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Pitch counts likely coming soon to high school baseball nationwide

Fargo Post 2's Gunnar Linstaedt eyes his target during an American Legion Division I Central Plains Regional baseball tournament game against Omaha West on Saturday, August 9, 2014, at Jack Williams Stadium in Fargo, N.D. Nick Wagner / The Forum1 / 4
Twin Valley-Ulen-Hitterdal pitcherJonah Sather pitches against a New York Mills batter during the opening round of the Minnesota Division II Sub-District 9 Legion baseball tournament in Barnesville, on Friday, July 17, 2015. Nick Wagner / The Forum2 / 4
West Fargo pitcher Drake Flesche winds up for a pitch to a Fargo North batter during the second game of a doubleheader on April 28 at Fargo North. (Dave Wallis/The Forum)3 / 4
New York Mills pitcher Tucker Skoblik eyes his catcher's kit during a game against Twin Valley-Ulen-Hitterdal in the opening round of the Minnesota Division II Sub-District 9 Legion baseball tournament in Barnesville, on Friday, July 17, 2015. Nick Wagner / The Forum4 / 4

FARGO—The Bert Blylevens of the world better prepare themselves. Pitch counts are coming to high school baseball, regardless of how much they moan and groan about those nerds that look at numbers and science.

"It's happening," Minnesota State High School League associate director Kevin Merkle said. "Vermont and Colorado already have one and Alabama has something in place for next season."

Texas, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Arizona and Washington high school leagues are also in the process of changing the limit for high school pitchers from innings to pitches. The MSHSL has a proposal in place that it is currently receiving feedback from high school coaches. In August, the MSHSL will discuss it at a workshop and hope to vote on it in October.

The proposal requires three days of rest for 105 pitches and two days of rest for 75 pitches. If a pitcher is a sophomore or younger they will require three days of rest after 85 pitches. Finally, 30 pitches allows for back-to-back days of work, but rest on the third day.

"Our current rule is innings. Fourteen innings over a three-day period of time," Merkle said. "It's really outdated. A pitcher can pitch 35 innings in a seven-day period. The rule isn't effective. It just doesn't fit anymore.

"Arm injuries are crazy with what's going on in youth baseball. It's a concern at the national level, so we've been talking about it with our coaches. We felt it was time to pull something together."

The North Dakota High School Activities Association has no plans to change to a pitch count, but if the coaches wanted to, the NDHSAA would have no problem switching.

"Our stance is we're fine either way. If our coaches wanted to go to that, we'd be fine with that," said NDHSAA assistant director Justin Fletschock, a former North Dakota State and Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks pitcher. "A lot of the states that are doing this are southern states where they play baseball year-round. I think most of our coaches are pretty protective of pitchers in April. I wouldn't be surprised if even the (National Federation of State High School Associations) in the next 5-10 years changes it from innings to pitches."

Dr. Prasad Sawardeker is an orthopedic surgeon at Essentia Health in Fargo. He's been a team doctor for the Florida Marlins, Pittsburgh Pirates and the University of Miami. He stresses that parents not have their child play baseball year-round and pitch counts are needed.

"In general, the overwhelming factor leading to injury in throwing athletes is overuse, especially for younger age groups," Sawardeker said. "It's critical. Pitch count and type of pitches thrown definitely need to be limited. Younger kids are more vulnerable than older kids because their joints are still growing.

"In the throwing motion, you're putting your shoulder and elbow in the extremes of motion. That puts a lot of force on not only the joints, but the ligaments, the muscle, the tendons. Over time, if you don't follow through restrictions, or proper conditioning or recovery, you wear those ligaments or joints out. The type of damage you can do, there's no limit. If you abuse a joint, it will break down. That may impact your playing career or your livelihood. I tell parents to give their kids an offseason for strengthening, conditioning and learning mechanics."

The Forum conducted interviews about pitch counts with high school baseball coaches from Fargo Shanley, Fargo Davies, Fargo North, Fargo South, West Fargo, West Fargo Sheyenne, Kindred, Hawley, Moorhead and Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton—two of which also coach American Legion baseball. All 10 have a pitch count for all of their pitchers with the general cutoff point being a maximum of 100 pitches. Each coach starts slow in the early part of the season when it's cold, but builds up the arms of their starters to get to a max of 100 or so, depending on their age.

None of the coaches were necessarily against a rule being put in place on pitch counts, mainly because it would force coaches to do what they do, but they each discussed how the issue is more complex than just counting pitches. Factors like what pitches are being thrown, the mechanics of the pitcher, rest, workouts for the arm and the player themselves have to be taken into account.

"I am more concerned with the pitches they're throwing," Sheyenne coach Joel Swanson said. "The fastball and changeup are what should be developed young. Not the curveball. Ninety percent of our pitches in a game are fastballs and changeups in high school. A slider is a college pitch. Only fully matured athletes should attempt it and again, minimal."

Moorhead coach Greg Salvevold said he can throw 200 pitches and play long toss the next day, but each pitcher is different. It's the communication between the coach and his players that is important.

"I was one of those players that had a rubber arm," Salvevold said. "We try to communicate to kids to be honest about it. It could be your livelihood. There's a lot of different variations that could happen, but do a lot of coaches have that knowledge and can evaluate each situation?"

D-G-F high school baseball and West Fargo Legion coach Bill Ibach said coaches have a responsibility to their athletes to make the decisions for them on whether or not they've thrown too many pitches.

He admits some coaches forget that responsibility when the pressure to win pushes.

"Most coaches are very concerned with kids' health and won't jeopardize it to win a game, but there is a pressure on coaches to win and appear successful," Ibach said. "It is not OK to leave it to a kid to decide if he should be pitching. They feel pressure to win for their coaches, teammates and parents. Most kids feel like they are indestructible."

Nearly all of the coaches mentioned the bigger issue with pitch counts is at the youth level, mainly because the coaches at the youth level aren't as educated as high school or legion coaches. They're mostly parents volunteering.

"I think it's more of a concern with youth levels than the high school or legion level," West Fargo coach Brett Peterson said. "I see problems there more than I do at the high school level. At that level you have people that are coaching that tend to be parents and not the most knowledgeable baseball people."

That's what has Salvevold starting a clinic next season to teach Moorhead Babe Ruth coaches how to handle pitchers, so there's consistency throughout the program. Likely, more of that will be coming to educate youth coaches.

North coach Jeff Fiechtner talked about having a pitcher throw 73 pitches in a seven-inning game. Then again, he watched an opposing pitcher throw 145 pitches in seven innings. This is why a pitch count is coming.

"I want to say high school teams don't need (a pitch count), however, some coaches neglect an athlete's arm," South coach Donn Bryant said. "They do this for their own success and don't take the kids' best interest into account."

Chris Murphy

Chris Murphy is a sports reporter for the Forum. He's covered high school and college sports in Chicago, North Dakota and Minnesota since 2009 and, for some reason, has been given awards for doing so.

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