Pitch Smart? Study Finds Showcase Pitching Violations Most Common At 8U Level

Image credit: (Photo by Zoran Militch/Getty Images)

When Pitch Smart guidelines were released a few years ago, it was a big step forward in providing the resources for players, coaches and parents to understand how they can best keep young pitchers safe while allowing them to pitch and develop.

The guidelines themselves are quite simple. They set a maximum number of pitches a pitcher should ever throw at different ages, as well as guidelines for how long they should rest before pitching again after an appearance.

Within just a couple of years, those Pitch Smart guidelines led to a revamping of high school rules. Across the country, pitch count limits and days of rest were adopted by almost every state high school association.

It was a dramatic and significant change. A little over a decade ago, Dylan Bundy threw 283 pitches in three games over four days while helping Owasso (Okla.) High to a state title. In 2014, current Giants righthander Logan Webb threw 145 pitches in one high school start and then pitched in relief again just three days later, a workload far beyond any that would be accepted by an MLB team with their crustiest veteran.

Nowadays, that can’t happen. At the high school level, the decision has been taken out of the hands of coaches and players. No matter how much a player wants the ball, he’s forced to hand it to a teammate if he’s reached his pitch limit. The new dynamic has helped reduce the risk of arm injuries, and as high school coaches have noted, it’s also forced them to give more players a chance to pitch and develop.

The move by high schools to adopt pitch counts followed Little League Baseball’s adoption of similar rules.

All of that was a major victory for keeping youth and teenage pitchers healthy. There are many reasons a pitcher may suffer an elbow or shoulder injury, but many studies have found that fatigue and overuse are among the largest risk factors. As one orthopedist noted to me, when he repairs torn knee ligaments, they often are cleanly torn as a single unfortunate twist has snapped the ligament. When he repairs elbow ligaments, even in teenagers, it’s almost always a frayed ligament worn down from repeated use.

State high school federations across the country all adopted rules and regulations that had been proposed by a panel of experts, including orthopedists, trainers and other highly regarded sports medicine researchers.

But it’s a small step in a world where every weekend there are pitchers violating Pitch Smart guidelines in showcase tournaments all around the country.

A study in the November issue of the “Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine” entitled “Pitching Behaviors in Youth Baseball: Comparison With the Pitch Smart Guidelines” studied 100 youth baseball teams between the ages of 8-and-under up to 14 years old during the summer of 2019. The study encompassed nearly 2,500 individual games. What the doctors found was that during the summer tournament season, more than 90% of teams they studied violated Pitch Smart guidelines. Of the pitchers they looked at, 48.6% of them were used in at least one way that violated those same guidelines.

Shockingly, the largest number of violations were occurring in the 8-and-under age group. Hopefully it doesn’t need to be said that there is no trophy, medal or dogpile in an 8U tournament that is worth adding to the risk of a future elbow surgery.

I used to think this was an education problem. Parents and coaches just didn’t know the best practices to ensure that kids weren’t overused on the mound.

Once they knew better, they would be careful. They would stringently monitor their players’ workloads. They would make sure they didn’t pitch and play catcher in the same tournaments, which is another risk factor flagged by Pitch Smart’s doctors.

My optimism has evaporated over the past decade. I’m much more cynical now. I’ve heard too many stories of players, parents and coaches getting caught up in the allure of winning a weekend tournament. So they decide it’s time to stretch by an inning or two beyond the recommended pitch limits. Even more often, they’ll bring a pitcher back to pitch again in the same tournament.

The argument can be made that no harm will likely result. These are recommendations, and there’s no logical way to say that a pitcher throwing 100 pitches instead of 85 has pulled a pin on a hand grenade in his pitching elbow.

But once the rules are broken one time, it becomes easier to rationalize breaking them again, especially if enforcement is dependent on the parents, coaches and players. And seemingly anyone involved in youth baseball has stories of teams that win tournaments because they are less reluctant to use the same pitchers over and over rather than follow the recommendations that are best for a young, developing pitcher’s arm.

And so I’ve become convinced that the incentives have to be changed. Instead of informing amateur coaches and parents of Pitch Smart guidelines—or even saying they will follow Pitch Smart guidelines—it needs to become a competitive advantage for teams that do follow the rules.

So let’s flip it. Every showcase and tournament around the country should be following Pitch Smart guidelines. That’s a given. But instead of relying on coaches and players to police themselves, make it grounds for a protest. If a pitcher violates Pitch Smart guidelines and the opposing team can prove it, the violating team forfeits the game. If the allure of winning a trophy is driving teams to overuse pitches, let’s make sure the only way to win that trophy is by following the rules. In fact, you might advance past a better team because they decided to violate the Pitch Smart guidelines.

Instead of hoping that players and coaches will choose player safety over their competitive urges, the wiser approach is to make being stickler for following the rules a winning strategy.

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