Dusty Brittain is always watching.
Throughout each game, Copperas Cove’s head baseball coach analyzes the situation. He keeps track of the scenarios from the dugout and always monitors the potential risk-reward factors.
He weighs the consequences of each play and searches for the right move.
Brittain, however, is not thinking about a strategy for the game. He is focused on his pitcher and, more specifically, his pitcher’s throwing arm.
“There has been an epidemic in the world of baseball with pitchers tearing up their arms,” he said. “As a coach, I have to have that kid’s best interest in mind, so we track pitch counts. When they get around 100, I become very hesitant to keep that pitcher in the game. We’re talking about high school kids, and to put their entire future at risk over one game is silly.”
Recently, the University Interscholastic League began taking measures to help ensure the safety and long-term health of pitchers across the state by having its medical advisory committee re-examine baseball pitching limits and restrictions.
Currently, there is no pitching limit in Texas, and the medical advisory committee has not made any recommendations, but a proposal could come in October.
Although a pitch count seems like a simple solution to a serious problem, many factors must be taken into account, with a player’s health the top priority. What is considered the breaking point for pitchers? Will rest days factor in? Do warm-up throws in the bullpen count? How will nuances of such a rule affect tactics? Should coaches lose the right to determine what is best for their players and team?
“I understand exactly where the UIL is coming from,” Brittain said. “I’m not opposed to it by any means, but a lot of thought has to go into this.
“If they are going to do it, they need to really think it through to make sure it is done right.”
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
For a time, the rise of Tommy John surgery — the reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow — was an epidemic that wasn’t contained to the professional level.
A study by the American Sports Medicine Institute reported the percentage of Tommy John surgeries for youth patients rose from 0 percent to 20 percent between 1994 and 2004.
The same study showed that percentage continuing to rise before topping out at 32 percent in 2008 then falling back to less than 25 percent by 2011.
The dangers of overuse aren’t lost on area coaches, with special care taken to protect players, with or without a pitch count limit.
Harker Heights head coach Randy Culp, for example, doesn’t just monitor his players when they’re on the mound throwing to hitters.
“No one’s ever counting the bullpen throws and the between inning throws,” Culp said. “We watch our kids, like Daniel Cole and Tyler Torres, play other positions.”
Because of that, Cole — who won’t even pick up a football during baseball season and vice versa to better monitor his mechanics — trusts Culp and his staff to keep him healthy.
“I understand why they would do it to try to keep arms healthy,” Cole said, “but I think high school coaches know enough about their pitchers and about their health that they can make the decisions.”
But Culp and Belton head coach Eddie Cornblum both acknowledged the efforts of a high school staff may not be enough with players pitching for high school teams and travel teams, not to mention private lessons and weekend bullpen sessions.
“Overuse to me is pitching year-round,” Cornblum said.
And as ubiquitous as year-round play has become with high school baseball players, Culp said he understood why the UIL might consider a pitch count restriction.
“Obviously, we can only control what we can control, so I’m sure that’s why the UIL is doing what they’re doing because they can only control that,” Culp said. “They can’t control what the kids do outside of the UIL.”
COLORADO TAKES ACTION
Lone Star baseball fans should keep their eyes out West next season because similar changes already are in place in Colorado.
In January, the Colorado High School Athletics Association ruled to keep pitch counts from getting too Rocky Mountain High by limiting how many pitches a player can throw, but not the number of innings.
“I think a pitch count is very important, but I think they haven’t changed it because, how do you implement that?” Shoemaker head coach Harry Zambrana said. “There are so many games in the state of Texas and who’s going to enforce it? We enforce ours because that’s a priority at Shoemaker High School, but across the state, who enforces that?”
The Colorado policy will be implemented beginning next season and the number of rest days will be determined by how many pitches are thrown in a game. No rest is required if a pitcher throws 35 pitches or fewer. A player must take one day off if he throws between 36 and 60 pitches, two days off if he throws between 61 and 85 pitches, and three days off for an outing lasting 86 to 110 pitches, the maximum number a pitcher can throw.
Coaches are responsible for keeping the pitch counts and the worst punishment for a violation of the rule will result in a team being kept out of the playoffs.
Though developing a concrete system may be productive, area coaches said it may be harder to execute since a pitch count limit itself doesn’t take the ebb and flow of a baseball game into account nor how the player is doing with his speed, velocity and the fatigue factor. It also bypasses the knowledge and ability of coaches to handle their pitching staff.
“If they’re rolling and just going, that’s different,” Killeen head coach Donald Trcka said. “But if they hit that count and they’ve been struggling all night, we’ll pull them out.”
PROPER MECHANICS HELP
Given the way many area coaches operate, a UIL-mandated pitch count isn’t cause for alarm because it would hardly come into play. Efficient mechanics can go a long way in preserving an arm, and local coaches stress that, particularly early in the season.
“We work on pitching mechanics every day,” Cornblum said. “Whether it’s flat ground or in our bullpen work or just dry drills. That way you never know how many pitchers you might have.”
The inherent need to manage arms for postseason success is a common theme among coaches, who call keeping a pitch count a necessity for long-term success.
“If you don’t let guys work and mix it up and have a pitching staff, you don’t have much of a program in reality,” Salado head coach Chad Krempin said. “So, we try to do that.”
But even with coaches monitoring players and managing rotations there are a few inherent effects a potential UIL restriction might have.
Cole, the Knights’ ace the past two seasons, noted that mandatory rest, as Colorado proposed, can change the dynamics of a playoff series.
For example, if he were mandated rest following his complete-game victory against Sachse in Game 1 of the bi-district round of the 2015 playoffs, then he’d never have been able to close out the final inning of Game 2 — as he did the next day, with careful monitoring from his coaches.
“My arm felt great, that’s why I was able to play shortstop,” Cole said. “My coaches asked me many times if my arm was OK, if I was able to do it, and I felt like I was able to throw. I felt healthy enough to do it.
“They checked on me when I was throwing, and I was fine.”
Cole said a strict pitch count might have affected him in Game 1, adding a rule like that might influence pitchers to throw fewer balls, even when they’re ahead in the count.
‘WE ENFORCE A PITCH COUNT’
Change is never easy, particularly in a sport like baseball that values, holds on to and celebrates its history and traditions unlike any other major American sport.
“It’s kind of hard to implement so many different things,” Zambrana said. “You have something in place for so long, you’ve got a lot of tradition, a lot of old school guys don’t want to change anything because they don’t see anything broken with the system.
“It’s hard to give a pitch count because it’s up to that kid. Did he have a good offseason? Where’s his arm strength? A kid’s 60-pitch limit isn’t the same for someone else.”
If there is a mandated UIL pitch count limit, the four Killeen Independent School District high schools will have little to change since the Knights, Eagles, Grey Wolves and Roos coaching staffs each have pitch limit systems in place to protect their players.
Zambrana, a 2001 Ellison graduate, said he learned from experience. As a high school player, he pitched for the Eagles and played in offseason leagues and said fatigue cost him his senior season at Ellison.
“The last thing I want to do is hurt a kid or ruin somebody’s career because of something as simple as a pitch count, so we enforce a (strict) pitch count,” Zambrana said.
Trcka said if a pitcher is in a groove and working efficiently, he likely won’t hit a maximum number in a seven-inning game. But Killeen is a Class 6A school and plays in the most populous classification, so things may be different at the other levels.
“It won’t hurt that many people,” Trcka said. “Where you see it hurting people is your smaller schools that might not have as many kids, like your (Class) 1A or 2A schools that might have one pitcher. We always try to develop three or four who could throw.”