March 25, 2005
The high school baseball season is only 3 1 /2 weeks old, yet most teams already have played two tournaments and as many as 17 games.
Those totals can take a toll on pitchers.
But before high school players begin the 3 1 /2- to 4-month spring commitment to their high school programs, they’ve already shouldered an even heavier pitching load.
‘‘With year-round baseball, kids pitch way too much these days,’’ Horizon coach Eric Kibler said. ‘‘Kids are playing club, summer ball and fall ball. We’re seeing the ramifications of overuse.’’
Mountain View junior Nick Shannon is one of many players who take few, if any, breaks from baseball. Since finishing the majors level of Little League at age 12, Shannon has played on club, junior high and high school teams.
A pitcher and third baseman coming up, Shannon still pitches and has some of the best numbers in the East Valley. He has pitched 22 consecutive innings without allowing a run — throwing 23 2 /3 innings overall in six starts.
But Shannon endured one short stretch of arm trouble in the middle of last season, missing about three starts. He’s been thankful, in retrospect, for the way his coaches have handled his workload.
‘‘Pretty much all the coaches I’ve had have been really good about not pushing it when it comes to pitchers,’’ Shannon said. ‘‘When I was in junior high, my coach had us on pitch counts. On club teams I played with, we had a bunch of guys that could pitch and those coaches were careful not to use you more than one game a tournament.
"I think the most I pitched, and that was one time, was 14 innings in four days."
Baseball is a sport ripe for injury when it comes to pitchers. Twelve-year-olds used to pitching from 46 feet are ratcheted up to 54 feet the next year or two. By ages 14 and 15, the mound is 60 feet, 6 inches like the major leagues.
Some parents can’t wait that long and elect to involve their kids in scrimmages and games with 80- and 90-foot bases at age 12.
‘‘Kids’ bodies are growing and that’s when they get (arms) torn up is during that growth period,’’ Kibler said.
Kibler, the coach at Horizon for the past 22 years, isn’t popular with a lot of club coaches late in the calendar year. He doesn’t care. He can’t control his players year round, but pitchers in the Huskies program shut down throwing in November and December. They rarely, if ever, pick up a ball those two months.
‘‘We do other things during that time,’’ Kibler said. ‘‘They do tubes (arm strengthening) med-(icine) ball work and dumbbell work. Our goal is to strengthen the stomach, legs and back — none of the heavy lifting. The heavy lifting adds to the number of players with labrum (shoulder) tears.’’
Smaller enrollment schools often don’t have the number of pitchers able and available to pitch. Joe Bergen, a former catcher in his playing days, and current coach at 3A state runnerup Higley, is the exception.
‘‘I stepped into a situation where I had five pitchers on my varsity,’’ Bergen said. ‘‘This year I have nine with a desire to pitch and who want to learn.
"A week ago we played in a three-day tournament and played five games in three days. . . . I know some other coaches of 3A schools who were talking about their pitching being spent the second day of the tournament.’’
Bergen would like to see as many of his kids as possible play beyond high school.
‘‘When they’re done playing for me I want to know their arm is in as good a shape as possible.’’ Bergen said. ‘‘I want to think they’ll be able to go out a few years later and be able to play catch with their own kids.’’
Several studies in the last 10 years indicate that the number of pitches thrown and not the number of innings pitched is the best barometer when it comes to handling pitchers.
One conducted by USA Baseball Medical and Safety Committee in collaboration with the American Sports Medicine institute in 1996 concerned elbow and shoulder injuries. The purpose was to investigate the relationship between arm injuries and pain and factors believed to be related to injury.
The factors were types of pitches, number of pitches and quality of mechanics. The conclusions were that coaches should monitor number of pitches thrown and not number of innings pitched. A second was that pitchers should not throw breaking pitches until their bones are completely finished growing.
‘‘We put them on pitch counts and I think most coaches do,’’ Corona del Sol coach Ron Davini said. ‘‘There are still too many coaches out there at all levels that abuse kids’ arms. Kids want to pitch, but you have to reel them in. You’re doing it for their own good.’’
In last week’s Central-East Valley-Fiesta Tournament, the Tribune monitored pitch counts at seven games. The most pitches thrown were 112 by one pitcher and 99 by another. Both starters were making their fifth appearances of the season.
Many coaches believe 100 to 110 pitches is a maximum, particularly in the high school season. Most would generally not allow a three-digit total until April, the midpoint of the season.
Mountain View coach Mike Thiel endured a week recently that tempts high school coaches to short-shrift a staff. The Toros played three region games in four days from March 8-11. Thiel pitched his No. 1 pitcher on Tuesday and No. 2 on Thursday. A Friday game forced Thiel to turn to a third starter. Thiel didn’t consider returning his No. 1 to the hill on two days rest — not even for an inning.
‘‘The object early in the season is to develop your staff," Thiel said. "If you try to develop a staff with two or three guys you probably won’t be very successful.
‘‘I’ve always been conscious of, and try to be sensitive to not overuse kids. We want to win right now. That’s important. But not at the expense of hurting a kid.’’
‘‘As a guideline you’d like to see a kid average 15 pitches, maybe up to 18 pitches, an inning,’’ Davini said. ‘‘The first start you let a kid go 40 or 50 pitches. Then add 10 pitches an outing after that. By the end of the season you might let them go to 100 pitches. Maybe 110. But not over that.’’
Hamilton coach Mike Woods will see his sixth class of seniors work their way through his program this spring. He has a pitcher currently rehabbing from arm trouble.
‘‘This year’s seniors are the tip of the iceberg,’’ Woods said. ‘‘You have 16-17-year-old elite teams all the way down to 10-year-old club ball teams. Each class of kids I have coming up has been more involved in the game at an earlier age than the one before.’’
Woods tries to maintain a balance between his program and what his players do outside of it.
"I don’t say no to club. I think it has a lot of benefits if you’re not a pitcher. But so many kids pitch and the parents can’t distinguish one important game from another. Every tournament these kids play in is the so-called biggest one of the year.
"As coaches, we have to be as aware as possible with how much our kids are playing and especially pitching.’’
Arm injury studies
To learn more about elbow and shoulder problems related to pitching injuries, consider the following articles: