College baseball has its share of detractors. Some major league fans will simply never embrace the college game as long as metal bats are used. Others are turned off by the bunting-heavy style of play that has become so prominent in the BBCOR bat era. Some who write about college baseball and some who scout it love to express contempt for the college product. But the most prominent criticism of college baseball centers around pitcher workloads. The Internet is full of outrage over pitch counts and short rest for pitchers in the postseason.
It's no secret that I'm a defender and a supporter of college baseball. Over the course of my decade at Baseball America, I have developed deep affection for the college game and respect for its coaches. But I don't want to be a blind apologist for college baseball; I want what is best for the sport, and I think it's important to acknowledge the bad as well as the good, in order to make it stronger.
A recent glut of Tommy John surgeries in the pro and college ranks has caused the debate over pitcher workloads to intensify, and with it the criticism of college coaches for the way they handle their pitchers. But as illustrated in this story, we don't have the data to say whether the college model of higher pitch counts every seven days leads to more injuries than the pro model of lower pitch counts every five days. And it's worth noting that eight of the 16 first-round pitchers signed out of high school in the last three years have already been operated upon, compared with just four of the 25 college first-round pitchers in the same span.
That's a small sample, and a larger data set reveals that players signed out of the college ranks do account for a disproportionately large percentage of Tommy John surgeries. The question is, why? Is it because college coaches only care about winning in order to further their own careers, at the expense of the young arms in their care?
More Than Good Intentions
Men who devote their lives to coaching 18-22-year-olds aren't in it just for the paychecks. They form deep bonds with their players, and it matters to them how those players fare after college. And keeping players healthy after they're gone is in coaches' own best interests; producing successful alumni is a big part of recruiting other talented players later on. Anyone who thinks college coaches don't care what happens to players after they sign pro contracts hasn't spent much time getting to know the overwhelmingly good-hearted, principled individuals who make up the college coaching ranks.
But good intentions make a bad defense for mismanagement, and there is no doubt that college coaches could do a better job protecting the pitchers in their charge. There might be nothing wrong with allowing a pitcher to throw 120 pitches on six days of rest, but coaches must learn to resist the temptation to bring starting pitchers back on three, two or even one day of rest in the postseason—for the good of college baseball, and for the good of the coaches themselves. Putting pitchers at risk undermines a coach's personal reputation and provides ammunition for college baseball's detractors.
And just because a starting pitcher is slated to throw a bullpen session between starts, that doesn't mean he should be available for live game action. High-leverage situations place significantly more stress on an arm. College coaches must know this, because they generally avoid doing it during the regular season. They shouldn't abandon that restraint during the postseason.
It isn't easy to build depth with only 11.7 scholarships to spread over a 35-man roster, but it's easier than it used to be. With the deadened bats currently in use, pitchers need not throw 95 mph to be effective; they can get plenty of outs by pounding the strike zone at 85-87, pitching to contact and letting their defense work.
College coaches should try harder to get the most out of all the arms at their disposal. They should give meaningful innings in the regular season to pitchers further down the depth chart. They should not send their aces back to the mound with a five-run lead in the ninth inning in March; save some bullets for later, and get younger arms some experience. Using more pitchers in the regular season might result in a few extra losses, but it could pay off in the postseason. And it will pay off in the long term by helping keep marquee arms healthier, which can only make college baseball as a whole stronger.
Truly excessive pitch counts have become much less common than they used to be, as coaches have become more aware of the negative consequences of heavy workloads. Now it's time to eradicate the practice of bringing back aces on short rest.
Let the haters gripe about bunting. Don't give them any reason to say college baseball doesn't protect its arms.