Arms Control

Pitch counts help coaches avoid overworking their hurlers, but there’s more to keeping them healthy than numbers on a chart.

By Dennis Read

Dennis Read is an Associate Editor at Coaching Management.

Coaching Management, 12.7, September 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1207/armscontrol.htm

Baseball is a game of numbers. A few simple digits can instantly evoke a wave of emotions. Say “56” to baseball people, and they’ll see Joe DiMaggio in his streak. Mention “714” and the image is Babe Ruth in his home run trot.

But few numbers carry as much emotion as one that won’t be found in any record book: pitch counts. While some major league teams set firm limits for pitchers in the minors, other people reminisce about the way pitchers used to throw all day, and they cringe when they see a pitcher sent to the dugout for no other reason than his number got too high.

Pitch counts, however, are really nothing more than a tool, and ideally, only part of the usage equation. Worshipping one firm number for everyone will overtax some pitchers and under-work others. Most coaches have a bigger tool bag to keep their pitchers healthy and effective, one that also includes developing a full staff to spread out the pitching load and training them to handle more pitches.

“You don’t want to mess with good arms,” says Clark Jones, Head Coach at Elmhurst College. “They’re too hard to find.”

How Much Is Enough?
Pitch counts have a certain appeal because they’re concrete and straightforward. A strict limit makes the decision easy. Most coaches who use pitch counts, though, say the number is more effective as a guidepost, be it for an inning, a game, a week, or a season.

“The health performance equation from Little League to the big leagues is basically mechanics, usable or functional strength, and workloads or pitch totals,” says Tom House, former major league pitcher and pitching coach, and co-founder of the National Pitching Association. “A high school or college coach knows from looking at a pitcher if he’s got good mechanics and will have a read on the pitcher’s level of functional strength. Then you monitor how many pitches he throws per inning, per game, per week, and per season.”

Setting an exact pitch count is more an art than a science, but House offers some guidelines. “At the National Pitching Association, we have a conservative approach to pitch totals,” he says. “At the high school level, you can usually go 75 to 100, which is about the same as a college kid who has marginal strength and mechanics. When you get into the college and professional ranks where you know the kids are strong and they have reasonable mechanics, then you can start talking 105- to 120-pitch outings.”

House says that how a pitcher compiles his pitches is as important as the number. “The key is getting there at 15 to 20 pitches per inning,” he says. “A long inning, say 30 or 40 pitches, puts a kid in as much muscle failure as a 75-pitch game at 15 to 20 pitches per inning.”

Many coaches keep a short leash on pitchers early in the season, then raise their pitch counts as the year progresses. “On opening day, they can go 75 pitches or five innings, whichever comes first,” says Bill McDonald, Head Coach at Blue Valley West High School in Overland Park, Kan. “If you take a person early in the season and run him up to 135 or 140 pitches, he will never get back the arm strength that he should have late into the season.”

The right count for one pitcher may be far too high for another. Knowing what’s right comes from a combination of trial and error and knowing your athletes. “We have a guy who throws hard, yet the day after a game, he is hardly ever sore,” says Bret Warnack, Head Coach at Ryan High School in Denton, Tex. “Then we’ll have guys who throw 75 or 80 miles per hour, and the next day they can hardly pick up a ball. So you have to get to know your kids. Different kids will respond in different ways, and a lot of it has to do with mechanics.”

Once a number has been set, the question becomes what to do with it. One approach is to bring in relief once the pitcher hits the limit. But former major league pitcher Geoff Zahn sees the pitch count as less of a red light than a yellow.

“Over time, you begin to see the capacity of a pitcher and his arm,” says Zahn, Owner and President of the Master Pitching Institute and former Head Coach at the University of Michigan. “Then right around the time he begins to approach that pitch count, you’d better be watching closely and getting somebody loose in the bullpen.”

Zahn usually based his decision on what he saw on the mound rather than a number on a sheet of paper. “If they’ve pitched long enough that their mechanics begin to break down, you want to get them out of the game as soon as possible,” Zahn says. “And this is a little controversial, but I believe that if you have a pitcher with good mechanics and he recovers pretty quickly, I don’t think it’s wrong from time to time to let him throw some extra pitches.

“But the converse is true, too,” Zahn continues. “You may have a guy who is normally pretty sound, and then one day he’s all messed up. His normal threshold might be 100 pitches, but on that day it might be 50.” Once mechanics drop off, he says, it’s time to change, regardless of the pitch count.

Other coaches use a similar approach. “I look for arm speed,” McDonald says. “If his arm speed is still good, I’ll often let him stay in. In our last regular season game, my starter was throwing 84 in the first inning, and he was 84 to 86 in the sixth. His arm speed was still good, and his body motion was still fluid, so he finished with 121 pitches. But I could see he was as strong in the seventh as he was in the first.”

