IHSA pitch count debate heats up with summer temperatures

The baseball community in Illinois is serious. Here in Will County we have been pumping up the volume on the area’s dominance in the IHSA tournaments. Two of this year’s four IHSA State Champions were Will County teams. Reed-Custer won the 2A State Championship and Providence won their historic third consecutive 4A State Championship. When you consider that the 3A State Champion was nearby Lemont it’s pretty obvious that the quality of baseball in the South Suburbs is over the top.

Illinois consistently ranks among the top five states in the country for baseball talent. This is despite the horrible weather that players and coaches have to overcome during the nightmarish months of March, April, and usually early May. So, Illinois doesn’t have to back down from anyone in terms of baseball quality.

Lincoln-Way North's James Nebelski pitches against Thornwood.
Lincoln-Way North’s James Nebelski pitches against Thornwood.

However, amidst all this success, there has been a low rumbling of concern that has reached a crescendo. Too many kids are experiencing devastating arm injuries. The name “Tommy John” is echoing across the cornfields, over the Suburban sports complexes, and into city parks. Everyone – from parents to coaches to players – is starting to join the chorus. What is going on?

The IHSA is now considering a pitch count limit for coaches and players. Most people reflexively agree that, yes, this a good idea. But, just like any radical change in civic legislation, a pitch count rule raises a host of issues for Illinois baseball people. Coaches want to know how a rule like this should be imposed. What is the ideal number? Who is going to enforce the pitch count? How will this affect umpires? And ultimately, for high school coaches, there is acute frustration due to the negative publicity they continually experience.

There is a terrible irony for high school coaches. They are taking the heat for the epidemic of arm injuries kids are suffering. However, they have serious limitations on their influence – not only as coaches, but as educators. The reality is that parents and players want maximum exposure; and most of this exposure takes place outside the calendar of high school baseball. It only makes sense that college coaches and scouts will have maximum access to high school players in the summer months.

March 31, 2016: Lincoln-Way West's Connor Lowman pitches during the game hosted at Providence.
March 31, 2016: Lincoln-Way West’s Connor Lowman pitches against Providence.

College coaches have their own spring schedules. Professional scouts have the most ideal situations to see young players in summer tournaments when they are competing at the highest level of travel team baseball. College and pro scouts can see up to a dozen players in one game; and can track their performance over a weekend of tournament games.

Who cares about the high school coach anymore? Too many times college coaches and pro scouts simply bypass the educational process and go directly to the source – the parents and the players involved in elite travel baseball. Now, this is not to diminish or demean the intentions of travel baseball teams and their coaches. They are raising concerns as well. And their contributions to the Illinois baseball community are significant and necessary, especially at this critical juncture.

Like so many hot button issues there is plenty of space in between strongly held opinions. After talking with many coaches and parents, two surgeons, and an experienced trainer WillCountyBaseball.org has come to only one conclusion: Education is the key to establishing a rule, or rules that will benefit the young players who are so vulnerable. The reality is that everyone is concerned. The question becomes: what should we do?

The IHSA is going to convene in late August to debate the issue of pitch count limits. There is plenty of time before that date to engage in healthy conversation about the issues that can and will surround any pitch count legislation by the IHSA. The purpose here is to present information and educated opinions for parents, players, and coaches.

 Lincoln-Way Central's Trevor Newton pitches against Lincoln-Way North.
Lincoln-Way Central’s Trevor Newton pitches against Lincoln-Way North.
Andrew's Jake Ruppert pitches during the game against Lincoln-Way West.
Andrew’s Jake Ruppert pitches against Lincoln-Way West.

WillCountyBaseball.org spoke to the man leading the conversation in Illinois – Dr. Preston Wolin who sits on the IHSA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. Head Coach at Palatine and President of the Illinois High School Coaches Association Paul Belo contributed his invaluable experience to the discussion. Dr. Edward Joy, from Integrity Orthopedics in Tinley Park, offered his expertise on how parents of players at very young ages can become more aware about how to prevent arm injuries. And Joe Cunnane, who is Head Athletic Trainer at Lockport High School, lent his 25 years of experience to the conversation.

USA Baseball Pitch Smart Guidelines

Conversations with each of these contributors is available in audio format at the end of each section of this article.

Part I – Before High School

Everyone involved with baseball understands the opportunities that baseball can provide for young people. The obvious benefits of the youth baseball experience are exposure to team environments, lifelong memories and relationships, and a contribution to community that is as old as the game itself.

But along with these altruistic experiences there often emerges unrealistic expectations for future prospects of young players. There is an exploding industry of personal instruction, travel clubs, and recruiting agencies that can be constructive or detrimental. Beyond the profit motive there is a tremendous lack of perspective from parents and players on the realities of the baseball experience beyond high school. This starts at the earliest levels of youth baseball.

