Does Matt Harvey Injury Show College Baseball Needs Pitch Count Rules?

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Does Matt Harvey Injury Show College Baseball Needs Pitch Count Rules?
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In the midst of all the talk about what the New York Mets could have done to protect Matt Harvey's arm, one topic that doesn't get enough coverage is the (ab)use of pitchers in high school and college. 

Harvey and the Mets are still in the process of waiting for his swelling in his elbow to go down before deciding what to do, but considering there is a partial tear of the UCL, Tommy John surgery seems a likely outcome. 

The Mets drafted Harvey out of North Carolina with the seventh overall pick in the 2010 draft. Using a little revisionist history, courtesy of D1 Ball Player on Twitter, we can see that head coach Mike Fox rode his ace hard in that final season. 

To put those pitch totals in perspective, the Mets have only allowed Harvey to throw 120 or more pitches once in 36 career starts. 

There are no rules or restrictions on high school or college pitchers about the number of pitches they can throw in a game.

A system is in place for the Little League World Series, where a pitcher age 11-12 can't throw more than 85 pitches in a game and can't pitch again for at least four days if that threshold is reached.

The older players get, the higher the pitch counts get. According to the official Little League Rule Book, between the ages of 17-18 a pitcher isn't allowed to throw more than 105 pitches. 

With no safety net to protect them—or hold them back, depending on the perspective—college coaches have taken the liberty of doing whatever they want as long as it helps their team win games. 

 

The Job of the College Coach

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

We already cited Harvey's pitch counts at North Carolina, but another, more recent example I want to use is North Carolina State left-hander Carlos Rodon. 

For those who don't know, Rodon is in line to be the No. 1 pick in next June's draft with a plus fastball and plus-plus slider already in his arsenal. 

N.C. State was in the College World Series this year for the first time since 1968. Rodon threw a 108-pitch complete game against North Carolina on June 16, but after losing to UCLA two days later the Wolfpack were one loss away from elimination. 

Head coach Elliott Avent, no doubt feeling the competitive juices and knowing that a great showing in Omaha can mean a lot for his career, started Rodon on three days rest. The lefty threw another 80 pitches in five innings. 

While that is hardly the most egregious sin ever committed by a college baseball coach against a star pitcher, it does help to further illustrate the issue at hand. 

A big part of this also depends on what you feel like the job of a college baseball coaching staff is when it comes to the players. 

Courtesy of Pastime Athletics

Personally, I am of the belief that college coaches are there to help develop the talent at their feet, especially if it is a player who has a future in Major League Baseball. I am not saying, however, that it is okay to overuse players if they aren't going to advance to the next level of baseball.  They are going to have lives too and shouldn't have to worry about physical problems either. 

But if you know that there is someone on your roster who has a chance to be a high draft pick worth millions of dollars, it is the job of a college staff to develop that player as best as possible. 

What we often see are college coaches who put together pitching staffs in an effort to win the most games because that will give them more job security. If you have a rare talent like Harvey or Rodon, you want to use it as often as possible because it gives you a better chance to win. 

But there is a mountain of difference between trying to win a game and deliberately putting a pitcher at risk for injury. 

 

How Injuries Usually Occur

Denis Poroy/Getty Images

It is important to note the way that pitchers usually break down.  Some pitch count totals you see are so insane that you wonder how a player's arm doesn't fall off. 

So what can lead to pitchers getting hurt?

Contrary to popular belief, the number of innings thrown—also known as the "Verducci Effect" (courtesy of Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci and his argument that "pitchers 25 and younger should not increase their year-to-year workload by more than 30 innings")—is not the big problem. 

If the NCAA could come up with a good solution, would you be in favor of pitch counts?

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Where the issues occur for pitchers are when fatigue and stress are evident but they are still on the mound.

For example, let's say that Harvey is pitching in a game where he has thrown 95 pitches but had to battle through four innings with the Mets winning 4-3. That's a lot of work for him and a clear sign that he doesn't have his best stuff. He should be pulled from the game to prevent him from adding extra wear and tear on his shoulder and elbow, but because the manager really wants to get Harvey the "Almighty Win" or doesn't trust the bullpen, Harvey is thrown back out there for the fifth inning to toss another 20-25 pitches. 