Jones also doesn’t mind if his pitchers occasionally stay on the mound past their planned pitch curfew. “If it’s an important game and the pitcher is feeling good and he’s still getting people out, I think it’s okay to leave him in there for a while,” Jones says. “But I also think you have to be very careful and check with him after each inning to see how he’s feeling.”

Don’t be fooled by a quick one-two-three inning. “It gives you confidence,” McDonald says. “But the pitcher may well be maxed out. So when I see a guy go bing, bing, bing in the fifth and he’s reached his pitch count, I send somebody to the bullpen to start getting ready.”

In this way, pitch counts serve as a backup device, warning a coach that his pitcher may be headed toward empty. Then he can look more closely at how the pitcher is getting hitters out instead of just that he is getting them out.

Other Signs
So what are the signs, beyond a rising pitch count, that it’s time for someone new? “The number one thing is how he feels,” Warnack says. “We’ll ask, ‘How do you feel? Are you getting tired?’ We also monitor velocity with a radar gun throughout the game. A drop in velocity is a big sign a kid is getting tired. The ball getting up in the zone is a pretty good indication as well.

“We also watch mechanics,” Warnack continues. “If the elbow starts getting down and he’s fighting and muscling the ball to the plate, that’s a pretty good indication that he’s getting fatigued and that you have to get him out of the game.”

Jones looks for more subtle signs of fatigue. “Sometimes you can look at their face and body language and see that they’re tiring,” he says. “They’ll start slowing down between pitches and laboring a little bit. You can also ask the catcher, ‘Is he hitting his spots? Is his ball moving? Is he losing velocity?’ Plus, you can see if they are falling behind in the count. If for four innings they got ahead of hitters, and the next two they’re consistently falling behind, it often means they’re tiring.”

It’s also important to look at the bigger picture when deciding whether to leave a pitcher in the game. While most coaches will, under the right conditions, let a pitcher exceed his pitch count from time to time, it’s not something you want to make a habit of.

“It’s okay for some pitchers to throw 130 or 140 pitches occasionally,” Jones says, “but the key thing is remembering that the next time he throws, you can’t run him out there for 130 or 140 pitches again because that’s going to catch up with him. So the next time he throws, it becomes critical to keep him at 100 pitches or less.

“Or say he throws 140 pitches on Saturday and the next game is on Wednesday,” Jones continues. “We may give him a few more days rest and not throw him on Wednesday.”

Zahn learned as a player the importance of recovery time. “I can still remember,” he says, “that when I pitched a complete game in high school, I would come home and struggle with the milk carton because my arm would be shaking. If you asked me to throw 200 pitches, I could do it. But don’t ask me to throw for three or four days after that. I was that way throughout my career.”

Plan For Recovery
Keeping pitchers healthy means more than simply pulling them from a game at the first sign of fatigue. By training them to be stronger, coaches can help their athletes throw more in each outing and become better pitchers. There is no one right way to train pitchers, however. What’s most important is developing a plan that players and coaches alike can follow.

McDonald writes detailed plans for pitchers for the season and preseason. “They get a sheet called ‘game day routine,’ and I also have a between-starts routine,” McDonald says. “In the preseason, every day from March 1 to March 27 is scripted, so they know all the drills and all the running they’re going to be doing each day.”

McDonald’s between-starts routine is based on his top pitchers getting one starting assignment a week. “The day after he pitches, he does not throw,” McDonald says. “He has long runs of up to two miles, sprint work, surgical tubing exercises, and a lot of sit ups. Day two is long-toss and surgical tubing exercises. Day three is short-toss, which will be no more than 90 feet, and drill work.

“I let him decide if he gets back on the mound again on day four or day five,” McDonald continues. “If he does go back on day four, I do not let him go over 28 pitches. But he will only go back on the mound one time before that next start, so if he pitches on day four, day five will be drill work and sprinting. Day six is just some short-toss, and then he pitches on day seven.”

Although the details of each coach’s plan may vary, a key component is allowing pitchers to recover between outings. “The process is you prepare, you compete, and then you repair and recover,” House says. “You have to pay attention to all three steps.

“For every one minute of ice, there should be two minutes of aerobic activity,” House continues. “So if a player ices his shoulder for 20 minutes, he is responsible for 40 minutes of aerobic activity. The aerobic activity circulates the blood to push out the lactic acid and the ice addresses the microtears from the trauma of throwing down from the mound. They need to at least get the heart rate and breathing rate up and sustained. There is about a three-hour window to get that done. He can ice on the bus home and when he gets back to the school, do some stationary bike, soft jog, brisk walk, or any other aerobic activity.”

Part of repair and recovery is rest. But resting does not mean relaxing. “I believe that pitchers should pick up a ball almost every day,” Zahn says. “We have drills where they’re not throwing very hard at all, but they’re keeping a feel for their pitches and mechanics.”

