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State counts on new rule to help pitchers' arms

At its heart, baseball is a game of counting.

Three strikes and you're out. Touch four bases and you score. Get three outs and you run to the dugout. Play seven or nine innings (depending on the level) and you're done for the day.

This year in New York State, an addition has been made to the list. Teams will be counting the number of pitches that each pitcher throws in a game.

"The national federation of high schools, which we in New York belong to, came up with the rule," said Jim Conley, the Section VI sport chairman and longtime coach in Western New York. "They had established a committee to look into the issue, and they mandated that each state follow it. They had announced it in September, and it was approved in January."

Now all teams, public and private, have been following the restrictions on pitch counts for individual players. The idea is to cut down on the stress on young arms so that injuries can be reduced. Before examining the effects, let's look at the mechanics of the rule.

If a starting pitcher in a local varsity game throws between one and 30 official pitches in the game, he has to take a night of rest. When he hits 31, the mandated amount of rest goes to two nights. At 66, the nights off takes another jump to three. Then at 96, it reaches four nights.

When a pitcher throws his 105th pitch of the day, he is allowed to finish throwing to that batter. After that, though, he must exit the game immediately. If a starter averages 15 pitches per inning, which is a reasonable goal for someone who is getting outs consistently, he can go all seven innings without leaving the mound.

The numbers are different for the younger players in high schools. At junior varsity, a pitcher must exit after throwing the ball 85 times. For modified players, the absolute limit is 75 pitches.

So if a player hits the limit on a Wednesday, and the team plays games on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, he is done pitching until the next week.

In the postseason, the numbers go up. The top number for a pitcher goes up to 125, and the other standards go up a bit as well.

"Even if there's a double-header, it's still the number of pitches in a day," Conley said. "They can throw in both games, but the total has to be less than 105."

The limit also stays in effect for extra-inning games. If a pitcher hits his limit, he can be moved to another position for the rest of the game. He just can't stay to the mound.

The catch, of course, is that there are no absolute rules about when someone's arm can be overused. There's some guesswork involved by all concerned.

"The numbers are fair," Conley said. "The one thing it does not take into account is an athlete's ability - his ability to throw more pitches. If you look at the varsity, it doesn't matter how big the pitcher is. I don't think there's a way to take that into account. Some kids can throw 100 pitches per game with no problem. Other kids couldn't reach 90. It depends on stamina, strength and body size."

As far as enforcement goes, both teams now must keep track of all pitches thrown by either side. At the end of each half inning, the two scorekeepers will check with each other on the numbers. If there's a disagreement, the home team's total will be used.

Before the game, each team is told what opposing pitchers are available on that day. A pitch count form is filled out at the end of the game. If the rule is broken, the pitcher's team will forfeit the game.

Participants in baseball on all levels realize that the sport has been dealing with arm injuries with several years now, and are trying to figure out how best to prevent them. Keeping track of pitch count is nothing knew; it's the enforcement that is the big change.

"Most coaches throughout my experience, we always kept a pitch count," Conley said. "Most high school coaches don't overuse pitchers. I all the years I coached, I don't think anyone overused someone, although I'm sure there were cases of that."

Other coaches around the area echoed those thoughts.

A wet April has spread out the high school schedule quite a bit this year, so pitch counts haven't been a major concern for the most part so far. Still, coaches have learned that a well-pitched game is like money in the bank.

For example, Andrew Lorenze threw a complete game last week for Clarence as the Red Devils beat Hamburg.

"That saved some arms," coach Dave Smith of the Red Devils said. "He threw almost to the limit - he had three pitches to go. Another batter or two and I would have had to take him out."

But other teams haven't been so lucky.

"When we played Depew this year, we had a pitcher hit the limit with two outs in the seventh," Alden coach Tom Zaccardo said. "It will put a little pressure on the pitching staffs, when we play back-to-back. But I agree with the rule, no question."

Any rule in any sport is going to have consequences, and this one is no exception. The biggest one in this case is that the pitching workload is going to be spread out among more players.

"I think this will hurt the JV programs and the modified programs the most," Conley said. "There are different limits, and that's where it's going to hurt. It might force coaches to develop more pitchers."

The use of more players in games sounds like a good idea on the surface. After all, more people get to participate. But what happens if a school doesn't have that many players on its roster? The small schools around Western New York have seen several of their sports teams merge with neighboring school districts. It's possible that this rule could squeeze rosters a bit.

If all of this wasn't enough for coaches to consider, remember that non-scholastic teams are also in the mix in some cases.

"There are things we can't control," Conley said. "If these kids play on a travel team, they may go away for the weekend and play. Some of them do that."

Will the new rule help? We'll have to see. Conley is hopeful.

"They'll change it, tweak it and make it better," he said. "I can see things change at various levels as we go forward. I just hope it doesn't hurt programs and the sport."

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