Baseball – New Pitch Count Rule on Forefront of Coaches’ Minds as 2017 Season Begins
Barnegat head baseball coach Dan McCoy has had his share of legitimate high school aces – one of whom was his own son, Mark, and another who was the 12th overall pick in the last Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. He has had opportunities to ride those aces to postseason glory but being a former pitcher himself, he has always made protecting pitchers a major priority of his program.
So when the NJSIAA announced its new pitcher eligibility rules, which include a one-game pitch limit of 110, McCoy didn’t really care because he doesn’t have to change anything, nor does he feel like the rule would have retroactively changed much about his experience as head coach.
McCoy, of course, had Jason Groome as a senior last year, when the 6-foot-5 left-hander attracted dozens of Major League scouts and hoards of casual fans for every start leading up to his selection as the No. 12 pick by the Boston Red Sox in June. McCoy, however, also had Groome as a sophomore, before the scouts were tracking the talented hurler’s every step and before he had representation making recommendations about his use on the mound. Before the scrutiny set in, McCoy handled Groome the same way he did when all eyes were on Barnegat last season and the same way he handled his own son, who is now a pitcher in the Kansas City Royals system.
“It’s not an issue at all. Not for us,” McCoy said. “I told the parents a few weeks ago that I’ve been the pitching coach here from the start and since I’ve been doing this, I can count on one hand how many times a pitcher on our team went over 100 pitches. It’s something I’ve always valued and I think most coaches are that way, so as far as how things are run, I don’t think this changes much, and if anything, it’s good for the kids."
Most of the coaches in the Shore Conference have shared similar sentiments to McCoy’s. The new rules do more than just limit pitches in an outing: they also change the measuring unit of a pitcher’s workload from innings to pitches while establishing new limits on how soon after an outing a pitcher can appear in another game as a pitcher.
The pertinent parts of the new rules read as follows:
If a pitcher pitches 91-110 pitches in a day, four calendar days of rest are required.
If a pitcher pitches 71-90 pitches in a day, three calendar days of rest are required.
If a pitcher pitches 51-70 pitches in a day, two calendar days of rest are required.
If a pitcher pitches 31-50 pitches in a day, one calendar day of rest are required.
If a pitcher pitches 1-30 pitches in a day, no (0) days of rest are required.
Additionally, a pitcher cannot pitch on three consecutive calendar days, throw more than 50 pitches over two consecutive calendar days, nor exceed 140 pitches in a five-day calendar period.
On the whole, coaches are supportive of the move to make pitches the measurement of pitcher use, in part because the vast majority of coaches already closely monitor pitch counts and limit pitcher use based on those figures.
“Hopefully it’s something that will benefit all schools regardless of size,” Christian Brothers Academy coach Marty Kenney said. “I do realize we are regulating just a few that abuse (the old rule). Most coaches are aware of pitch counts anyway. Most don’t want to do what we did a year ago.”
Now in his 44th season at CBA, Kenney is the longest-tenured baseball coach in the Shore Conference and was on the advisory committee that drew up the pitch count rules. Under the new rules, Kenney would not have been able to use his ace from a year ago, Luca Dalatri, the way he did on several occasions – including a 120-plus-pitch outing against Middletown South last year and a pair of Shore Conference Tournament outings on three days' rest.
“Luca was a different type of pitcher,” Kenney said. “He was so much bigger and stronger than most other high school pitchers and was so detailed in his preparation and execution that when he wanted to (pitch on short rest) we felt like he was less of a risk. During his career, we probably pitched him on short rest four times. For the last six, seven, maybe eight years, we’ve always stuck to a plan of four days' rest and he’s the only exception that we’ve made.”
What if, however, a team with far fewer players in the program has their version of Dalatri and now cannot use him as often as the old rules permitted?
“The one concern for us was that (the rule) does seriously handicap small schools,” Kenney said. “That was something that was argued quite a bit. It could possibly be changed as well, but it was important to get something in place this year and build on it from there.”
One Group II school that might have been tempted to push its top pitcher this year under the old rules is Manasquan. Warriors left-hander Tommy Sheehan is arguably the top pitcher returning in the Shore Conference this season, and the new rules could potentially limit how often he could pitch in a postseason tournament in ways the old rule would not have limited him or pitchers like him.
Warriors coach Bob Waldeyer, however, is not particularly concerned given that he opted not to increase how often he used Sheehan in the postseason last year. The left-hander is committed to play at Notre Dame and is getting plenty of looks from Major League organizations in advance of the June draft, so Waldeyer has always had Sheehan’s long-term wellness in mind.
“He's a kid who's only going to throw 70 or 80 pitches early (in the season),” Waldeyer said. “He's not going to throw 110 pitches in a start early. When we get to May, will he be able to do that? Sure, he'll be able to do that. I just think you have to be careful about doing that early, and how many days in between (pitching) also makes a difference.
"We're gonna be careful early (with Sheehan) and then 2-to-3 weeks in, you'll see him start to extend to the 90 range and then into the 100 range.”
Sheehan does enter the season healthier than he was last year, when he dealt with an illness for most of the season and still posted an ERA well under 1.00 and struck out 63 with only seven walks. With that in mind, it is one of his goals to pitch more often and to finish games when he does, which Waldeyer will now consider.
If Sheehan or any other pitcher, however, wants to talk his coach into staying in the game when the coach is leaning toward pulling him, there are now rules that make that conversation a moot point.
“Everybody has walked out to the mound and had a kid saying, 'Coach leave me in, I want to finish' and he's at 115 pitches,” Waldeyer said. “When you're standing in front of Tommy Sheehan and he's like 'Coach, I'm gonna finish this game,' how do you take the ball out of his hands? But with this, we're going to have to. I don't think that's a bad thing at the high school level to give them a cap of pitches that's reasonably high for them to finish a game.”
