extra throws back to the pitcher,” Fleisig says. “High-effort throws are the most stressful, but reduced-effort throws still count. Therefore, a pitcher can play any position after he’s done pitching, except catcher, and vice-versa.”

This article appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Training & Conditioning.

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