Josh Joy was talking about the pitch count rule that’s new to Maine high school baseball this season. A senior at Messalonskee High School who plans to pitch at Franklin Pierce University next year, Joy had a question. How many pitches can he can throw in a game now?
When told the maximum number of pitches he can throw in a game this season is 110, Joy nodded. That wouldn’t be a problem.
“That’s quite a few pitches. I don’t think I’ll ever throw more than that. I probably could, where I’m a senior now and getting older. By the end of the season, the playoffs, in a close game, if my arm feels good, I could probably throw more than that,” Joy said. “In most cases, I don’t think it’s going to make a big difference. Teams are going to have to utilize their pitching different.”
With the high school baseball season set to begin in central Maine this week, players, coaches, scorekeepers, umpires, everybody associated with the game, will have to adjust to the pitch count rule.
Starting this season, varsity pitchers will not be allowed to throw more than 110 pitches in a day. Pitchers throwing between 96 and 110 pitches must have four days of rest before taking the mound again. Pitchers throwing between 66 and 95 pitches must rest three days, and 40-65 pitches earns two days rest. Throwing 21-39 pitches requires one day of rest, and pitchers throwing between one and 20 pitches can throw the next day. For pitchers in subvarsity games, the maximum number of pitches thrown in a day is 90.
“I love the new pitching rule. It’s a more effective way to monitor use,” Messalonskee coach Ray Bernier said.
The pitch count rule replaces a rule that limited pitching based on innings worked, not pitches thrown. Previously, pitchers needed three days of rest if they threw four innnings or more, and could not pitch more than 10 innings in a day.
The 110 pitch maximum came on the recommendation of the Maine Principals’ Association sports medicine committee, after the National Federation of State High School Athletics, which mandated states must limit pitches with a pitchers via pitch count rather than innings pitched. The federation left the pitch count number to up to the individual states. While no rule can 100 percent arm injuries, using a pitch count can help limit arm injuries, Dr. William Heinz, a Portland orthopedist and liason to the MPA sports medicine committee, said.
While the pitch count rule was nationally mandated, it comes on the heels of some prominent high school baseball playoff games last spring in which pitchers threw a number of pitches that blow the new rule away. In the Class C South semifinals, Roderick Maynard of Sacopee Valley threw 138 pitches in a win over Monmouth. In a loss to Sacopee Valley in the Class C South regional final, Lisbon’s Tyler Halls threw 150 pitches. In the Class D South regional final, Troy Reynolds of Searsport threw 161 pitches to defeat Valley.
“I have seen teams that seem to rely on one or two guys. You can’t do that anymore,” Bridgeway coach Scott Franzose said.
Joy said the most pitches he’s thrown is 108 in a game last season, which would be fine under the new rules. While he routinely asks coaches his pitch count between innings, Joy said he doesn’t dwell on it when he’s on the mound.
“Messalonskee coaches have been pretty good. I’ve heard from other kid on other teams of pitchers throwing 150 pitches a game. That’s what the pitch count (rule) is going to help stop,” Joy said. “I usually just go on how my arm feels. As a kid, my parents were always strict about it. I’ve never thrown a lot. I didn’t start throwing curveballs until I was older. When my arm gets tired and I’m not pitching well, that’s when I start thinking about it, and I’m going to come out of the game.”
For coaches, it’s not whether or not they like the rule, although each coach interviewed for this story expressed pleasure in how the rule is designed to promote player safety. Now, it’s how will pitch counts affect numerous aspects of in game strategy?
For starters, every team is going to need more players who can pitch.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge. Anybody that can effectively go in and throw strikes will pitch,” Scott Laweryson, coach at Valley, said. “There will be a lot of games pitching by committee. I told the guys, ‘You can’t mess around. You’ve got to throw strikes.'”
Pitching by committee, using two or more pitchers in a game by design rather than neccessity, has worked for some teams in the past. In 2012, Bernier was an assistant coach on his father’s staff at Messalonskee. On the way to the Class A state championship, the Eagles used two or three pitchers in each game throughout the playoffs. That approach kept all of Messalonskee’s pitchers fresh throughout the tournament, and gave opposing lineups different looks throughout the game. For teams with more strong pitchers, that approach could work this season, Bernier said.
“I always felt we were six or seven pitchers deep, but it didn’t always work to our favor,” Bernier said.
Added Waterville coach Dennis Martin: “To be a good team this year, you’re going to need at least five guys who can throw.”
Developing more arms had to start in the gym in March. This season, teams had no limit on the number of players they could invite to the week of pitching and catching conditioning drills that preceed full team workouts.
“I think (the pitch count) going to create more depth. I’m going to go with three starters, and maybe eight guys (who will pitch) instead of five or six,” Lawrence coach Rusty Mercier said.
Of the six New England states, Maine has the strictest pitch count rules. Rhode Island has a 110 pitch maximum with three days of rest once a pitcher throws 75 pitchs. Connecticut requires five days of rest for more than 110 pitches, but has no maximum one day pitch count. Massachusetts has no limits on pitch count or rest requirements. Maine’s neighbors in northern New England, Vermont and New Hampshire, have the same rule, a 120 pitch maximum in varsity games, with three days of rest for more than 75 pitches. This is the first season with the rule in New Hampshire. Vermont has played with a pitch count for a couple seasons, Mike Howe, baseball coach at Otter Valley High School in Brandon, Vt., said.
“If we get to 120 pitches, something’s wrong. You’re throwing a lot of balls and not getting outs,” Howe said. “Early in the season, I don’t like to go past the 75-80 pitch range. I have 14, 15-year old pitchers. I never want to see them throw 120 pitches.”
Howe said he wouldn’t mind if Vermont adopted the same pitch rule as Maine. One thing Howe said hasn’t been an issue in Vermont, something that some coaches have expressed concern over, is enforcement. In the last two seasons, Vermont left it up to the teams to police pitch count in the regular season, with umpires checking the count with both teams every half inning in the playoffs only. This year, like Maine, umpires will check the pitch count with both teams each half inning, and each team is required to keep track of both squads’ pitch count.
“You might be off one pitch here, one pitch there. It hasn’t been an issue,” Howe said.
The MPA has asked that an adult in each dugout keep the pitch count. For some small schools, the head coach often has just one assistant, and finding parents or other adults to help at games is difficult. At Valley, Laweryson said he has one assistant coach, who is coaching first base when the Cavaliers are at bat.
“I don’t want him keeping track of pitches. I want him paying attention to the runner on first (base),” Laweryson said.
When it comes to playing the game, coaches are interested in how the rule will work in practice. Some think hitters will work the count more in an attempt to drive pitch counts up. Others think there will be more offense and hitters will be more aggressive, expecting pitchers to throw more strikes down the middle in an effort to keep pitch count down.
“Hitters are going to know they’re going to get strikes early in the count,” Bernier said.
At Rangeley, coach Jeff LaRochelle is stressing defensive play to his team. Now, an error or two not only gives the opponent more chances to score runs, it also adds to the pitch count, and shortens your pitcher’s day.
Mercier said he expects more pitching specialization, as seen at higher levels of baseball. More Maine high school teams could have a closer, for example.
“A guy might come in and get his one inning and do his job,” Mercier said.
We won’t see pitchers throw more than 140 pitches like we saw in the playoffs last season, but there’s a good chance we’ll see this: a pitcher has a no hitter through six innings. He takes the mound in the seventh with 100 pitches thrown. Can he get the final three outs in 10 pitches?
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242