HOW THEY COMPARE
A look at Georgia’s high school pitch count rules compare to some nearby states:
Pitches Days of rest
Also: Pitches counted by independent monitor, a member of local umpiring association.
Pitches Days of rest
Also: Florida also adds a maximum number of pitches determined by age: 95 for 15-16; 105 for 17-18; 120 for 19-20. Schools are responsible for counting pitches.
Pitches Days of rest
Also: 1 day of rest required if pitcher throws two consecutive days, regardless of pitch count. Schools are responsible for counting pitches.
A laminated piece of paper hangs in the West Forsyth baseball team’s dugout, reminding the Wolverines of a new rule that is at once backbreaking and inconsequential, potentially career-saving and basically irrelevant.
In an era of baseball where arm health is a more prevalent topic for discussion than ever, Georgia – along with almost every other state in the country – now has a rule governing pitch counts for high school pitchers.
The order to do so by spring of this year came down this past July from the National Federation of State High School Associations. The Georgia State High School Association formed an ad hoc committee and came up with a rule by August. In October, the state executive committee approved the rule.
At the varsity level, a pitcher is limited to 110 pitches per game. Outings of 86-110 pitches must be followed by three calendar days of rest; outings of 61-85 pitches require two days; outings of 36-60 pitches require one day; and if a pitcher throws 1-35 pitches, he doesn’t need any days of rest. The sub-varsity pitch requirements are scaled similarly, but with a lower threshold.
If any team is found to have pushed a pitcher too far, the punishment is a two-game suspension for the head coach and a $250 fine for the school.
The adoption of the rule was swift and decisive. The application has been more complicated, and not just for on-field reasons.
The rule’s intent, at least, is not controversial. GHSA associate director Ernie Yarbrough, the organization’s coordinator for baseball, said that there is virtually no opposition to regulating pitch counts.
Many schools are not presently built to best handle it. That was reflected in Pinecrest Academy head coach Ryan Weingart’s reaction when he first heard of the new restrictions.
“Oh no,” the third-year coach remembers thinking.
The Paladins play in Class 1A, the smallest classification of the GHSA. They have 27 players total in their program. Lambert, in comparison, has 21 just on varsity. West Forsyth has 24.
Weingart was far from naïve when it came to monitoring his pitchers’ workloads before. The GHSA did have a usage rule governing before, limiting pitchers to 10 innings per outing and 14 innings per four calendar days. But the new rule gives Weingart significantly less room to use pitchers on short rest.
“There's a phrase called ‘throw everything at them but the kitchen sink,’” Weingart said. “And I told (the team), ‘We're going to have to throw the kitchen sink at them, too.’”
Weingart said the impact of the rule so far hasn’t been as bad as he expected. The players that he’s made pitchers for practical purposes have mainly been used in relief. He tries to structure the pitching schedule around when Patrick O’Rourke, the Paladins’ standout sophomore, can go. He’s wary of what will happen later on in the season, when the staff is a bit more strained and the games are played closer together, but things have gone okay for Pinecrest so far: As of March 1, the Paladins are 5-1.
// EXTRA COSTS \\
Another significant concern with the pitch count rule – and one shared by coaches at all levels – involves how, exactly, the counts are tabulated and reported.
One early option for the task that Yarbrough said was quickly shot down would have had each team compare the counts that they were keeping and settle on an official total. The coaches the GHSA consulted with wanted a more impartial option.
What they have settled on is modeled after the procedures football uses for the electronic clock operator. The pitch count monitor must be registered with a GHSA-sanctioned umpire association, like Chattahoochee Baseball Umpires Association, which works games for West Forsyth, South Forsyth, Forsyth Central and Pinecrest, among others. The monitor does not need the training required of an umpire.
“We like for them to have a knowledge of the game of baseball,” said Dennis Stanford of the CBUA.
