Justis: Pitch count should be standard for young pitchers

Rule would help with growing overuse injuries

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Nancy Justis, correspondent

Editor’s note: Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and collegiate sports information director. She is a partner with Justis Creative Communications. 

The National Federation of State High School Associations has told its members to adopt a rule regulating the number of pitches a high school pitcher can throw in a game. Iowa is a member.

No prescribed number was mandated. Elliot Hopkins, the organization’s director of sports and student services, said it just wanted local associations to legislate a pitch count to go into effect in the spring of 2017.

The current pitching limitation rule of the Iowa High School Athletic Association states: “Sixteen innings will be the maximum total number of innings a pitcher may pitch in a given week (Sunday through Saturday).

“A pitcher may not pitch more than a total of nine innings in any one day or on two consecutive calendar days. The ninth inning must be followed by two calendar days of rest. A game started on one calendar day, but is not completed until the next day, and is not a suspended game is to be considered played on the original calendar date the game started.

“If a pitcher pitches on any two consecutive days with the combined total greater than four innings, must follow with two calendar days off for rest.”

Though a specific reason behind the mandate was not given, it surely has to do with an alarming surgery trend in youth sports and what is called overuse syndrome.

“Tommy John” surgery, or Ulnar Collateral Ligament Reconstruction, is far more common among youth athletes than previously believed, according to an analysis of an insurance database. It found teens 15 to 19 years old accounted for 56.7 percent of all UCLR surgeries. The surgery is increasing at nine percent a year, according to a recent sports medicine report.

“The research numbers suggest that more young athletes believe that having an UCLR procedure performed earlier in their career may lead to the big leagues or a scholarship, even though only one in 200 kids who play high school baseball will make it the MLB,” said Brandon Erickson of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. His comment was reported in a recent article on NJ.com.

In the same article, Dean Wang, the study’s lead author and a physician at California-Los Angeles, said, “Our results suggest that athletes injured before college might be left with a functional deficit that puts them at risk for future injury ... also may indicate that athletes may not go through enough rehabilitation before returning to play.”

Dr. Gregory P. Nicholson, sports medicine specialist of Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush, said in a local television interview overuse injuries occur when kids throw repeatedly which can lead to a repetitive stress injury. This occurs more often in young kids because “their skeleton is so young.”

His tips for parents include:

— Know the pitch count. In 2008, Little League instituted a pitch count and days of rest between pitch days.

— Don’t play year-round. Kids should take a break.

— No weight training on game days. Strengthen between game days.

Former MLB pitcher and Hall of Famer John Smoltz even has commented on the rise of youth injuries.

“I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there to understand that this is not normal to have a surgery at 14 and 15 years old,” Smoltz told The Huffington Post. “That you have time, that baseball is not a year-round sport. That you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports. Don’t let the institutions that are out there running before you guaranteeing scholarship dollars and signing bonuses that this is the way. ...

“So I want to encourage you, if nothing else, know your children’s passion and desire to play baseball is something that they can do without a competitive pitch. Every throw a kid makes today is a competitive pitch. They don’t go outside, they don’t have fun, they don’t throw enough — but they’re competing and maxing out too hard, too early and that’s why we’re having these problems. So please, take care of those great future arms.”

Local parent Darren Corson said he and his wife “shut (son) Brady down for three months every year. His arm has never had issues and he has been able to enjoy working out without having to concentrate on throwing a pitch. It seems to have worked out pretty well over the years.”

Brady was named a starting pitcher for the Iowa All-Star series last summer.

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