As I’ve mentioned a few times in the past week, our Sunday centerpiece in today’s paper featured my examination of how pitchers are handled at the high school level. This is a story with my layers to it — and one that I’ve put a lot of research into — but the feedback has already been extremely positive. My intention is not to put the blame on one person or one group, but this is an issue that I’ve encountered many times in my years with The Journal News, and I truly hope that this piece will be both eye-opening and educational for many young pitchers and their families.
The first thing Brian Aviles recalls about that fateful day in early June 2010 — the day his son Robbie pitched for Suffern High for the final time before the Major League Baseball draft — was that it seemed to be a perfect day for a game.
“It was a beautiful day,” said Aviles, a former Atlanta Braves pitching prospect. “In fact, he had his best bullpen before that game that he had all year. There was no sign that this would happen.”
What happened would alter the course of Robbie’s baseball career. Just 12 pitches into his start against Mamaroneck in the Class AA semifinals, he partially tore the elbow ligament in his prized right arm. Robbie Aviles underwent Tommy John surgery, endured about a year of rehab and lost out on hundreds of thousands of dollars. Projected as a possible first-round draft pick, Aviles fell to the seventh round, where the Cleveland Indians selected him 210th overall.
Though an extreme case, Aviles’ experience highlights the risks faced by high school pitchers. Some arm and shoulder injuries can occur without explanation. But because New York has few guidelines to protect them, pitchers sometimes are given the final say by their coaches regarding how long they stay on the mound. Too often, they simply want to throw as much as possible, without regard for the strain on their arms and shoulders.
“As a pitcher, your moneymaker is your arm. I would love to stress to high school kids that they can’t go anywhere without their arm,” saidRobbie Aviles, who is awaiting assignment at the Indians’ extended spring training in Goodyear, Ariz. “If you have a sore elbow, don’t try to pitch through it. People kind of take stuff for granted, but every pitcher should know that you’re always one pitch away from ending your career.”
‘It’s not natural’
“To think of my arm moving that fast with such a frail body, it’s not natural,” he said. “I was probably 160 pounds. There’s absolutely no way that my tendons and ligaments were strong enough to handle a force that strong.”
John Jay senior right-hander Will Jahn has been clocked in the upper 80s. But he didn’t get much of a chance this year to show off the stuff that landed him the opportunity to pitch for Northeastern University next season. He partially tore the labrum in his right shoulder 12 pitches into his first start and underwent season-ending surgery.
Still, shoulder and elbow injuries aren’t limited to hard throwers.
“I see it all of the time,” said Dr. Stephen Nicholas, a former physician for the Jets, Islanders and Hofstra University who is now director of the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma, with offices in Scarsdale and Manhattan. “Kids play on multiple teams, and not all of them use pitch counts, and coaches aren’t aware if they’ve pitched for another team from week to week. Frequently, coaches get carried away with winning and losing. I think that’s the biggest issue.”
Pitch counts have become a common theme in baseball at all levels. According to baseball-reference.com, major-league starters averaged about 95 pitches per outing in 2012. That number is eclipsed often at the high school level.
This season, several of the region’s pitchers have surpassed the 100-pitch plateau. Mamaroneck’s Will Hofmann threw 124 pitches in a 5-4 win over Fox Lane on April 11, and Yorktown’s Frank Fusco threw 123 in a 5-4 win over Roy C. Ketcham on April 13.
Meanwhile, New Rochelle’s John Valente threw 131 pitches in a 5-4 win over Mamaroneck on April 30. It was the Huguenots’ first victory over the Tigers since 2006.
“Every time I went to him and said, ‘How are you feeling?’ He said, ‘I feel great. I want the ball. I’m staying in the game.’ Basically, that’s what it came down to,” New Rochelle coach Pete Annunziata said after the game. “As long as he still has good stuff and he’s throwing strikes and he’s getting people out, the pitch count isn’t really a huge issue. The pitch count would be more of a factor if it looked like he was starting to lose it.”
Limit on innings
Despite the attention often paid to pitch counts, New York has no rule that limits the number of pitches a player may throw in a high school game. The state has only one restriction: A high school pitcher may throw a maximum of 12 innings in one day, but no more than 18 innings in any six-day period.
“We have discussion just about every year,” said state baseball Chairman Ed Dopp of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. “One of the reasons why we have stayed with the innings-per-six-days rule is because it really is enforceable. The scorebooks don’t lie. We can go back and chart it. The problem with pitch count is that we’re totally depending on the accuracy of whoever is taking that pitch count.”
Coaches at public high schools in New York state are responsible for monitoring their players’ pitch counts, but the Public Schools Athletic League in New York City implemented new guidelines before the 2011 season. Varsity pitchers cannot throw more than 105 pitches in one game, and JV pitchers are limited to 90. Varsity pitchers have to rest a day after throwing 26-50 pitches, two days after throwing 51-75 pitches, three days after throwing 76-90 and four days after throwing more than 90 pitches — a pitcher is allowed to throw the next day if he threw 25 or fewer — with a similar progression for JV pitchers. It is the opposing coach’s responsibility to track each pitcher’s pitch count, alleviating concerns about a coach altering the total for his own team’s benefit.