Jones concurs. “Pitchers nowadays baby themselves too much,” he says. “The second day after a start, we have our midweek bullpen day, but it usually isn’t going 100 percent at 60-feet six-inches. We throw 25 to 40 pitches, depending on the pitcher. But it could be 45 feet or 60 feet, throwing off a flat surface—whatever the pitcher feels comfortable with, usually at about 75 percent effort. It’s basically a practice day where they can work on changing speeds, on their grips, and on location.”

While this may seem to conflict with making sure pitchers don’t hurt themselves by pitching too much, House promotes a similar philosophy. “The NPA preaches that kids in today’s game pitch too much and they don’t throw enough,” House says. “When I was growing up, kids were always throwing something—tennis balls, rocks, whatever. We were throwing all the time. The only time that kids throw today is when they’re in a structured practice or game.”

The biggest difference between pitching and throwing is that pitching occurs on the mound while throwing is usually done on flat ground. “Maybe 80 percent of our work is done on flat ground,” House says, “because you can teach the mechanics of pitching with less stress than when you’re pitching from a mound. In some cases going down the mound can create four to six times the stress of throwing on flat ground.”

Coaches also use a variety of non-throwing ways to strengthen their pitchers, such as towel and surgical tubing drills or merely practicing the pitching motion. “We do a lot of drills where they simply put their bodies through every pitching position that they could possibly be in,” McDonald says. “That is the foundation of how to pitch.”

Strong-Arm Approach
Then there are the overall strength and fitness programs that some coaches rely on to keep their pitchers in shape throughout the season. “One of the important things is that you keep them in good cardiovascular shape,” Warnack says. “And when those innings start adding up toward the end of the year, that’s where the danger comes in, because they just keep getting weaker and weaker through the year. So we keep them doing rotator cuff exercises during the season and incorporate some other weightlifting and shoulder exercises, like seated rows, cleans, and even light dumbbell bench work throughout the season.”

Jones makes sure his players are prepared on the road as well as at home. “When we’re on the road, all of our players are instructed to either have a 2 1/2- or five-pound dumbbell or we tell them to get a tennis ball canister and fill it with sand or rocks and tape it up,” he says. “We also have stretch bands and towels, and our kids have a workout they’ll do each day when they come to the park with the stretch bands and tennis canisters as a pregame warmup.”

A classic spring training image is pitchers in the outfield jogging near the fences as the games go on. But in recent years, there’s been a shift from the longer, slower runs to shorter sprints.

“We’ve totally revamped our running for our pitchers,” Jones says. “We’ve taken all the long-distance work out of pitchers’ routines and now we’re doing sprint work. We’re trying to train fast-twitch muscle fibers because we want them to throw with more power. Pitching is a bunch of quick bursts—the pitcher catches the ball and throws it, then he rests, gets it back, and throws it again. I think your training regimen and conditioning have to be game-like.

“You can vary them from day to day, otherwise they get bored,” Jones continues. “One day, we may have them do pole-to-pole sprints. Then we’ll have them run 60-yard sprints and 30-yard sprints. Some other days we have our pitchers running 50 to 75 10-yard sprints. But it’s always quick bursts of speed. I swear that it’s helped our kids’ velocity and helped them stay healthy.”

McDonald follows a similar path, but has kept one distance session in the mix. “We run a lot, but we only have one day where we do distance work,” he says. “Distance work for the pitcher is of no benefit other than mentally making him tougher to grind through something. It’s the sprint work that is key for him to give him the explosion that he needs off of the mound. And we run before practice, so the running is done and they don’t have to worry about it afterward. They learn how to practice when they’re a little bit tired and it’s amazing how it doesn’t even faze them.”

Spread The Load
One way to avoid overusing your best pitchers is to develop a deeper staff. Breakdowns most often occur when a couple of pitchers are expected to carry the bulk of the load.

Jones seeks to have six players prepared to take a starting assignment. McDonald seeks four. “In my opinion you can’t win the state championships unless you have four kids who have pitched at least 20 innings,” McDonald says. “If you try to go with just two guys all the time, then you never have a guy for that third game.”

For Warnack, a deep staff also helps him find pitchers who’d otherwise go undiscovered. “We probably run 25 to 30 pitchers across the bullpen each day for our three teams,” he says. “Some may never take the mound in a game, but you might find one that by his junior year becomes pretty good at it.

“We actually had a kid like that three years ago,” Warnack continues. “He hardly pitched at all as a freshman or sophomore, but was the ace of our staff and MVP of our district his junior and senior years.”

But developing a deep staff or closely counting pitches won’t mean much unless a coach is willing to take a tired pitcher out, even at the risk of losing a game. “Taking a good pitcher out can be very difficult, especially if you don’t have a good reliever,” Zahn says. “There’s a tendency to stay with that good pitcher. But for me, I just decided that I wasn’t going to win a ballgame at the cost of a pitcher’s arm.”