Bishop Luers High School baseball coach Gary Rogers finds himself uttering a phrase more frequently this spring than any other time in his 31-year career with the Knights.
What's the pitch count?
“You always have to plan for down the road,” Rogers said. “It used to be, you didn't worry about whether a kid threw 35 or 40 pitches. It was innings you counted. Now, you have to be aware.”
The Indiana High School Athletic Association instituted a new rule this spring – following a nationwide movement – to mandate a certain amount of rest for pitchers after they pitch. The old rule limit of 10 innings per 72 hours was erased. The new one focuses on pitches thrown, rather than innings.
The IHSAA rule on how many days rest is required for prep pitchers: 1-35 pitches (no days rest), 36-60 pitches (one day), 61-80 (two days), 81-100 (three days) and 101-120 (four days).
Most coaches say the new rule hasn't had a major impact, particularly at the high end of the pitch count. Not many pitchers are in the 100-pitch range, particularly in the first half of the season.
“We've always tried to keep our pitchers rested, and we've maintained tracking of pitch counts over the years,” Carroll coach Dave Ginder said. “When tournament time comes, it could be a little more affected because you're playing back-to-back games.”
The rule is intended to protect pitchers from coaches who would have them throw too many pitches in one game, or pitch too frequently, putting the players at risk for injury.
“It's a common-sense rule and I get that,” Northrop coach Matt Brumbaugh said. “But I think it has changed the way we approach things as far as whether we have another game the next day, and whether a reliever could come in both days. More than anything, it's changed our pattern of relief pitchers.”
In other words, it's the lower end of the pitch count rule that requires more attention.
If a team is playing back-to-back days, and a relief pitcher is nearing 35 pitches the first day, the coach must decide whether to let him continue or to make a change so he's available for the next day.
The rule applies to “per day” not “per game,” so a pitcher could throw in morning and evening tournament games as long as he didn't surpass the 120-pitch limit. The limit is flexible in finishing an at-bat. Coaches aren't required to remove a pitcher in the middle of an at-bat.
“You end up maybe pulling a pitcher an inning earlier than you would have before,” Homestead coach Nick Byall said. “Really, the big thing is days off. Say you have a Saturday (tournament) game and a championship game on Monday. If you get up in a game and you want that guy available Monday, you can't break that 60-pitch threshold. That's where it could get a little tricky.”
A school that breaks the pitch-count rule will be required to forfeit the game after it is reported to the IHSAA. As of the IHSAA's May 1 meeting report, five varsity or junior varsity teams – none from Fort Wayne – had been reported for violating the rule.
Coaches interviewed said the test of the rule's impact will likely come during the postseason.
In the past, a great starting pitcher could throw seven innings in the morning game and return for three more in an evening championship game. Now, the coach will have to look at the number of pitches left in the limit, and then decide whether to bring his top pitcher into the second game.
While most coaches aren't monitoring their opponents' pitch counts during regular-season games, that could change in the postseason.
“Say it's the second game of a tournament and their stud pitcher has thrown 80 pitches, so he has 40 left,” Byall said. “They bring him in the second game, you might be more selective to run the pitch count up. That could come into play.”
New Haven coach Dave Bischoff, who recorded his 600th win Tuesday, said the sample size remains too small to gauge the impact of the new rule. The erratic weather has also played a role in disrupting pitching rotations.
“I think it's tough to put a definitive number on pitch counts,” Bischoff said. “Fifty pitches for one kid is not the same as 50 pitches for another kid. You can have a kid who throws 105 pitches over 10 innings and he feels fine. You can have a kid who throws 35 in one inning and comes up sore.”
Bischoff and Rogers both pointed out that the bigger need for pitch count limits is in the summer, when travel ball tends to be a little looser with time on the mound.
“To me, it's more of the year-round stuff that's hurting kids,” Rogers said. “There isn't any rest. They're pitching all year round. That's more worrisome than what the high school coaches are doing.”