OMAHA—Pitch counts at the amateur level have been a hot-button issue for some time, but criticism toward coaches' handling of pitchers especially seems to mount during the NCAA Tournament.
Particularly during regional play, when teams are playing double-elimination brackets, college pitching staffs are often spread thin, and it's common to see pitchers throw on short rest. These are also some of college baseball's most widely seen games, as all NCAA Tournament games are broadcast by ESPN's family of networks.
The issue is not lost on the NCAA. While it isn't close to adopting pitch count guidelines, Ron Prettyman, managing director of championships for the NCAA, said Friday during the annual State of Baseball press conference that the NCAA is exploring it.
"We've got representatives here in the room today from USA Baseball that helped initiate this at a younger level," Prettyman said. "It's been very impressive, and it's been good for the game to see that happen.
"It is something that actually our sports science people at the NCAA are looking at, not in any position at this point to throw out any mandates or rule changes. We have would like to have the coaches buy into something if we did choose to go that route, but there's nothing on the near horizon at this point."
Rick Riccobono, who is behind USA Baseball's Pitch Smart guidelines for amateur baseball, was one of the USA Baseball representatives in the room Friday, and he weighed in on pitch counts in college baseball.
"I think it's fair to say in a regional weekend specifically, you see a lot of attention," Riccobono said. "That seems to be the time of year social media is lighting up on the topic. What I would say is this: PitchSmart obviously does provide guidelines for 19-22 year old athletes. And that's just something we felt like, as the governing body for all amateur athletes, we had a responsibility to be inclusive of. With that said, just as we did in the youth space, just as we did in the high school space, our primary objective is to work with the operators and the sanctioning entities in those spaces to find common ground on what works best for those athletes. And this would be no different. We're here as a ready and willing resource if we're needed.
"We want to provide support. We want to provide information. We want to help people make the best possible decisions for their athletes. And ultimately it's something the NCAA and coaches association really do need to tackle."
Craig Keilitz, the head of the American Baseball Coaches Association said that the ABCA fully endorses the Pitch Smart standard and that college coaches generally follow those guidelines. However, college coaches aren't yet ready to completely adopt the standard.
"After having discussions with our coaches, they're not in favor of it at this time, even though they follow it," Keilitz said. "For the simple fact that some kids, depending on whatever their makeup is—if it's their senior year, if they're a side-arm thrower, if they can throw more often, if they're not going to play pro baseball would like to throw more—whatever those circumstances may be, we didn't think it was in their best interest to adopt the Pitch Smart or pitch count limitations even though all the coaches seem to be following safety guidelines for their individual student-athletes."
Durin O'Linger, a senior righthander at Davidson, is an example of those special circumstances. In his final collegiate year and not expecting to pitch in pro ball, O'Linger threw in three of Davidson's six Atlantic-10 Conference Tournament games and in two of its Chapel Hill Regional games, throwing up to 140 pitches in a game.
"The objective of Pitch Smart is not to limit competition in any way," Riccobono said. "We certainly recognize every athlete is different. We understand that argument. What I would say though is there is merit to having more global guidelines in place where appropriate."
The NCAA and ABCA are still exploring measures to improve pace of play in the game. One such measure will be in effect this year, as television timeouts during the College World Series will decrease from 2:15 to 2:00, with the lone exception being a 2:10 timeout in the middle of the third and seventh.
"We have a pace of play committee that's put together by Tim Corbin of Vanderbilt, so we have technology issues we're working on right now that we think greatly enhance the game," Keilitz said. "With that said, we need to go through the rules committee, make sure it's affordable, make sure it's compatible, make sure it's able to be used by all the different schools, and make sure it's durable and so forth. So we're through that discovery phase right that we think could—we look back five years from now—that we're glad to put that in place.