Editor's Note: The following is part two of an ongoing series looking into the new pitch-count rule for the upcoming high school baseball season. Last week's piece looked at the rule itself and many of the benefits it presents. This week, the other side presented, taking a look at the questions and concerns created by the rule.
While nearly every high school baseball coach in the area agrees the new pitch count rule is in the best interest of the players, they also agree the rule brings a lot of issues and questions along with it.
The new rule for varsity pitchers is as follows: Varsity pitchers will now be allowed to throw a maximum of 105 pitches in a game this spring with mandatory days of rest at different thresholds. For pitchers who throw 1-30 pitches in a game, they will be required one night of rest. Pitchers who throw 31-65 pitches will be required two nights of rest while hurlers who throw 66-95 pitches will be required to take three nights off. The highest regular-season threshold will be 96-105 pitches, which requires four nights of rest.
Those thresholds will then be slightly increased for the playoffs.
One of the first issues arising from the rule is the lowest threshold. Any pitcher who enters a game and throws a single pitch will be required to have one night's rest. Coupled with the stress that will put on smaller schools where roster size is an issue, let alone depth of pitching staff, serious concerns present themselves.
"I expect so many unforeseen problems," Westfield coach Doug Kaltenbach said. "I understand the reasoning and the whole 'it's for the good of the kids argument,' but I've been coaching for 32 years and am only aware of one or two times a coach overextended a kid. This rule will cause so many issues with the small schools. I know of teams in our league where they don't have time enough to spend on one pitcher let alone develop a whole staff.
"They made (the limits) so extreme. My problem is the bottom end of the thresholds. If a guy throws one pitch they can't throw again the next day. It's not realistic. Say my top pitcher comes in as a reliever - as in I've saved the best kid for relief - and he throws to one batter, he's not available the next day."
Questions have come up regarding the wording of the amount of rest a pitcher needs. The rule states various "nights" of rest based on the pitch limits reached. Some coaches in the area have taken that to literally mean a night, as in a player pitches on Monday and the first night of rest is Monday night. Other coaches have reported they have been told the rule means that in the same scenario, the first night of rest wouldn't be until Tuesday, which dramatically changes the whole dynamic.
A lot of confusion has been centered around the implementation of the rule, the charting, recording and reporting of pitch totals. Information sharing will become paramount, but no one knows how said information will be reported and shared or how much information will be available.
"The recording of the pitches is a concern," Dunkirk coach Frank Jagoda said. "I know some schools are seeking approval to pay someone to track, chart and report the pitching. There's also curfews for the dark if a game goes long and who decides what's too dark and when to call it? There's a myriad of questions that will be answered this season; we can only hope there's not a lot of glitches."
"The implementing will be something else completely," Kaltenbach said. "Max Preps wants us to chart all the pitching online now, too. They don't pay me enough to not only record, but upload all my charts so the next team can scout them. Plus we have to get together between innings and no matter what, the home team is always right because they are the official score book and the state says discrepancies are decided by the home team's book?"
Kaltenbach went on to give a scenario that could play out in a game if the information sharing is of questionable quality.
"Say I go into a game, Johnny is pitching for them, and I'm positive he's not available that day, but he pitches," he said. "Do I protest right then and there? How do I prove it? We don't have enough time to play with the compressed schedule because of testing in schools, weather and now we add this and I don't see it working. Will it help arms? Maybe, but this will hurt the game as a whole."
With this rule, many more players will get the opportunity to pitch. That could be a good thing, but it also could be a very bad thing. As Fredonia pitching coach coach Charlie LaDuca explained last week, pitchers are groomed over years; you can't just take a good athlete, put them on the mound and expect them to be a pitcher.
As a result, many more non-pitchers will take the mound. Games will be extended because non-pitchers will inevitably struggle to throw strikes, the game will get bogged down with walks and in that case, everyone loses. The pitcher's confidence plummets, team morale goes into the tank and what many millennials consider to be a boring game becomes just that as players stand in one spot waiting for something, anything, to happen.
"Anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves if they say this won't take the whole level of play down," Kaltenbach said. "It totally wrecks the integrity of the game. It's hard enough to get kids to come out and play because they think baseball is boring. Now there's going to be kids pitching who shouldn't be - because they don't have the experience - and then there's a ton of walks with kids standing around. Come on."
"The biggest problem I'm concerned about is the length of games," Jagoda said. "Not only the length of the game time-wise, but length of games for pitching. Long games have a lot of pitches thrown, which means a lot of pitchers getting used up. Even big schools may not have the arms available on a given day of a long game. Also the scheduling becomes an issue to the point there have been talks about reworking the league schedule to play the same team twice in one week to line up the pitching and then have non-league games on weekends. I don't think it can happen this year, but it may happen in the future. The local athletic directors have been asking for (local coaches') input."
As a result of this possibility, coaches in various divisions have discussed implementing their own "mercy" rules. This creates its own set of problems because the rules aren't set by the Section, can vary from league to league and all teams must come to the same agreement.
Kaltenbach and the coaches in Westfield's league have come to a gentleman;s agreement for a 10-run rule this season. The rule is not in writing, but the coaches have agreed that before the game, they will meet and the mercy rule will be put in place.
In Jagoda's opinion, a gentleman's agreement leaves too much room for error. He is pushing for teams within Dunkirk's league to put the rule on the books, in writing.
"One thing I was thinking is having a 15-run rule for our league," Jagoda said. "At the modified level you're only allowed to give up five runs an inning, but obviously you can't do that in varsity, so a run rule would help. It's something I'd want to see it in writing. If I don't have the pitching available, and a game gets out of hand, I'd beg for (the run rule). But then the other coach may say, 'I know who you play next week and I don't want the game to end.' My choice would be to have it in writing and that way there is no animosity."
Another side effect of the rule, and one that has athletic directors in the area frustrated, is the fact that teams may be going the route of dropping non-league games from their schedule. With league games already putting a heavy tax on pitching staffs, it leaves little incentive for coaches to play non-league games that have no bearing on playoffs, only to burn through extra pitching.
The pitch count rule also makes playoff seeding all the more important. Higher seeded teams who receive a first-round bye will be greatly rewarded compared to teams that have to use more pitching in the first round and have those pitchers who were used not be available until the semi-finals in some cases. With that in mind, non-league games take another hit in the eyes of coaches.
"Non-league games will become few and far between," Kaltenbach said. "Every state has their own limits and they're all different, but as a coach from a small school, there's simply rules that can't be implemented for a small school that may work for the bigger ones. I'm okay at Westfield, but other schools struggle to even get kids on the team."
The nation and state may have had the best of intentions while making the new rules, but coaches have been left scratching their heads in many cases and strategizing in ways that are outside the game. As Jagoda said, many questions will be answered throughout the season, but at what cost?