That is a ton of extra stress on the arm that could and should have been avoided, putting the pitcher at greater risk for arm problems down the line. 

As the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center website notes, overthrowing, which is what you will see when a pitcher is battling, is the main culprit behind pitcher injuries. 

The site also talks about athletes needing to mature physically, leading to constantly changing mechanics that college coaches should be more aware of because a different arm action can make it easier to break down. 

 

Protecting The People From Themselves

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Implementing a strict pitch count for college pitchers accomplishes two things. First, it saves the coaches from the constant scrutiny that comes along with treating these young men like their own personal playthings to do whatever they want with. 

A college coach is doing what it takes to impress his bosses in order to ensure he doesn't get fired this year or to be so successful that his performance warrants a long-term contract extension. 

Whether that is at the forefront of every coach's thinking or not, it is going to creep into the decision-making process along the way. They often don't have the player's best interest at heart because they have to win. 

The other thing it accomplishes is just saving the pitchers from themselves. No matter how old you are or what level you are playing at, athletes are competitive and will always want to stay in the game as long as possible. 

At some point, just as in professional baseball, it is on the coach to say that it is not smart for a pitcher to still be on the mound after throwing 130 high-stress pitches in a game. 

In that second game Rodon started on short rest, I have no doubt he wanted to be in that situation to help N.C. State win a game. But was it the best thing for his long-term future considering he just threw 108 pitches three days earlier? Probably not. 

 

What Is the Limit, and Will It Fix Things?

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Not even San Diego State's pitch limit for Stephen Strasburg prevented him from needing Tommy John surgery.

Even though we are dealing with pitchers of different ages, body types and physical maturity during the first 2-3 years in college, finding a common number to limit pitchers to should not be a problem. 

To me, I would say try to keep it somewhere close to 100-110 pitches. Since we are dealing with players aged 18-21, that seems like a solid number because it will give them a chance to develop their stuff if they have a future in Major League Baseball and work fairly deep into games on a regular basis. 

Would this change anything? Will more college pitchers like Harvey have a greater chance of avoiding serious elbow issues?

Honestly, at the risk of copping out, I don't know. 

Look at someone like Stephen Strasburg when he pitched at San Diego State. Tony Gwynn, who is the head coach of the Aztecs baseball team and coached the right-hander during his three years with the program, knew Strasburg was going to be a top pick in the 2009 draft and did everything to protect him. 

Even in college, Strasburg's mechanics were sound. Courtesy of Baseball Intellect

Gwynn was rightfully lauded for the way he handled Strasburg in 2009 by limiting his innings and pitch counts to make sure he was healthy and in peak condition when June came around, yet just one year after being drafted by Washington the flamethrower's elbow broke and he needed Tommy John surgery. 

Yes, there are many problems with pitch totals at the high school and college levels. But the act of pitching is just unnatural. 

Think about it: Starting pitchers are asked to throw a ball 100-plus times in a game as hard as they possibly can while also putting various degrees of torque on the elbow and shoulder to generate movement or change speeds to keep hitters off balance. 

Even a pitcher like Strasburg, whose mechanics were never an issue prior to the draft and in the minors, all of a sudden breaks just over one year later. 

 

The Last Word...

I am all in favor of getting pitch counts in high school and college baseball (I didn't really touch on high school pitch counts because they are harder to find, but they are also an issue. Dylan Bundy famously threw 181 pitches in 10 innings over two games in one day in high school.).

There comes a point where college coaches go from teaching their players about the craft that goes into pitching to borderline physical abuse when you start seeing 130, 140, or even 150 pitches thrown in a single game. 

The topic is coming up because we see young star pitchers like Harvey, Bundy and Strasburg go under the knife so early in their respective careers, making us wonder what happens at the amateur level. 

College baseball absolutely needs some kind of limit to protect everyone from the dangers that go along with throwing a baseball as hard as you can multiple times in a game. 

But are we really to believe that doing so would have altered the fate or Harvey, or Bundy, or Strasburg? No one can say with any certainty. 

 

If you want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me on Twitter with questions or comments. 

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