By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports editor
A safety prosposal may be discussed at the upcoming state athletic directors meeting to establish a pitch count for Hawaii high school pitchers to avoid overuse and potential arm injuries.
The meeting will be held June 7-9 on Oahu with all five state leagues represented.
The pitch-count debate has popped up across the nation and some prep leagues have adopted rules limiting the young pitchers to 90 or 100 pitches per game, then requiring anywhere from three to five days of rest before they pitch again. The leagues have cited a host of injuries caused by fatigue and stress on the young arms.
In the past three seasons in Hawaii, a number of high school pitchers have been bothered by arm problems and overuse has been blamed as the culprit.
“This is definitely a safety concern for high school athletes,” Big Island Interscholastic Federation executuve director Lyle Crozier said. “In Hawaii, with our weather, kids can play almost 365 days a year. For the pitchers, they’re throwing year-round and fatigue can set in. In the BIIF, we limit pitchers to 36 outs in 72 consecutive hours.
“So, if they throw 28 outs on Tuesday, they can only come back on Friday and throw eight outs.”
But Pahoa athletic director Ron Tomosada said the league needs to consider a change to protect the welfare of the athletes.
“It shouldn’t be about the outs, it should be more about the pitch count,” Tomosada said. “For some kids, it may take 50 pitches to get three outs. We need to fix that. By using a pitch count, it would be a more accurate measurement.
“Ninety pitches is about right for the pitch count. But we also want to see what the other states are doing to help us make the right decision.”
Tomosada and Crozier said the BIIF will try to gather more information on the pitch count and work with other knowledgeable individuals in Hawaii to find the proper rule that will address the safety concerns.
“We could probably make a league rule before the state does, if we feel it’s necessary,” said Tomosada, noting the BIIF could establish its own pitch-count rule before the 2013-14 season opens.
Crozier said the subject may be brought up at the state ADs meeting and could be discussed again at the state executive board meeting on June 10. The state executive board gives final approval or rejects all rule proposals, but since it’s a safety issue, Crozier believes the state board will take a closer look at it.
Hilo High varsity baseball coach Tony DeSa, who pitched at the prep and collegiate levels, believes a change is in order.
“Something definitely needs to be done,” DeSa said. “But it’s just not about the high schools, it’s also about the outside leagues, too. Some of these kids are playing 40 to 50 games in a year, and a lot of coaches are making the game more for the hitters and not the pitchers. The pitchers are getting beat up and sometimes when we get them at the high school level, they’re already fatigued and not ready to pitch.”
DeSa suggests a BIIF pitcher would have to throw less than 25 pitches in a game before he can come back the next day and pitch.
“I pitched all my life, in high school and college, and I know if a pitcher throws 100 pitches, his arm is going to be raw the next day,” the Hilo coach said. “I try to limit my pitchers to 70 pitches early in the year and by the time they get to the state tournament, I’ll let them throw 100 — but that’s the max.
“They usually get to 100 pitches around the sixth inning. That’s why I have a closer and in the six years that I’ve been coaching, I’ve never had a kid with a sore arm. I try to look for fatigue and not overuse the kid.”
DeSa would like to see a pitch-count rule at both the BIIF and state level. But he also realizes that outside leagues and coaches need to take a better look at the pitchers’ safety.
“A lot of the injuries come in the summer leagues,” he said. “There is little monitoring there and some of the kids get used too much. And you know the kids, they don’t want to come out of the game, so that adds to the problem.”
The Vikings coach even recommends to a young pitcher “to shut it down for a two-month period and let the arm rest.”
Tomosada, who also pitched in high school, agrees with DeSa about outside leagues.
“We can have a rule in place at the high school level, but we still need the awareness from age 8 and 9, and up,” he said. “There’s too much win-at-all costs at that younger levels, and then it becomes an adult problem. That has to be fixed. We have to be more aware of the safety issues involving the kids.”
Pressure to perform
Kamehameha varsity baseball coach Andy Correa believes most of the high school coaches do a good job monitoring the pitchers. But he points out that many of the high school players play in outside leagues and even have their own pitching or hitting coaches that they work with year-round.
“The baseball culture has changed and things that have been done on the mainland for years — individual coaches, travel teams, and showcases to gain exposure — is filtering to Hawaii,” Correa said. “Some kids on the mainland are playing over 100 games a year and playing on travel teams. And that may be beneficial to them in getting scholarships or getting drafted. But you just don’t know how much oversight is being done in those areas.
“High school is no longer the focus for these players, it’s a steppingstone to them reaching their goals. The stakes are a lot higher for the kids wanting to get a scholarship or be drafted. And it’s the colleges that are pushing the showcases because it helps them evaluate a lot of kids at one time.”
Correa, who has coached at Kamehameha for eight seasons, has had players come into his program injured and then he had to monitor their time on the mound or as a position player to make sure it was a safe situation.
“In that case, it comes down to communication with the player and parents on what is the best situation for them,” Correa said. “It all comes down to monitoring each player and his safety. It’s a tough balancing act, especially with some of these kids trying to do everything they can do to get a scholarship. They play year-round and don’t get much rest. And you can’t blame the parents because they’re looking to give their kid an edge.”
Correa said a pitch count might help the high school pitchers.
“The pitch count could be healthy and it would take the decision-making out of the coaches’ hands,” he said. “I think 90 to 100 pitches would be good and it would still allow all of us to be on a fair playing field. However, the outside leagues also need to do a better job in monitoring the players and understand what is at stake with these young players.
“If there can be a better awareness all around, it’s only going to help players and that’s why we coach, to help the players grow and develop, on and off the field.”
Dr. James Andrews, who practices in Birmingham, Ala., is considered by many experts to be the top orthopedic surgeon in the nation. He rebuilt Minnesota Vikings’ star Adrian Peterson’s knee before his most valuable player 2012 season.
Andrews recently told ESPN that he performs three to four Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgeries on high school athletes every week. He recommends a “pitch-limit rule at every high school in the country.”
“High school pitchers should not throw more than 90 pitches in a game and they should have to take at least five days rest before they pitch again anywhere,” he told ESPN.com. “No way should they throw more than 100. The elbow isn’t ready for that workload.
“I understand coaches are under a lot of pressure to win. But coaches need to know your No. 1 priority is the health and safety of your young pitchers and baseball players. Your job is to deliver them to the next level without injury.”
Based on numerous studies he has been involved in, Andrews said, “Most shoulder and arm surgeries in youth, college and professional baseball are related to fatigue in the arm. And high pitch counts are a big factor in the fatigue.”
And that’s why Crozier, Tomosada, DeSa and Correa believe now is the time to move on the safety issue.