Area high school baseball coaches learning to operate with new pitch count regulations

Thursday, March 16, 2017
Jackson's Colten Weber pitches to a Poplar Bluff batter in the fourth inning on April 21, 2016, at Whitey Herzog Stadium in Jackson. Managers across Southeast Missouri, and the whole state for that matter, will have to operate differently with MSHSAA implementing a pitch count for the 2017 season.
Missourian file photo

Bell City baseball coach Justin Simpher understands the new pitch count regulations will affect his Cubs. It's a "game-changer" after all. But every other high school team in Missouri will be in the same situation, the coach points out.

Managers across Southeast Missouri, and the whole state for that matter, will have to operate differently during games this season with the Missouri State High School Activities Association implementing new pitching guidelines ahead of the 2017 season.

The new rules limit the number of pitches a player can throw in a game based on grade level and how many days rest. The maximum amount, for a junior or senior on four days rest or more, is 105 pitches. The rules were announced in December and are also in place for middle school teams.

At smaller schools like Bell City, which is the two-time defending Class 1 state champion, the rules will likely have a larger impact than at the bigger programs, such as Jackson. The Indians are a Class 5 school, the largest classification, with an enrollment that dwarfs the Cubs. That means a larger talent pool, a bigger roster and more pitchers.

"From the big schools perspective, it won't change for us because we have a lot more options when it comes to kids," Jackson coach Bryan Austin said. "If we're doing our job on the development side, we shouldn't have to change a lot. Our goal is to still play as many games as the state allows us to play, and that's our goal. We want to play a max schedule no matter our situation, just because that prepares us best for the district tournament."

On the other hand, Bell City has 14 players. So Simpher has been working with the underclassmen to develop their repertoire on the mound, as they will likely need to come in to throw at points during the season.

"It's going to change the way things are done obviously because it's all on the pitch count part," Simpher said. "Small schools definitely are going to get hampered by it. ... It's definitely a game-changer, but I think everybody will adjust to it one way or the other."

Notre Dame starter Will Ferrell pitches to an MICDS batter during the first inning of a Class 4 quarterfinal game Friday, May 27, 2016 in Kirkwood, Missouri.
Fred Lynch

Notre Dame may not be a Class 5 school, but the Bulldogs are in Class 4. So coach Jeff Graviett isn't worried about running out of available pitchers. It just means that some junior varsity kids may pitch more varsity innings. In the past, Graviett wanted to have two kids in each class he could rely on as pitchers. With the new restrictions, Graviett expanded that number to three or four pitchers per grade level.

"I think your bigger schools are going to have an easier adjustment to it than our smaller schools, obviously with the depth," Graviett said. "For us, good or bad, we're going to have to test more of our younger arms. Some of our JV kids are going to get more varsity innings than they probably ever had, which could be a positive moving forward as you get those kids experience. Two years from now, we could really be benefiting off using those kids early."

Notre Dame has a JV and freshman team just like Jackson, and a trickle-down effect may be less freshman games, Graviett said. With JV pitchers throwing more varsity innings, that means more freshman pitchers would need to eat up JV innings and end up not being available for freshman contests.

But that problem isn't on the same scale as the challenges smaller schools face. Even a Class 3 school like Charleston could be severely affected.

"I talk to (Charleston coach) Michael Minner a lot down there, and he's kind of one where there's maybe a spot where he's just out of pitching," Graviett said. "That was one of the questions I heard him talk about at the coaches association -- do I put a kid out there who's never even prepared himself to pitch if that's all I've got left and having a kid injure himself that way. Or do I just say, 'That's it. I'm done. Game's over.'"

While upperclassmen can throw a maximum of 105 pitches, freshmen and sophomores on four days rest can toss no more than 95 pitches. It's 75 pitches on three days rest, 60 pitches on two days rest, 45 pitches on one day rest and 30 pitches on no days rest.

For juniors and seniors, those guidelines are the same. The only difference is they can throw 105 pitches, not 95, on four days rest.

"I think even when it comes to the system, there's always positives and negatives to the system no matter what you adopt," said Austin, who's on the Baseball Advisory Committee. "A lot of it is a lot of guys will want a higher number of maximum pitches because pitching is very individually-based, and yes, kids can go over that 105-pitch count and be perfectly fine. Or kids can, you know, throw on three days rest and be perfectly fine. But there's not really ever going to be a system that's 100 percent perfect because pitching is very individual."

This past June, the National Federation of State High School Associations decreed that member state associations must develop a pitch count policy. So the advisory committee convened a special meeting, Austin said. The committee, made up of baseball coaches and MSHSAA officials from around the state, then voted unanimously for the Pitch Smart requirements suggested by USA Baseball and Major League Baseball.

Bell City head coach Justin Sinpher reaches back to catch the ball during practice Thursday, March 16, 2017 in Bell City.
Andrew J. Whitaker ~ Southeast Missourian

"Most importantly from the MSHSAA department, they have a group of doctors and athletic trainers or doctors on staff," Austin said. "Their recommendation was to stay with the pitch mark system that was already in place due to the fact it had medical backing and research behind it. So as an advisory committee, it was hard not to go with those type of guidelines because that's the type of research that's being presented.

"And a lot of other states were staying with those type of guidelines just because they knew by staying with the system that was in place and had some type of research and medical backing that that was a safe option for a lot of states. So when you look at the all states that went with it, they're very similar in guidelines. Now they might have five additional pitches or five less pitches, but the days of rest are, for the most part, the same for everybody."

Austin said if the pitching requirements were in place last season, it would have affected Jackson twice. At Notre Dame, Graviett said the new restrictions would have come into play four times, and there would have been only one instance in which the rule would have put the Bulldogs in a tough spot.

"It was the semifinal game of the conference tournament against Kennett. Will Ferrell, who will arguably be one of our ace pitchers this year as a [junior], was throwing a tremendous game against a Kennett squad," Graviett said. "He ended up throwing about 115 pitches that game, and with him being a sophomore last year, he would have had to been cut off at 95. And really he threw his best pitches from pitch 96 through the end, so we would have lost him. And we won that game in the last couple innings. Tight one-run game, so you switch pitchers there, you never know what might have happened."

At Bell City, Simpher can rely on three seniors -- Cole Nichols, Austin Hicks and Bobby Wright -- and two juniors to eat up innings. Still, when the district playoffs begin, the elimination games come thick and fast. Last year, Bell City played three games in the district tournament in a five-day span. Bell City then played four games in the state tournament over nine days.

But Bell City will be facing similarly-sized schools in the playoffs, so the playing field will be even.

Programs with more pitching depth will have an advantage, Graviett said. And he said smaller schools may not want to make up rain outs from earlier in the season. Graviett said it's already been a challenge to find a second school Notre Dame can play as part of a Saturday doubleheader.

But at the end of the da y, Austin doesn't think the rule will affect area programs much. Before MSHSAA implemented the pitch count restrictions, most managers in the area were already following those guidelines.

"We have really good coaches in the area that know a lot about pitching and arm care, and the guys in the area do a really good job," Austin said. "So I don't think it's a really big change for us because in the Southeast Missouri area, our coaches do a great job anyways."

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