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The Ethics of Pitch Counts

Few things get baseball pundits more fired up than a good debate about pitch counts. Some argue against the mere concept of a pitch limit. Others vociferously advocate for a stricter limit for players in their first 3-5 seasons. While there's no consensus on a rule or course of action at the professional level, there's little question over what should happen to pitchers at a younger level: nearly everyone agrees their pitches should be limited, and no coach should ever use them on consecutive days.

Well, both of those universal tenets of pitching health were violated in a span of 48 hours last week in two difference incidents, one at an Arizona high school and the other in the NAIA baseball tournament.

The first took place at the lower level, with the younger pitcher. Cory Bernard, a senior for Hamilton High School in Chandler, Ariz., pitched in both games of a playoff doubleheader against Tempe Corona del Sol (hardly need to be told that school is in Ariz., do you?). Bernard pitched four innings of relief in the front end of the doubleheader, throwing 75 pitches, then lasted the entire nightcap, throwing 97 pitches in the finale.

When you really think about it, it's amazing that Bernard, who will play at the University of Arizona next year, made it through the second game with fewer than 100 pitches, not that his efficiency makes his overuse more defensible.

If Bernard's feats raised eyebrows, the back-to-back-to-back performances of Campbellsville, Ky., right-hander Bryan Fuller had heads spinning. Fuller came on in relief in a loser's bracket game on Thursday night (he threw 33 pitches), then returned to pitch a complete-game shutout against Kansas Wesleyan (he threw 111 pitches), winners of 26 straight, that night.

As if that wasn't enough, Campbellsville called on Fuller again the next day, and he responded, throwing yet another complete-game shutout against Kansas Wesleyan, pushing his school on to the first NAIA World Series in program history.

That pushed his two day total to 222 pitches (he threw 77 in his final start) in 26 hours, without allowing a run.

While it's hard to tell whether it's worse for a coach to have a high school ace throw 172 pitches in both halves of a doubleheader or a college senior toss 222 across three games in 26 hours, both show little regard for either player's future.

For his part, Fuller actively campaigned to pitch as much as possible, claiming that his only future was as an accountant (evidently he already has a job lined up that will begin within a few weeks).

"We were nearly out of pitching and he looked comfortable," Campbellsville assistant coach Jake McKinley told ESPN. "We told Fuller we would need him to make his second career start and if he could give us three or four innings, that would be great, and it was in the biggest game in the history of our program against a team that had won 26 straight games."

That's right, Fuller isn't even a starter. A pitcher more used to throwing 40-50 pitches in 2-3 innings instead threw 222 pitches in just more than one calendar day. It's amazing his arm hasn't fallen off yet.

For that reason alone, the use of Fuller obviously seems more glaring. Yet, if you use a calculation that considers the athletic futures of both players, the use of Bernard stands out.

Bernard is a touted high school pitcher, and he'll be attending a significant Division I program with an eye on a future in the major leagues. While he might not be drafted highly enough to warrant signing a contract before school, he clearly has the potential to be a player down the road.

Because of that goal, it seems absurd to use Bernard so exhaustively. Can you imagine a minor league organization signing off on an 18-year-old throwing 172 pitches in a game? Of course not, let alone using him in two different games on the same day.

The real question is what can be done to curb future abuse of young pitchers. What do people think? Should baseball, under the watch of MLB, try to institute a daily pitch limit? What about a rule that outlaws having pitchers perform in consecutive games if they start one of them? Are there any rules that would be watertight enough to keep clever coaches from abusing them?

By Cameron Smith  |  May 19, 2009; 12:02 PM ET
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It should be fairly easy to regulate high school athletics and tournaments for this. I'd imagine some states do aleady. Certainly below the college level, there should be pitch limits.

If the NAIA does not want to impose limits, then I'm much more willing to leave it to the kid, league, and program.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | May 19, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

Question - where are the parents and the fathers in this mess?

Never mind the coaches who are usually worried about themselves and getting their names in the paper, but I have a hard time believing that the father of "a highly touted pitcher...with Division I aspirations" allowed his kid to pitch twice in one day and throw ~200 pitches.

Baseball fathers are very aware of pitch counts and knowing how many pitchers get drafted, these fathers are usually very knowledgable of the game and pitch counts. I can't imagine the father of this kid not getting all over the coach for allowing him to throw that many pitches, let alone allowing him to pitch again the same day!

Completely a selfish move and Dad should be ashamed/embarrassed. Throwing nearly 200 pitches in one day is risking permanent damage to a young kid, especially if the kid is throwing curveballs and sliders at extreme arm angles. I am speechless.

Posted by: PhilliesPhan | May 19, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

I'm pretty sure that in reading about the Maryland HS baseball playoffs in the Gazette that there was an innings limit for pitchers over a certain period of time, although not a pitch count per se. This created strategy issues for coaches, since it was single elimination--do you use your ace as early in the tournament as possible so he can pitch in more games or wait for what might be a tougher opponent that he couldn't face if he pitched in the first round? Do you take your ace out earlier in a blowout?. The coaches seem to be able to live with it.

Posted by: chiefwj | May 19, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse

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