Monitoring Pitch Counts: Challenging But Necessary

Despite an increase in arm injuries, only about half of youth baseball organizations monitor pitch counts

By Chris Klingenberg

In 2014, Greg Parson nearly saw his all-star baseball team’s season come to an abrupt end in an attempt to save one of his ace pitchers for a potential future game.

Throughout the multiday Massachusetts Little League district tournament, Parson relied heavily on two kids to pitch for Leominster. In a game against a team from Quabbin, one of those key pitchers was unavailable due to pitch-count restrictions; the other started. But when Parson’s team of 11-year-olds took a big lead after three innings, he decided to lift the starting pitcher and call on his bullpen. Parson wanted to keep his starter below the pitch-count threshold to keep him eligible to pitch the next day.

The plan nearly backfired. Parson saw his bullpen implode and squander the lead. Luckily, a walk-off home run in the bottom of the sixth gave Leominster the win, but the story illustrates the challenges youth baseball coaches face when trying to manage while keeping kids’ arms safe.

“By trying to keep the starter under a pitch threshold so that he could pitch the next game, we almost lost a game we should have easily won,” Parson said. “Sadly, I remember many situations with pitchers and pitch counts vividly.”

Parson, a father of two baseball players, has been a Little League manager for seven years, district all-star manager for two years, and an AAU coach for four years. While winning is important to every coach, Parson said he has never lost sight of the kids’ health.

“My philosophy has always been that there isn’t a game important enough (at this age) to warrant hurting a kid’s arm for,” Parson said.

But a recent survey-based study from the University of Florida in Gainesville suggests only about half of youth baseball players are in organizations where pitch counts are tracked, and most are completely unaware of the USA BMSAC guidelines.

“Our goal was to get an idea of what people know about pitch counts,” said Giorgio Zeppieri Jr, PT, SCS, CSCS, a physical therapist at the university and clinical research chairman at the UF Health Rehab Center-Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine Institute. “We have seen a lack of general awareness on this, so that is what prompted us to do this study. I am also starting to see an increase in the number of younger baseball players coming to me for PT.”

“By trying to keep the starter under a pitch threshold so that he could pitch the next game, we almost lost a game we should have easily won.”

Zeppieri and colleagues analyzed 98 surveys completed by youth baseball players in all positions between the ages of 4 and 18. Surveys were distributed through contacts at a local baseball training academy and at local youth baseball organizations.

Only 57% of players reported that someone keeps track of the number of pitches they throw during games. Of those, fewer than half (46.4%) said pitches are counted at every game. A surprisingly high number of players reported they typically rest just one day after pitching (21%) or not at all (23%).

Eighty-two players (85%) said they had never heard of the USA BMSAC guidelines. Two-thirds of the respondents disagreed with the statement, “The more you throw, the more likely you are to get an injury.” And more than half (57%) indicated that they would not seek medical help if they experienced a tired or sore arm during a game.

The findings suggest a need to improve the education of young baseball players about throwing guidelines, risk factors for developing throwing-related injuries, the long-term implications of playing with an injured or fatigued arm, and the benefit of seeking medical help after experiencing arm fatigue or soreness.

“This topic is a big concern, not only for people like me in physical therapy, but for everyone, because we are seeing more and more injuries,” Zeppieri said. “I think the biggest thing we can do is educate people more because I think that most kids, parents and coaches do not understand the guidelines and the importance of following them to protect the kids.”

As frustrating as pitch counts can be for coaches, Parson said he understands why they are needed, and in fact, he thinks the guidelines only address part of the issue of injury risk in youth players.

“I think pitch counts are part of sensible coaching,” he said. “It is unfortunate that they had to be put in place, but I think pitch counts resulted from coaches overusing kids because they valued winning over all else. However, I don’t think pitch counts are the only thing that is important. Teaching kids to warm up properly and teaching them to throw properly is just as important. If kids don’t spend time learning proper mechanics, there is more strain put on their arm, which will also lead to injury.”

Parson agreed that better awareness of risk factors is needed.

“I think the bigger problem is coaching and parent education,” he said. “With all the emphasis being put on winning in town and travel programs, coaches are increasingly under pressure to win. Much of that pressure comes from parents. They want their kid to be on a great team and/or be the star player, and they lose sight of what is really important. They should be more concerned with their kids learning how to play the game properly and having a good experience and less about the prestige of winning and having their kid be the star.”

Chris Klingenberg has been a correspondent for LER for a year and previously was a sports editor for Gatehouse Media New England where he covered sports for six local high schools. He still covers games as a freelancer and enjoys watching high school athletes on the field. Klingenberg has also been an AAU baseball coach for seven years, a varsity baseball assistant for two years and will be entering his second season as the JV baseball coach at Westford Academy in the spring.

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