Mt. Vernon head coach Ryan Carr was already ahead of the game when he heard the news.
While coaching the Mt. Vernon Pythons summer baseball team, which includes several of his varsity players, Carr used Pitch Smart during a Perfect Game-sanctioned tournament last month.
“I had to make a chart to keep track of of everyone, but it made sense,” Carr said about the program created by USA Baseball and Major League Baseball in 2014. “It wasn’t daunting by any means. If anything it made it easier.”
Pitch Smart is a comprehensive resource for safe pitching practices. The program uses pitch counts instead of innings pitched to curtail the potential for increased risk of arm injury due to overuse for pitchers.
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While not officially adopted by the Indiana High School Athletic Association, nearly 20 baseball organizations are in full compliance to the practice.
Soon, high school baseball in Indiana may follow suit.
On July 12, the National Federation of State High School Associations announced the approval of a rule change at its June board of directors meeting concerning pitching restrictions for baseball.
The revision of its pitching policy in Rule 6-2-6, states each member state association will be required to develop its own pitching restriction policy based on pitches thrown during a game to afford pitchers a required rest period between appearances.
In the past, high school pitchers in Indiana were capped by innings with no more than 10 in three days. This spring, a new pitch-count policy must be in place by the IHSAA before the start of the season.
Currently, a specific policy has yet to be determined, but New Palestine varsity baseball coach Shawn Lyons has been proactive, sharing his opinions on the possible direction it could take.
“There are still a lot of questions that we have. I’ve touched base with (IHSAA Commissioner) Bobby Cox, and we’ve kind of talked about ways to fine tune the rules,” Lyons said. “I told Bobby, they should think about a progressive pitch count. Early April versus mid to late May should be completely different.”
Eastern Hancock varsity coach Chad Coughenour said he believes the pitch count scale should be universal from season’s start to finish to avoid confusion or oversight.
The one area where all of the Hancock County coaches agree is putting the safety of their players first with a pitch count, and the research supports them.
According to the American Sports Medicine Institute, the number of Tommy John surgeries (a procedure to repair ligament tears in the arm) performed on youth pitchers at their facility has more than doubled since 2000.
The American Journal of Sports Medicine published a report in 2014, showing a 45 percent risk factor for those pitching in a league without any restrictions and a 43.5 percent risk if a player pitched on consecutive days.
According to the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, between 2007-11 nearly 57 percent of all Tommy John surgeries involved players ages 15 to 19.
“It’s better to put the thing in place and then figure out how to do it, rather than say, it’s too hard to do it, so let’s not do it because it is something that needs to happen,” Carr said. “We’re really being careful with these kids now because of all of the data that says kids are getting Tommy John at 13 or 14, and that shouldn’t be the case.”
The Pitch Smart scale recommends a daily maximum of 105 pitches thrown by a player ages 17 and 18. The scale drops to 95 pitches for those 15 and 16.
If a pitcher stays within 1 to 30 pitches in a game, no rest day is needed. Yet, from 31 to 45 pitches, one day off is required. Two days rest applies to 46 to 60 pitches thrown while 61 to 75 increases the recovery period to three days. Anything over 76 pitches should result in four days rest.
“We got to this point where baseball is a year-round sport. The body needs time to heal. The arm needs time to heal. It needs time to strengthen,” said Coughenour, who supports the incorporation of Pitch Smart by the IHSAA.
In extreme cases under the former IHSAA policy, pitch counts had the potential to reach harmful totals and fatigue a pitcher’s arm based on several factors, including types of pitches thrown and game situations.
“There are so many pitches that put more stress on your arm. A fastball and change, there’s stress, but if you throw a slider, that’s going to put the most stress on your arm,” Lyons said. “There are so many intangibles involved.”
Regardless of what the IHSAA’s policy will become, Lyon’s program is ready for the shift.
Implementing a pitch count for his team throughout his tenure, the Dragons’ coaching staff records a pitcher’s usage meticulously. A prime example is Nebraska recruit Keegan Watson, the Dragons’ No. 2 pitcher last season. As a junior, Watson pitched 39 innings with 64 strikeouts.
“He would strikeout so many guys, his pitch count would get high,” Lyons said. “He wouldn’t often last more than five innings.”
Many coaches, including Carr and Lyons, have utilized a free stat tracking and team management software called GameChanger, which instantly tabulates pitch counts.
Coughenour said he hopes the IHSAA decides to mandate a similar software or GameChanger as the uniform method for all coaches to assist in the policing of the new rule.
“It’s not as much what they use, but how they track it,” Coughenour said. “If they leave it up to each individual coach to do, I don’t think that will be the best way to track it. It would be nice if we had a generalized place, so everyone can see and review a pitcher’s workload.”
The policy change might impact game strategy, said Carr, including how bullpens are stretched, especially during Hoosier Heritage Conference doubleheaders.
“You may have pitchers now that know they have to be that more efficient and they have to challenge hitters instead of nibbling and going 3-2 on every guy or 3-1 because if they don’t, they won’t last,” Carr said.
Yet, Coughenour said he believes the good will outweigh any negative, specifically if the shift in the rules “trickles down” to the youth level where restrictions don’t always exist.
For some youth players, said Coughenour, the middle school and junior high seasons can overlap in the spring with travel baseball and school season.
Coughenour was in charge of player development from 2001-05 for the Indiana Bandits Baseball Club in Greenfield and campaigned for pitch counts.
In recent years, though, he said he feels the lack of regulation can put younger players in danger before they even reach high school.
The same applies to some summer baseball programs and winter showcases for the high school players, which don’t fall under the NFHS or IHSAA umbrellas.
In travel baseball leagues, communication between high school coaches and summer coaches can be minimal, said Carr.
“In summer ball you get coaches chasing trophies, who can really abuse guys,” Carr said. “They might ride one guy, who is 16, to win and not worry about that kid’s arm. All I can do is hope and pray their coach has their best interests in mind and aren’t out to try to win a 3-foot tall plastic trophy.”