Sarra: Pitch-count would eliminate arm stress guess-work
Pat Stepnoski pitched four of Mercy's first six games this season. It's certainly unusual for a high school pitcher to throw 27 innings in a 14-day span.
But most disturbing is senior righthander Stepnoski's final game in that sequence, an eight-inning, 176-pitch outing in a losing effort.
The news of Stepnoski's obscene pitch count reverberated throughout Long Island and fired up the debate of whether Long Island high schools should use a pitch-count rule.
Pitch counts have become such a hot topic that the Public Schools Athletic League of New York City went to a pitch count two years ago to eliminate the abuse of young arms.
The National Junior Baseball League of Long Island incorporated a pitch-count rule, similar to that of Little League baseball, in 2007. The decision to limit pitches was due to an outpouring of concern about the overuse of pitchers.
"We implemented a very successful system and everyone understands the philosophy behind the rule," said Frank Sullivan, NJBL's commissioner for 13 years. "Most people understand why we went to the pitch-count rule and it's been great. We felt as an organization that we needed to help protect young pitchers and educate managers about the care of their players."
NJBL rules break down the number of pitches per game that can be thrown by players ages 8 through 14 and designate a certain amount of rest for the pitcher depending on the number of pitches thrown.
An example: In the 13- and 14-year-old divisions, a pitcher throwing 1-20 pitches doesn't need rest before throwing again; 21-40 pitches requires one day of rest; 41-60 requires two days; and 61-90 requires three days. The high school division does not have a pitch-count rule.
"No one has ever complained about the rule," Sullivan said. "We're very strict about it and after each inning a coach from each team, designated to keep track, goes over it."
A dozen high school coaches criticized a pitch-count rule in an informal survey. None would be in favor of it and every coach expressed his desire to be the one responsible for the pitcher's well being.
"As far as I know we all have pitch counts and it always depends on your pitcher and the last time he threw," said longtime Lindenhurst coach Mike Canobbio, who has guided the Bulldogs to 508 wins in 36 years. "And every pitcher is different. The real problem in high school is when your pitchers are also position players. A pitcher/shortstop is throwing all the time and you have to try and measure his ability to throw every time you take the field."
All coaches interviewed agreed that it's hard to put a specific number on a pitch count. But a cloud looms over the sport locally because of a steady increase in Tommy John elbow surgery for young pitchers due to overuse.
There are eight varsity pitchers who have had the surgery this spring and all are out for the 2012 season.
"There are a ton of variables," said Jon Zaturn, the manager of the PAL Rangers, who has coached high schoolers for 31 years. "It has to do with physical maturity, the weather and time of year and arm speed. We go with 70 [pitches maximum] in the cooler spring-type weather and 95 in warmer summer-type weather."
Holy Trinity coach Bob Malandro keeps ace Alex Robinson to a 90-pitch count and Ward Melville coach Lou Petrucci has ace Anthony Kay on an 85-pitch count.
Petrucci said there are warning signs when a pitcher is tired. And it could be at the 60th pitch or the 80th pitch but he never allows his guys to go more than 90 in a game.
"A responsible coach will take into account every aspect of each of his individual pitchers," Petrucci said. "The harder-throwing, higher-velocity type guys with tremendous arm speed are more likely to put more stress on the arm and need to be restricted in pitch counts. The softer-throwing pitchers with slower arm speeds are less likely to have issues with high pitch counts. Know your pitchers."
After Stepnoski's 176-pitch effort, his father Angelo Stepnoski spoke with Mercy head coach Ed Meier.
"We talked and he knew it was wrong and told me my son didn't want to come out of the game," Stepnoski said. "The total number of pitches was unacceptable. But my son is very competitive and talked the coach out of taking him out."
A formal pitch count would have resolved that issue.