There is a growing consensus that specialization at too young an age is flat out dangerous. The health of a young player’s arm can be put into jeopardy long before that last slider in a high school game leads directly to a doctor’s office.

Dr. Edward Joy is a surgeon at Integrity Orthopedics in Tinley Park. He was kind enough to share his opinions on the dangers that very young players can experience; and he explains the science behind the concerns of an institutional paradigm shift that would accompany a rule like the IHSA pitch count proposal.

Dr. Edward Joy:

Part II – The High School Experience

Lincoln-Way North's Jake McLaughlin pitches against Lincoln-Way Central.
Lincoln-Way North’s Jake McLaughlin pitches against Lincoln-Way Central.

As mentioned above high school coaches are often placed in impossible situations. First, they are held responsible by school districts and institutions for a host of issues that have been taken out of their hands. When a high school player suffers an injury parents and players demand to know how an individual coach handled the situation.

These coaches are the faces of their programs, athletic departments, and schools. Anyone can find their email addresses and often their phone numbers. They are ultimately accountable; and they accept that responsibility as part of their jobs as educators. On the other hand they have serious limitations on how they can train their players in the offseason. And when college coaches or pro scouts show interest in one of their players these coaches are often the last resource of information that are consulted. The summer travel teams have overtaken the influence of high school coaches. But, during the summer, there is often a Wild, Wild West approach to post high school exposure and performance.

In other words the rush for exposure can trump many other factors in a young player’s life. Consideration for grades, behavior, and overall attitude can be side issues. Yet, if any of these things trigger red flags it’s the high school coaches who are held accountable.

Paul Belo, President of the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association, talks about these concerns and how a pitch count limit could pose another host of impossible issues for high school coaches. The IHSBCA is currently opposed to a pitch count rule. Belo would like to know how injury data specific to Illinois is being applied. Currently, he argues, the injury data that is driving the pitch count debate is centered around activity in warm weather states where year round play is common. He also has concerns about application and enforcement of a pitch count rule.

Paul Belo:

Joe Cunnane has been the Head Athletic Trainer at Lockport High School for the last 22 years. He has worked with Northwestern Memorial Hospital and a host of other leaders in the Athletic Training community. Cunnane talked about the warning signs for pitchers and how he works with Lockport’s Head Coach Andy Satunas during games to recognize when a pitcher is done for the day, and when they have to seek professional medical advice. He also emphasizes the dangers that showcases in the offseason months can pose to young pitchers.

Joe Cunnane:

Part III – The Pitch Count Rule, its Genesis and Ultimate Purpose

WillCountyBaseball.org spoke with Dr. Preston Wolin about the evolution of the pitch count rule being considered by the IHSA. Dr. Wolin is a member of the IHSA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, and a very important figure in the development of the pitch count proposal. Dr. Wolin talks about the ongoing discussions, his personal and professional opinions about the health of young players, and how a pitch count rule can be just the start of a positive movement for Illinois baseball.

Dr. Wolin, like the other contributors to this article, thinks that a pitch count limit is the beginning of a dialogue, and a golden opportunity to educate parents and players. He acknowledges the difficulties that will naturally accompany such a radical change for players and coaches. However, he thinks that a pitch count rule makes things easier for coaches. A rule is a rule and that takes a difficult choice out of the equation. When a kid hits the limit the coach has to come out of the dugout. No more hand wringing. When a pitcher throws the limit his day is over.

Dr. Preston Wolin:

After a glorious high school baseball season filled with many interviews and countless inside baseball conversations two main points of emphasis have emerged regarding the health of young pitchers. First, there has to be improved communication between high school coaches and their summer/travel team counterparts. Secondly, virtually all of the people that have offered their informed opinions have strongly suggested a multi-sport experience for young baseball players to avoid repetitive injuries and burnout.

Dr. Joy and Dr. Wolin have suggested this shortlist of links that provide a wealth of information for parents, players, and coaches. Please feel free to contact WillCountyBaseball.org at info@WillCountyBaseball.org with any questions about this article or potential contacts for more information.

Tinley Park's Zack Tuuk pitches against Andrew,
Tinley Park’s Zack Tuuk pitches against Andrew,

WillCountyBaseball.org spent April and May interviewing Will County coaches about their baseball programs. We strongly encourage that parents and players read this page devoted to excerpts from these interviews. What you will find is a group of people dedicated to providing the very best opportunity for their players – especially as students. These people are educators first.

Excerpts from interviews with Will County baseball coaches.

USA Baseball Pitch Smart Guidelines

Pitch Limits for High School Pitchers by State

Baseball Injuries | Baseball Injury Prevention & Treatment

American Sports Medicine Institute | Research

*All photography courtesy of PJBPhotos.com.

You can find him on Twitter @pjbphotos.

 

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