The pitch count monitors are, however, required to be paid, and that falls to the schools. Like the electronic clock operator, the per-game fee is half that of a regular umpire, plus travel expenses. That extra cost represents a significant portion of a program’s budget: West Forsyth head coach Mike Pruitt described the cost as a set of jerseys; Forsyth Central head coach Kevin McCollum pictured it as “a lot of baseballs.”
“I don't like paying for it,” Lambert head coach Rick Howard said. “But I also understand the big picture, that you’ve got to have somebody enforce (the rule).”
Coaches don’t like the extra cost, but they also don’t like how many didn’t find out about the rule’s demands until after they had set the budget for the upcoming year. That’s the theme of most of the complaints around the pitch count rule: Not its intent, but its timing.
“I just think they rushed into it,” Pruitt said.
Interestingly enough, Yarbrough doesn’t totally disagree. He wishes the ad hoc committee that came up with the rule could have had more than one meeting and that the GHSA could have gotten more feedback before the rule’s implementation, rather than the after-the-fact discussion that has resulted. Yarbrough would have liked to have another year before implementing the rule.
The GHSA sent a representative to the January meeting of the Georgia Dugout Club, the state’s coaches association, and a surge of questions about the rule and its applications followed.
“There were so many questions that came back (with), ‘We don’t really know the answer to that,’” Pruitt said.
Coaches have learned as they’ve gone along. If a pitcher on junior varsity exceeds the no days of rest threshold – 24 pitches at that level – but is brought up to play varsity the next day, can he pitch? (Yes, he can, to the varsity limits.) If a pitch is ruled illegal, but a pitcher goes through the motion and delivers the baseball, is the pitch counted? (Yes, it is.) If a game is called off before it goes official, do the pitch counts stand? (Yes, they do.)
And so far, area official associations haven’t had issues mustering the numbers to officiate games. Minor hiccups have surfaced – a monitor counting warmup pitches, or assigning pitch counts to the wrong teams, or monitors getting lost in the assignment process – but they haven’t been catastrophic.
// TAKING NOTES \\
Yarbrough said that the state was satisfied with its previous innings-based usage limitations, but it also knew of the “undercurrent” of talk around pitch counts. A few states, like Alabama and Vermont, had codified pitch count restrictions before the NFHS’ decree.
And while area coaches didn’t cop to past usage patterns that would egregiously violate the rules, a number recalled seeing certain coaches overuse pitchers in the past and said they were happy that doing so is no longer permitted.
“The sad part about it is (that) there's teams in this region that will be better teams because of it,” Pruitt said. “And come late March, April, they're not pitched out. They'll still have something left in their arms, and we've seen some teams fade in the past just because of that.”
But for many coaches – including most of the contingent in Forsyth County – the rule’s tactical impact will be negligible.
“It’s really not going to affect us,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt considers the Wolverines’ pitching strategy to be a fairly progressive one. He has always kept pitch counts, and he can count on one hand the times in all his years of coaching that he’s had a starter go longer than 100 pitches. Pruitt prioritizes depth when building a staff, and if a pitcher is in the lineup the day after he throws, he’ll be the designated hitter and won’t pick up a ball.
Howard and McCollum shared similar sentiments. Schools at the state’s upper levels – and all of Forsyth County’s public schools are in Class 7A, the largest – generally have enough pitching depth to offset reduced workloads, even if they don’t take an approach as conservative as Pruitt’s.
“I'd probably say 97, 98 percent of our outings in the last 3 or 4 years would fall within the guidelines that are established by the state of Georgia,” McCollum said.
The rule is not perfect, which was apparent when it instituted and has been demonstrated in practice. It could help protect pitchers’ arms – though with increased single-sport specialization and the rigor of summer baseball, one could wonder how much can really be done – but also disproportionately affects smaller schools and has added an extra hit to budgets.
Its full ramifications will be better understood as the season goes on, and they’ll certainly be a topic of discussion when the executive committee meets again in April.
“Trust me,” Yarbrough said. “I'm taking notes as we go along.”