Although the new rules might not change the way most coaches handle their individual pitchers, they do have the potential to influence the way the game is managed and how pitchers are incentivized to pitch. McCoy acknowledged that he might be quicker to go to his bullpen than he might otherwise have gone.
“You’re not going to be able to ride one guy,” McCoy said. “One positive about it is it’s going to make programs develop more pitchers who throw strikes. Situations where you would have never pulled a guy, now you might put your fourth or fifth guy on the mound. If it’s 8-0 after the fourth or fifth inning, I’m pulling my number one guy and saving him. Before, I probably wouldn’t have done that.”
Toms River South and Colts Neck are the two best examples of teams who, in recent years, have been creative about their use of pitching staffs. Toms River South has already made it a practice to split games between pitchers, but pitching coach Mitch Powitz said he and head coach Ken Frank still want to view the game through an old-school lens even while adapting to the changes.
“We’re fortunate enough to have a lot of pretty good arms, so we’ll be able to put a pretty good pitcher on the mound regardless of the situation,” Powitz said. “At the same time, myself and coach Frank, we’re both old school enough that if a kid is throwing a great game through three innings, we’re going to let him take it as far as he can and as far as the rule will let him go. If it changes our original plan for that game or that week, then so be it. We want to let the kids have a chance to succeed and we have enough guys to adjust.”
If the new regulations do lead to more frequent sharing of games between pitchers or to coaches using their best pitchers for higher-leverage situations late in games rather than in the first inning, then Colts Neck and coach Mike Yorke are ahead of the curve. The Cougars had two All-Shore left-handers in Chris Murphy and Mario Ferraioli two years ago and routinely used Murphy for two innings of relief or whenever Yorke felt he could most impact a game. Ferraioli, who was a senior last year, was more frequently used as a starter, but worked in relief more than your typical No. 1 pitcher in high school.
The age of pitch counts did not start with the adoption of the new rule, so this generation of pitchers has been considering their pitch counts for a long time – probably as long as they have been playing baseball. They know that the fewer pitches it takes them to complete an inning, the more likely it is they will be able to finish the game. With pitch counts now the determining measurement of workload instead of innings, it’s more likely a pitcher will be allowed by his coach to pitch into the sixth inning than he might have under the old rules, assuming he is economical about his pitch count.
This could lead to a number of alterations to the basic game theory that goes into the batter-vs.-pitcher dynamic. Pitchers are even more incentivized to throw strikes, which might seem like an obvious desired outcome no matter the pitch-count rules, but there are counts that are considered more conducive to “wasting pitches.” Will a pitcher still want to spike a breaking ball in the dirt or fling a fastball above the letter on an 0-and-2 count when that could be considered a waste of a now-valuable pitch?
In the same vein, will hitters – now aware that pitchers are even more incentivized to both close out at-bats in two-strike counts and invite weak, early-count contact – be more aggressive? The cycle of adjustments that batters and pitchers make over the course of the season will be one of the more interesting effects of the rule.
“You figure coaches are telling their hitters to be more aggressive knowing that pitchers have to attack the zone more,” Powitz said. “So do you now get an advantage by playing off that aggressiveness by maybe making guys chase pitches they don’t want to hit? I don’t know, but to me, that’s kind of the interesting part: to see if it changes how pitchers pitch the game or how hitters approach at-bats.”
Like most sports, baseball is a game of adjustments, and any alterations to pitch-to-pitch, at-bat-to-at-bat and game-to-game approach will not be uncommon. Where coaches are apprehensive about the new regulations is in tracking and enforcement, and in reading the language of the NJSIAA rules and recommendations, it’s not hard to understand why they might feel that way.
By rule, the home team is to provide an “Official Adult Pitch Counter” who will be charged with counting pitches for both teams. The pitch counter is to verify the pitch count with representatives from both teams after each half inning and if there is a disagreement between said pitch counter and the representatives over what a pitch count is, the two teams can agree on a number independent of the pitch counter should they choose to do so. If they cannot agree, the official pitch counter’s number is official.
As long as schools are able to provide official pitch counters, the process should operate relatively smoothly, but the guidelines to follow when a home team cannot provide a pitch counter involve representatives from each team having to confer after each half inning. If there is a disagreement that cannot be resolved, it is up to the umpire to resolve it, but the umpire is ordered, by rule, to not delay the game to resolve the matter. Get all that?
“Charting is more the problem than the rule itself,” Kenney acknowledged. “We’re going to have somebody at all of our games who handles it, but on the road, you never know which schools are going to have somebody to do the pitch counts. It becomes a matter of whether or not a coach or the administration can find someone to do the job and it does put an extra burden on a staff to keep track of all the information. More than anything, that’s the part I think we’ll be looking at and evaluating to see if there is a way we can improve it.”
There is also the matter of enforcement. Each team is now required to provide a pregame pitch log and declare to the umpires which pitchers are ineligible, which will be more work for the coaching staffs. In order to enforce violations, it will be up to opposing benches to point out violations to the umpiring crew, which means coaches could conceivably look the other way if they choose – most likely if the violation does not adversely affect their outcome.
Other portions of the rule specify protocol for counting innings that are pitched in suspended games and in games played as part of a double-header. Kenney stressed that the state is planning on revisiting the rule on a year-to-year basis to address issues that the rule either does not address or itself causes.
“We’re definitely going to revisit it next year,” Kenney said. “It was always designed to be a pilot program that we refined over time as we saw the problems. There are definitely pluses and minuses, but it’s here to stay.”