Pitch-count rules impact prep baseball

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The theory behind Colorado's first-year high school pitching limitations rule is simple: High pitch counts have been put on ice, so fewer young arms have to be.

After years where arms were reportedly abused by a few either unknowing or uncaring high school coaches, and 14- to 18-year-old pitchers were coaxed into workloads far past their body's maturity, a statewide rule to enforce less wear-and-tear on an arm was passed for the 2016 season.

"I've seen too much abuse with other teams over the years that I think it's a rule that needs to be in place," Air Academy coach Doug Goldberg said. "Unfortunately, you have to mandate it by rule rather than let coaches do what they need to do, which is manage a team, manage a kid's arm health, etc."

For better or worse, the clenched leash on the mound further suffocates baseball's old way of thinking.

And now - a year after pitch clocks were installed in minor-league baseball to re-engage the casual fan and keep up with fast-paced times, a countdown of sorts begins at the state's high school level, too.

Mound visits to discuss "what do you have left in the tank?" become second to the expiring amount of pitches allowed. Gone are deciding a pitcher's use by gut feeling, trust and in-game strategy. Out is another baseball norm.

"Like everything else there's some good and bad to it," Lewis-Palmer coach Brett Lester said. "It takes some logic out of a coach's hand a little bit and forces some interesting moves."

Two months into the season and just days before the postseason opens, coaches say their pitch counts are being arduously tracked by team managers, bench players and, often, parents during a game.

It's so arduous, in fact, that periodically through a game the numbers will be checked by all parties - and both teams - to make sure no violation has occurred.

The state's activities association said there have only been two violations that have led to sanctions this season.

Quantity is now just as important as quality

Because of this shift, the top pitchers in the state are seeing a reduction in workload.

One case: Lewis-Palmer ace Paul Tillotson has an identical 8-1 record this year, the same mark he had despite three more appearances in 2015. Yet he's thrown 29 2/3 innings fewer (and 468 pitches fewer) to get there.

What does that mean? A fresher arm in May - likely. But it also means a void in innings that forced some of his teammates into different and bigger roles on the mound.

"Pitching depth is very important for a program," Doherty coach Mike Berkey said. "You need a lot of arms to be successful now."

In smaller classifications, that idea is magnified.

For teams with fewer players - and fewer options - on the roster, an influx of pitching talent is seen as that much more of a luxury. And for those without it, it can be all the more painstaking.

In Class 2A, Peyton (14-3) has used seven pitchers in 17 games, and three of those have gone at least 20 innings.

It's a kind of depth that is rare in smaller-school programs.

"We are fortunate," Panthers coach Kelly Nickell said, "while some other (2A teams) are not."

This season in doubleheaders - where pitching depth is essential - Peyton is 10-0.

In its most recent one against Calhan, Nickell said the 31-2 run disparity was simple: "We had pitchers, they didn't."

The disparity is so wide that some programs that lack a number of viable arms might need to change how they schedule games.

Evangelical Christian Academy coach Bob DeRuiter, whose team has had only two pitchers throw more than 10 innings this season, said his program is already adapting.

"We're probably a little more careful scheduling games," DeRuiter said. "Doing three or four games in three or four days - we probably don't have the arms to keep up."

In all classifications, arms will likely be the story of the postseason.

With districts and state playoffs revving up, and teams about to play multiple games in a short window of time, it's likely that there won't be enough rest days to ride a No. 1 and/or No. 2 pitcher to a state title.

And because of it, coaches say they will have to rely more on their bottom-of-the-rotation guys.

"You can't run the table anymore with one great starter and one average starter," Goldberg said. "You're going to need a lot of arms and a lot of good pitching."

While depth is king, strikeouts are no longer.

Tillotson is also an example of how a pitcher's mentality must change too.

The senior, a 145-K guy a year ago, said he has re-evaluated attacking hitters during the high school season.

Last year, the Rangers were beneficiaries of Tillotson's whiff-inducing stuff en route to the Class 4A state title game.

But now, the senior believes he'll have to adapt. Double-digit K performances, he said, probably won't be the recipe to get his team back to state this year.

"For me, I've definitely gone from pitching for strikeouts to just pitching for outs," said the Nebraska commit, who still has a 4A-best 79 Ks this season. "I'm not trying to blow guys away using four or five pitches to get a strikeout. If you think about it, you want to get that soft contact in just a couple pitches now."

In-game strategy changes too, said Doherty pitcher Buhm Song.

The senior, who prides himself on finishing each game he starts, has found the pitch limitations a little confounding - no more so than when he was pulled after five innings in a 5-4 victory over Palmer last week.

He believes future players also will have to adapt.

"I obviously wanted to go back and finish the game I started," said Song, who threw 131 pitches in an eight-inning performance last season. "It teaches pitchers to be efficient early in a game. You can't waste pitches."

Does the good outweigh the negative?

Undecided is the best answer since the future impact of the rule change is yet to be seen. Colorado is one of the first states to address the change.

Most high school coaches believe change is a good thing - good for a pitcher's longevity in high school and perhaps further.

"In this day and age how can you ignore arm health?" St. Mary's coach Bill Percy said.

Fountain-Fort Carson coach Jay Sevier added: "It's smart to have it. With club travel teams throwing guys all the time, it's good to think about a guy's health."

Others, meanwhile, think it's not totally necessary. It limits what a coach can do and handcuffs a player from reaching their complete potential.

"Personally I'm not a fan of it," Lester said. "I've been around baseball a long time and I've never had to deal with it. Even as a player I never had to deal with it.

"I know players always push for more innings. They want the ball in their hands and they want to go compete. I don't want to say it kills the competitive drive or anything like that, but it limits what coaches can do - and most coaches are logical enough to know when they should and shouldn't use a kid, and when it's unhealthy for the kid and putting them in a compromising position."

While opinions are mixed, one thing is certain. Pitchers are in higher demand than ever before.