This model is one that many would like to see the state consider, with Dopp acknowledging that discussions continue.
“We’ve talked about it in great detail in the past few years. There are definitely a lot of layers to it,” he said. “I don’t know what the answer is, but I really do believe that the overwhelming majority of high school coaches would not sacrifice a young man’s safety.”
No time for rest
Days of rest between outings became a hot topic last season when Max Bruckner, the reigning Journal News Westchester/Putnam Player of the Year, carried Harrison High to a Class A section title. Bruckner, now a freshman starting pitcher for Iona College, picked up the win in three of the Huskies’ four sectional playoff games. He started the Huskies’ semifinal on three days’ rest, then threw 59 pitches in relief in the final on just one full day of rest.
“I would say that my coach left it in my hands,” Bruckner said. “During the game, I was kind of selling it. At the Byram Hills game (the sectional final), it was an inning-by-inning thing. Even if I had a bad inning, I still would have said that I wanted to go back out there. I honestly did feel good.”
Bruckner said he has felt no ill effects from his heavy postseason workload. He went on to pitch for a summer-league team, though he did acknowledge that his college coach asked him to shut himself down earlier in the summer than usual. He’s allowed to pitch only once a week for Iona, and he said he has less leeway to push for more work.
“I throw every Saturday, so I have seven days of preparation, which is really different from high school,” Bruckner said. “In high school, you could throw every three days. … I may not have even hit 100 (pitches in any outing) this year. There’s definitely more control at the college level.”
Arm for all seasons?
Many experts cite excessive throwing after the high school season as a source of trouble. Most of the top high school players also participate in summer and fall leagues.
“There’s no time where the arm is able to rest,” Nicholas said. “We know that to maintain strength in ligaments and tendons, you have to rest them and stretch them so that they can improve.”
Brian Aviles, who owns the Bullpen 59 baseball facility in Nyack and now is the pitching coach at Bergen Catholic High School in New Jersey, said all of his pitchers are required to have 10 to 12 weeks of complete rest. Nicholas said he advises his patients, “If you’re going to pitch in one season, don’t pitch in the next.”
The increasing tendency of athletes choosing to focus on one sport has resulted in many pitchers overusing their arms and shoulders.
“Today, you have so much specialization and so much year-round training that the issue of repetition applies,” Suffern coach Ron Gamma said. “You have kids who choose not to play multiple sports, and (their arms and shoulders are) being used nonstop. There doesn’t seem to be a break.”
Bob Fletcher coaches both Kennedy Catholic and the 18-under Taconic Rangers, a summer club team that attracts college coaches. He thinks it’s important for pitchers to continue to throw beyond the high school season. But he also understands that these players are coming off a grueling two-month schedule and need to be monitored closely.
“Most of the time in the summer, they only throw two or three innings per week,” Fletcher said. “We go by pitch count, and they don’t throw more than 45 pitches, tops. The team is not about winning. It’s about having the boys showcased for the colleges.”
Robbie Aviles has learned a lot since joining the Indians’ organization. Time off is necessary, even for the pros: The Indians’ throwing program does not start until Jan. 1, which gives pitchers two to three months off.
But just because pitchers aren’t throwing in game situations, it doesn’t mean they can’t continue to strengthen their arms.
“You really have to train your arm to be able to throw that much. It’s like any other muscle in your body; you have to build it up,” Robbie Avilessaid. “I would say the shoulder program is the No. 1 thing that not many high school kids do that I think would be the most beneficial to them.”
Aviles said long tossing is a big part of building arm strength, as are lightweight shoulder exercises that build up the rotator cuff and scapular. Many doctors who specialize in pitching-related injuries advise patients to use The Thrower’s 10 Program, designed by renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews to improve power and endurance in the muscles needed for throwing.
“There are weight-training exercises, long toss exercise — things that don’t require you to do high-velocity pitching. The Thrower’s 10 Program prevents injuries,” Nicholas said. “They should also work on leg strength. It’s so important to link the lower body to the upper body.”
More than winning
Pitching injuries can occur without rhyme or reason, which means there is no foolproof way to prevent them. Pitching is often described as the most unnatural act in sports — a violent, repetitive motion that pushes the human body to its limits. Pitchers will continue to suffer arm and shoulder problems, but there is increasing knowledge about steps that can be taken to lower the rate of these injuries.
Pitch counts, innings limits, strengthening exercises and rest are all elements of what is still an inexact science, but all are critical to ensuring that more players don’t have their seasons ended prematurely.
“I think once you hit that 100 (pitch) number, you’re pushing the envelope,” said Fletcher, who coaches Jahn over the summer with the Taconic Rangers.
“I hate to sound square, but what are you winning? Listen, I want to win more than anything, but at the end of the day, it’s a baseball game. The last thing that you want to do is ruin a kid’s career.”
NOTE: I”ll be hosting a live chat on Monday night at 8. I’m sure this will add to the discussion…