Pitchers like Taylor’s Noah Poe will now count the number of pitches thrown as opposed to the previous innings pitched rule to help protect arms. (Herald Photo/file)
Pitchers like Taylor’s Noah Poe will now count the number of pitches thrown as opposed to the previous innings pitched rule to help protect arms. (Herald Photo/file)
Protecting a baseball pitchers arm has been a focus for decades. From the advent of the relief pitcher to counting the number of innings to pitch counts, the game has evolved to keep the most important position on the field available for as many years as possible.

In the early days, pitchers would routinely throw complete games in a typical professional outing. It wasn’t until 1903 when a relief pitcher made an appearance in a World Series game. The first prominent relief pitcher didn’t come until 1923. Even then, the ace of the staff would pitch in relief on days he did not start. In fact, 300-win Hall of Famer Lefty Groves would have also been a saves leader if that statistic had been invented when he retired in 1941.

At the time, pitchers were known to throw more than 300 innings a year with no regard to arm wear-and-tear (Boston’s David Price led the MLB this year with 230 innings pitched). But once relief pitchers became the norm, inning counts came down, although they were known to throw with injuries. With the advent of modern medical procedures, it became apparent that arms needed better protecting, and thus most coaches would count the number of innings a pitcher could throw – in fact, that has been the norm for years in several organized leagues.

“Baseball players seem to be playing year around, so if there is a way to limit the wear-and-tear on a young arm, that is better for the game,” said Kokomo High School head coach Sean Swan. “It is almost a badge of honor when a player gets to college and has had surgery due to an injury – and it is usually a use injury that is preventable.”

But now, the game has evolved once again and it is the actual number of pitches thrown that is the key indicator of how long a hurler can stay on the hill. Little League Baseball even has pitch counters mounted in dugouts during World Series play for managers to see. Earlier this year, the National Federation of State High School Associations made a rule change that required states to develop pitch count rules.

“We’re pleased that the rules committee worked in conjunction with the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee to find an acceptable and reasonable modification to this rule in order to emphasis the risk that occurs when pitchers overuse their throwing arm,” said Elliot Hopkins, NFHS director of sports and student services and staff liaison for baseball.

It did not take the Indiana High School Athletic Association long to amend Rule 51-4, which will mandate the maximum number of pitches that can be thrown by a student-athlete. The rule, which was approved unanimously by the IHSAA Executive Committee, takes effect immediately.

“I never thought the innings pitched rule was effective at all; it wasn’t a true reflection of how much a kid was used,” said Swan. “Little League got it right and they saw it early on. I think (the IHSAA pitch count rule) is good. It won’t affect us because we are already taking care of our kids. But it is a nice thing to have in place. I think they got it right.”

No pitcher may throw more than 120 pitches in a varsity level game/calendar day or 90 pitches in a sub-varsity level game/calendar day. Anyone who throws at least 36 pitches in a varsity contest or 26 in a sub-varsity contest must receive one day of required rest. Additionally, any pitcher who throws more than 60 pitches over two days will be required one day of rest.

If a pitcher reaches the maximum number of pitches in a pitch count level, during an at-bat, the pitcher may complete the at-bat without moving to the next pitch count level. Any replacement pitcher will have a maximum of 16 warm-up throws.

Schools also will be mandated to use a pitch count chart – provided by the IHSAA – for each pitcher on the team and submit updated pitching statistics to their school administrators following each game. The use of an ineligible pitcher in a game shall result in the forfeiture of that game.

The new IHSAA varsity pitching limits chart is: Level 1, 1-35 pitches, 0 required days rest; Level 2, 36-60 pitches, 1 day rest; Level 3, 61-80 pitches, 2 days rest; Level 4, 81-100 pitches, 3 days rest; Level 5, 101-120-plus, 4 days rest.

“Any number you put on for a pitch count, someone is going to complain,” said Swan. “But nothing in this new chart jumped out at me.”

Previously, IHSAA rules limited a pitcher to no more than 10 innings in any three consecutive calendar days.

American Legion baseball also changes

The American Legion has also adopted a pitch count method, which is in line with the USA Baseball Pitch Smart Initiative. 

In the Legion senior program (ages 19 and under), pitchers will not be able to exceed 120 pitches in any single day, while pitchers in the junior program (ages 17 and under) may not exceed 105 pitches. Should pitchers hit the limit in the middle of an at-bat, they may finish pitching to that batter before being removed from the position.

Pitchers will not be able to make more than two appearances in any three-day span. In addition, pitchers will have required rest based on the number of pitches thrown in a given day. Throwing 1-45 pitches in game action requires one day of rest, 46-60 pitches requires two days of rest, 61-75 pitches requires three days of rest and 76 or more pitches will require four days of rest. Failure to adhere to the pitching rule will lead to the ejection of both the pitcher and the team manager if a protest is filed to the umpire-in-chief.

“Legion Baseball prides itself on being an exemplary organization which helps young athletes grow as players and people. Safety is always our top priority and it has become clear that the best way to keep our young pitchers safe is to enact pitch counts at all levels,” said Gary Stone, Legion Baseball chairman. “I would like to praise the department baseball chairmen who helped provide the baseball committee with these important recommendations.”