If you want to anger the people around the Rice University athletics department, just talk about the reputation of Wayne Graham as a pitcher killer. That seems to be a pretty common belief among the so-called baseball elite, but it’s one that the folks at Rice angrily dispute, and among those disputing that assertion are some of Graham’s former pitchers.
The contention is that Graham pushes his pitchers beyond their limits, forcing them to throw too many pitches on too little rest. This overuse causes injuries, injuries that can destroy careers. And the so-called baseball elite care because millions of dollars can be on the line as Major League Baseball teams seek the pitchers who will be the next Matt Harvey or Clayton Kershaw.
The evidence of the past several years at Rice does not show overuse. Starters rarely exceed the magical 100-pitches-a-game mark. Relievers rarely pitch in back-to-back games if they throw multiple innings. The Rice Owls, reputation aside, are a 21st-century college baseball team that takes seriously the health of its pitchers.
But here’s the thing: Injuries happen. Especially injuries to pitchers, because pitching a baseball is not a natural act, especially throwing overhanded. The action causes incredible stress to the shoulder and the elbow, particularly to something known as the ulnar collateral ligament, or UCL, and injuries to the UCL are perhaps the most feared in all of professional sports.
The basic science has boiled it down to this: The more pitches thrown in a game, the greater the threat of injury to the UCL. The more pitches thrown, the fewer days off between games, the greater the risk of injury. That’s why major league pitchers rarely throw more than 100 pitches in a game. That’s why they rarely exceed 230 innings a season. It’s all about keeping the pitchers healthy, about saving arms, about preventing overuse.
That’s why people care so much about the treatment of college pitchers. But while the emphasis on what Rice and other colleges do is important, perhaps the emphasis needs to shift a bit. Perhaps people should be paying more attention to what’s going on in the high schools, because the colleges and the pros often have to spend lots and lots of time fixing the wrongs done to pitchers by their high school coaches.
There’s a chance that things might be changing, however. According to a story reported last week by the Houston Chronicle’s Adam Coleman, the University Interscholastic League is considering a new rule that would limit the number of pitches a high schooler can throw during a game.
The medical advisory council is recommending that pitchers from ages 14 to 16 be limited to no more than 95 pitches a game while kids aged 17-19 can throw no more than 110 pitches in a game. It’s not yet a rule, and the earliest that it can be adopted is June, but the proposal is a good start, and it's long overdue.
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But it’s not just a pitches-per-game limit. The proposed rule would also include a mandatory rest period based on the number of pitches thrown. Pitchers throwing 86-110 pitches would be prohibited from pitching for four days. Those throwing 66-85 wouldn’t be able to pitch for three days. A two-day rest would be mandated for those who threw 46-65 pitches, with a one-day rest for those throwing 31-45. As for closers and relievers who generally throw 30 or fewer pitchers in a game, there would be no mandatory rest period, thus they could pitch the next day.
There are no proposed punishments for violating the limits, at least not yet, though Coleman’s story suggests that the UIL will look to Alabama, which this year has implemented a similar rule. When the pitch count is violated, the offending team must forfeit the win, and there is a small monetary fine. That’s probably a good starting point, but seeing as how this is Texas, and there are lots of schools with a history of violating UIL mandates, I would suggest that suspension of coaches and the forfeiture of two games instead of just one should be considered.
The aim, of course, is to protect pitchers and their health, to prevent coaches from overusing the kids in the pursuit of wins. But for the good that the UIL might do, there’s nothing that it can do about the scourge that is select ball. There’s nothing in select ball that can force a coach to limit the number of pitches thrown in a game by a kid, and with pro and college scouts in attendance at these games, the pressure is greater on the kids to throw lots of pitches.
It’s possible the UIL doesn’t implement the rule. Or that the proposed rule is neutered in such a way as to make no real difference. But this is a start, and anything that takes into account the health of pitchers is a welcome addition.