TWIN FALLS — In Idaho’s first season with high school baseball pitch counts, one of the state’s best pitchers hurt his throwing arm.
In early July, Skylar Holcomb was throwing for the Twin Falls Cowboys American Legion baseball team. There was no flash point, just a slow buildup of pain over a few days.
Holcomb later learned he had a bone spur in his left elbow. He didn’t pitch the rest of the summer.
Holcomb suspects the injury was caused, or at least aided, by too much pitching — a problem Idaho’s new pitch count rules aimed to minimize. The health effects of pitch limits won’t be clear for years, but the new rules have already altered several aspects of Idaho prep baseball.
“I’m personally not a fan of the pitch count,” Holcomb said. “I get why it was put in there, but players should be able to take care of their bodies.”
The Idaho High School Activities Association never expected pitch counts to eliminate all pitcher arm injuries, especially not in the first season. The in-game pitch limits and the mandatory rest days were chosen thoughtfully, yet arbitrarily. Nobody at any level of baseball knows how much is too much.
This year, Idaho joined 45 other states with mandatory pitch limits for high school baseball. It's too soon to know whether Idaho's restrictions will accomplish the long-term goal of reducing the rash of pitcher arm injuries. But they already have squashed no-hitters and revamped pitching rotations.
The in-game pitch counts and the mandatory rest days, to some extent, attack only a small issue. Pitcher overuse can occur in one game, in one week, in one season and in a career. Limiting pitches per game hardly helps a pitcher who is throwing year-round.
Holcomb was Twin Falls’ ace during the high school and Legion seasons, and he’ll continue his pitching career at College of Southern Idaho this year. He pitched steadily for nearly six months, with a mix of seven-inning starts, bullpen sessions and countless warm-up throws. He couldn’t exceed 110 pitches in a game, but he still torqued his left arm repeatedly for half a year.
“The biggest thing guys can do is limit throws off the mound,” CSI pitching coach Nick Aiello said. “Every pitch you throw off the mound takes away from the day.”
Holcomb wasn’t the only local player to suffer an arm injury this summer.
Kimberly High School junior Austin Phillips strained his right shoulder while playing catch before a game in June, and he missed the rest of the Legion season. Senior and fellow right-hander Lars Christiansen also strained his shoulder in June, after he threw a weighted ball in an attempt to gain arm strength. He missed most of the season.
Kimberly played at this spring’s 3A state tournament, which left about a week of down time before the Legion season began.
“Maybe a break would’ve helped, but I don’t really know,” Phillips said. “I felt fine, and then I got hurt.”
Pitch counts and rest days can’t eliminate all risk, but they can help save a pitcher from himself.
Shortly after Holcomb’s injury, an ultrasound of his left elbow showed a tendon appeared to have a slight tear, which would have ended his Legion season and potentially required surgery.
Holcomb’s fears were quelled a week later, when an MRI revealed the bone spur. He didn’t pitch the final three weeks of the season, but he did hit and play the outfield during the state tournament.
Holcomb still wishes he could have pitched those last three weeks. He wonders how he could have prevented the injury.
Pitch counts never factored into the equation.
“A coach should be able to see when a player isn’t able to throw strikes,” he said. “You can just see the fatigue. If there’s not the sharpness on his fastball or the break on his curveball, it’s time to come out.”
Holcomb also wants to stay in the game as long as possible. He believes he can finish just about any game, no matter his pitch count.
“Even if I can’t feel my arm, I’m gonna finish it,” he said.
A pitcher’s competitiveness rarely accounts for his health. Pitch counts help ease that tension. Feel like you can throw 150 pitches? Too bad; 110 is all you get. End of discussion.
This system prevents arguments between coaches and stubborn pitchers, and coaches do not need to look for small hints of pitcher fatigue as much as they once did.
That doesn’t mean every coach loves the new rules.
Twin Falls Bruins and Cowboys coach Tim Stadelmeir has a specific issues with the mandatory rest days in Legion ball. In high school, a pitcher who throws 86 to 110 pitches in a game must rest three full days before seeing the mound again. In Legion, any player who exceeds 76 pitches in a game must rest four days.
“It’s gonna ruin American Legion baseball,” Stadelmeir said. “I think it’s good to develop more pitchers, but it’s making for some long doubleheaders and making for some kids who are not pitchers.”
The expanded pool of pitchers this past season can be directly tied to pitch counts, and at least one player has changed the way he pitches because of them.
Before this year, when Christiansen had more strikes than balls in an at-bat, he sometimes threw pitches outside the strike zone, hoping to induce bad swings. This year, he knew exactly where his pitch count stood late in games, and he pitched accordingly.
“I like to play with the batter,” Christiansen said. “But when I have to get a certain amount of pitches, I go right after him.”
Christiansen doesn’t think this change is negative, necessarily, just different. For the most part, coaches are happy to develop more pitchers. And every coach and player approves of the pitch counts’ overall goal: to prevent injuries.
Some, however, are skeptical about the counts’ ability to reduce injuries. Until aces like Holcomb stop injuring their arms, coaches like Boomer Walker will be on edge.
“We want our kids to play. When they play, there’s always a risk of injury,” said Walker, head baseball coach at CSI. “You’re just not gonna avoid all injuries.”