New pitch count regulations throw curveball on Opening Day

By Daniel Gatta, Melissa Laker, Greg Zarb and Dorothy Mai

Joe Cornish would always say yes. Cherishing a love for baseball and as a high school player trying to make it into a college team, he would always answer “yes” when asked “can you pitch today?” But one too many yeses meant that by the time he was eighteen, Cornish could barely lift his arm after pitching, let alone throw. Now, Cornish is a coach enforcing new regulations that stops young baseball players from over-pitching.

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New regulations issued by Little League Baseball and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSA) in November 2016 came into effect on Opening Day, Monday, April 3, 2017. These changes update the amount of pitches a player can throw within a certain time frame and how many days of rest they are required to take before they can return to the mound.

We used to limit the pitchers to innings,” President and coach for Three Village Baseball and Softball League, Cornish said. “Now, an inning is three outs for the opposing team but that could total 50 or 60 pitches in a single inning, which is a large amount […] generally kids should throw 8 pitches multiplied by their age.”

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The new regulations require teams to have official pitch count recorders and for the recorded information from practices and games to be submitted to the league upon request.

“I need a helper,” Cornish said. “I have like a little handheld device that I am able to click off every time they throw a pitch […] so I’m having someone else take care of that in a game while I’m talking about game strategy or paying attention to something in the game.”

The regulations apply to varsity, junior varsity, little league, middle school and high school players and have been revised to protect pitchers’ arms.

“I feel the pitch count implementation was a necessary rule to ensure the safety and well-being of our student athletes,” Tim Mullins, Suffolk County head of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, said. “This new rule is a proactive step in doing our part to protect and support our baseball players and their futures. It’s imperative that all stakeholders (coaches, parents, athletes) are educated on the pitch count and why this was added so that we can start protecting athletes arms at a young age.”

A study spanning over 20 years, completed in 2015 by PitchSmart USA stated that from 2007-2011, Tommy John surgeries among teenagers increased 9 percent, and continues to increase.

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“The more you throw, the more fatigued the muscle gets, the more strain that goes on the ligament,” Orthopaedic surgeon and expert on Tommy John Surgery, Dr. James Paci said.  “Over time, as the ligament builds up wear and tear, eventually, it fails.”

In the fall of tenth grade, Matthew Buckshaw noticed that his velocity was down and his fastball wasn’t tailing. He told his coaches about the excruciating pain in his right elbow. At just 16 years old, and a critical point in his blossoming baseball career, the sophomore pitcher underwent Tommy John surgery to repair a torn UCL.

“It’s a sport where — at some point — an injury is bound to happen,” Josh Gutes, Hauppauge High School baseball coach, said. “But certainly at the higher level there’s been an uptick in these injuries, whether it’s the arm, elbow, or shoulder.”

School and Little League baseball players were not regulated by pitch counts until the start of the 2007 season, when pitch counts, rather than counts of innings, were introduced for regular seasons.

“It’s a good thing because young kids, when they’re good, they get over pitched by coaches that just want to win,” Eastchester Little League member who played since he was five and through high school, Andrew Lalli said. “By the time they get to high school, their arms aren’t developed and then their arms start to hurt them and then their future baseball is sometimes in jeopardy if the player has an arm that isn’t that great and overused.”

One surgeon is worried that without regulation throughout all teams and associations these rules may not be successful.

“The thing is, once the kids start playing travel ball, if it gets beyond the little league system, there may not be pitch counts in place and if a kid is throwing on three different teams, that is probably way too many baseball teams,” Dr Paci said. “That’s three different teams with three different coaches and those three coaches aren’t communicating […] If Mom and Dad aren’t there policing it, if he’s got a gun arm, he’s going to get run into the ground.”

Players and their parents should look into cellphone applications that track pitch count whilst also staying alert to fatigue and bad pitching mechanics, Dr Paci suggested.

Pitch counts for each age differ by state, according to Baseball America. Those who breach the new pitch count regulations will face a $250 fine to the offending school of the violating player.

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