Long before he was a Baltimore Oriole, Dylan Bundy was one of the best high school pitchers scouts had ever seen. In 2010 as a high school junior with a low-to-mid-90s fastball, the then 17-year-old carried his Owasso (Okla.) High team to a state runner-up finish, throwing 293 pitches over three games in four days as the Tulsa (Okla.) World noted at the time.
It was completely legal by Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association rules. Those rules allowed a pitcher to pitch up to 10 innings in any single day or a complete game, no matter how many innings that game lasted (Dylan’s older brother Bobby pitched 13 innings in an extra-inning game in 2007 (also noted by the Tulsa World). While Dylan Bundy’s run with Owasso ended up one win short of a state title, fellow future big leaguer Dillon Overton was carrying Weatherford to a 4A state title by throwing 19 of the 22 innings Weatherford needed during the playoff run.
Coincidentally or not, both Bundy brothers and Overton have had Tommy John surgery since.
Oklahoma’s next Bundy or Overton won’t get the chance to be so heroic. And for that baseball can be thankful.
The 2017 season will be the start of a whole new era of high school baseball. When it comes to pitch limits, high school baseball has entered the 21st century. After years of relying on innings limits (or in some states, no limits), high school state federations around the country have adopted pitch limits for the 2017 season.
They didn’t really have a choice. The National High School Federation mandated that each state adopt pitch limits of some sort. Only Massachussetts, which does not follow National High School Federation rules for baseball, has avoided adopting a pitch limit of any kind. Connecticut did not set an upper limit for the number of pitches a pitcher can throw in an outing, but did adopt days of rest limits.
“It’s going to change the way we play baseball. We will give more kids opportunities and we are going to protect kids,” said Elliot Hopkins, the director of educational services at the NHFS. Hopkins has served as the national federation’s point person on baseball for 18 years.
It was just two years ago that Major League Baseball and USA Baseball announced the Pitch Smart program that brought together some of the nation’s top sports medicine practitioners to put together recommendations to try keep young pitchers healthy. This is part of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s “One Baseball” initiative where MLB is trying to take a larger role in guiding the sport at all levels. Among Pitch Smart’s recommendations was a list of workload recommendations by age, all of which revolve around pitch counts.
In those two years, Pitch Smart has helped lead a revolution in arm care. Little League baseball had adopted pitch limits years ago, but as late as 2014, pitchers could spend the majority of their amateur careers on teams that did not adhere to pitch or days of rest limits.
Now two years later with high schools around the country adopting pitch limits, it’s possible for a pitcher to make it to the major leagues without ever pitching for a team that didn’t adhere to strict pitch limits.
Little League Baseball, Dixie Baseball and the National Amateur Baseball Foundation are among the youth leagues that are Pitch Smart compliant. On the showcase circuit, Perfect Game, East Coast Pro Showcase and Baseball Factory are all on board. Now high schools (and in many states, junior highs) have installed pitch limits as well. So has American Legion ball. And at the college level, some of the top summer college leagues, including the Cape Cod League, are Pitch Smart compliant. In pro ball, while there are no rules restricting pitch counts, no professional team allows its pitchers to ever throw much more than 110-120 pitches, no matter what the pitcher’s age. In the minors, no young pitcher ever throws much more than 100 pitches.
“In a very short time, it’s kind of become the known standard,” said USA Baseball’s Senior Director of Baseball Development Rick Riccobono, the organization’s point person for Pitch Smart. “We’re not there, but we’re getting there.”
Riccobono said that in one state in one recent year there were 186 instances of high school pitchers throwing more than 125 pitches in a game. There were 29 instances of a pitcher throwing over 150 pitches, 12 pitchers who threw 165 pitchers or more in a game and the top pitch count was 196.
There is no certainty that stricter pitch limits will reduce injuries. When it comes to pitching and pitching injuries, there are no absolutes, but the guidelines have been developed by some of the top names in sports medicine, including Dr. James Andrews, Dr. Glenn Fleisig, Dr. Neal ElAttrache and MLB Medical Director Dr. Gary Green.
The best research by the best medical minds believe that limiting workloads will help reduce injuries. In 2017, there are top youth, amateur showcase, high school baseball and summer college leagues that are all strictly following pitch limits with the realistic hope that by doing so, pitchers can stay healthier. The biggest remaining holdout is the college baseball level, where the NCAA seems unlikely to adopt any pitch limits anytime soon.
At the high school level, the new rules are expected to significantly change the way the game is played and managed.
Some coaches see the new pitch count limits as leveling the playing field. In the past, a coach who followed the latest recommendations for limiting young pitchers workloads was putting his team at a competitive disadvantage. The difference between top high school pitchers and the next best bullpen option is often quite significant. If one coach pulled his ace after 95 pitches while the opposing team let its ace go for 140+ pitches, the team that stuck with its ace often had the advantage.
Baseball players are competitive by nature. So are coaches. The temptation is always going to remain to send the ace out for one more inning. But now there’s no choice.
“I think it really takes the pressure off of us more than anything,” Huntington Beach (Calif.) High coach Benji Medure said. “You just can’t do it. Every coach reasons it and says ‘you know it’s his bullpen day.’ With the new rule you just can’t do it. There’s no arguing with the kid who tries to convince you about one more batter. We have dealt with that with pitchers in the past where they don’t want to come out. Now there is no question at all.”
“For every call we’ve gotten from someone saying we’re killing the sport, we get two saying ‘Thank you, I feel like I lost the state championship because I refused to bring my starter from the day before in to close the next game because those are the principles under which I coach,’ ” Riccobono said.
The new rules will also force high school teams to develop deeper bullpens which will give more teenagers a chance to pitch.
“That gives kids roles. Instead of everyone trying to be the guy, what about that lefty on lefty guy who can get three outs? That’s now huge for a team,” Medure said.
“A good consequence is more participation. Most schools have three or four pitchers if you are lucky. Now you will have to have a bullpen,” Hopkins said. “Looking back on it, we were smarter than we thought we were. More kids will get to play.”
Eventually, these rules will likely tighten further. Currently the Pitch Smart guidelines would allow a pitcher to throw 25 pitches on Monday and then 90 pitches on Tuesday, a workload that goes far beyond what sports medicine experts would recommend. Some states will let 15 year olds throw up to 125 pitches in a game this year, or return from an 80-pitch outing after only two days off, workloads that would get many professional pitching coaches reprimanded or fired.
But this step forward is the big one for the nearly 500,000 high school baseball players around the country. It’s one that may have effects for years to come.
“It feels like a watershed moment,” Riccobono said. “If you’re not on board by now, you’re in danger of being late to the party.”