By Dennis Clark
TERRE HAUTE — If you’ve attended Little League baseball games the past two seasons, you probably are aware that league officials, umpires, managers, coaches, players and fans are all keeping a close eye on pitch counts.
At the North Terre Haute Little League, a mini-scoreboard in the press box displays pitch counts for all the aforementioned. At other area LL parks, pitch counts are announced after every half inning.
If you were unaware, Little League now has instituted 85-pitch limits per day for 11-12 and 10-11 year-old divisions, while a 75-pitch limit is set for 9-10s.
Little League sees itself as “cutting edge” — think Tommy John surgery — by taking a big first step to ward off injuries by limiting its pitchers to a set pitch count limit in league and tournament play.
This initiative began as a two-year pilot program in 2005-06, assisted by experts in the field of pitching injuries. The two key contributors were Dr. James Andrews (medical director) and Dr. Glenn Fleisig (research director) of American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala.
Andrews and Fleisig were mentioned prominently recently in a Sports Illustrated article, combining a feature on San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum and the subject of pitching injuries.
According to Fleisig, the No.1 injury risk for pitchers is overuse. He went on to say that young pitchers who continued to pitch with arm fatigue are 36 times more likely to seriously injured.
Little League has urged all youth baseball programs to adopt a pitch count to protect young pitching arms, according to its website. They also point out, naturally, that other youth baseball programs — Cal Ripken, PONY, etc. — haven’t followed suit.
Note: Cal Ripken and PONY, as Little League did in the past, still use number of innings pitched as a limiting factor.
Has the pitch count initiative helped? Three local Little League officials were questioned as to what they feel the impact of recording pitch counts has accomplished.
A local official’s perspective
Bob Bolin has been involved for many years in Little League District 4, currently serving as an assistant commissioner.
“The kids pitch a whole lot less as far as innings,” Bolin says. “It’s pretty well accepted by the coaches — they don’t like it because they want to control their pitchers — but I think we’ll find out that we have a lot better health with the kids. I haven’t seen as many sore arms.
“Before this, most coaches didn’t keep pitch counts. Some kids would throw 120, 130 pitches which is way too much for their arms.”
Bolin recalls the “older” days of lesser numbers of pitchers, especially if a team had a couple good, strong arms.
“Couple, three pitchers at the most [would be used],” he said. “At the minimum, now you have four, five or six pitchers.
“A lot of teams, a pitcher throw 85 pitches … that’s in four innings. So you have to pitch another pitcher, then he’s not eligible for the next day. You use up two pitchers a day. If you play three, four nights in a row, you can use all your pitchers.
“There’s a big difference. But I think it’s better for the kids, better for the game. I really do.”
From a manager’s point of view
Hans Eilbracht has managed North Terre Haute All-Star teams to state tournaments for the past two seasons — 9-10s to runner-up in state last year, 11-12s competing earlier this week.
Eilbracht also is aware of pitch counts at a personal level, his son Jonathan has been a pitcher both seasons.
“There’s a whole new strategy when you’re going from innings pitched vs. pitch count,” Eilbracht mentioned. “For example, when we were at Princeton [11-12s Section Tournament earlier in July] you’re trying to intentionally walk somebody. So to get the pitch count up, the coaches tell the batter to swing two times. Two extra pitches doesn’t seem like a lot, but sometimes it is.
“You have to really manage your staff a lot better, a lot closer. One batter can foul off three or four pitches and that changes the whole dynamics of the game. Some batters are good at fouling off pitches … we’ve had times where we’ve had seven, eight, nine pitches to one batter. That changes your strategy because your pitcher comes out of the game earlier.
“You try to plan for the whole tournament that you’re in,” he said. “But then you’ve got to win that game. You can plan all you want, but the game’s always going to change [plans] no matter what. You really have to think on the fly.”
How an All-Star team is constructed has also changed due to pitch counts, because more pitchers are needed during tournament play.
“That enters your decision who you pick for your All-Star team a lot of times,” he added. “Because you always want pitchers … nowadays, you need six, seven pitchers if you can. This year we have that.
“Last year for 9-10 year-olds in the [state] championship game, we ran out of pitches when we got close to the end there and the other team did to. You hate to see a championship game decided on a sixth or seventh … a pitcher that hasn’t pitched very much. You want to win or lose with your best.
“The intention’s good, but I have mixed feelings,” summed up Eilbracht. “It’s good for the kids. You don’t want to see a kid hurt his arm and jeopardize his future. But I think the next thing Little League needs to address is the curveball situation.
“Because you hear nationally so many kids hurting their arms, have Tommy John surgery, because they’re throwing all these curveballs.”
Eilbracht begs the question, “Is it worth a championship at the Little League level to jeopardize a kid’s career later on because his arm is not really ready to throw [a curveball] and have that stress on it?”
Pitch counts not necessarily “Peachy”
Jim “Peach” Leitgabel has been around for a few years, a player himself in the 1975 Little League State Tournament, pitching for North Terre Haute. Now he is managing the NTH 10-11s in this year’s state tournament.
“I’ve got mixed opinions about it. It does change the type of the game. A manager’s really got to manage pitch counts, especially when you play three consecutive days,” Leitgabel stated.
“My thoughts are, I think Little League sometimes has stretched it a little bit when they put in a rule this year if you throw one pitch you can’t go catch. I don’t really care for that rule.
Leitgabel also echoes the opinion of Eilbracht about the curveball.
“Actually, to me, if they are really seriously thinking about the kids, they ought to think about outlawing the curveball. But I’m glad our pitchers had it tonight, it came in handy for us,” he admitted of it helping his team win the District 4 crown.
“Everybody’s got their pros and cons on the pitch count. At least Little League is trying to do something to save the kids arms.”
But he added, “Another thing, a lot of these kids play on the weekends all the time and I don’t think Little League has a clue on how many kids are playing on the weekend and keep track of their pitches on the weekend.”