KIMBERLY — Pitcher Braden Coronado sat in the dugout as the no-hitter he built vanished into center field.
The Kimberly High School senior threw five shutout innings against Snake River High’s baseball team March 18 without allowing a hit. Coronado needed six more outs to complete the no-hitter, but he never got the chance. Bulldogs coach Simon Olsen didn’t want to overextend his ace, who had thrown 89 pitches already.
Coronado wasn’t happy.
“I felt like I could’ve gone four more innings,” he said.
Kimberly wouldn’t earn one of the most revered accomplishments in baseball that day. With no outs in the seventh inning, Snake River’s Kolin Gardner hit a single off Coronado’s replacement, Lars Christiansen.
Later this season, it happened again: Coronado was pulled from a no-hitter after the sixth inning, and his replacement gave up a single. A major culprit in both early exits: Coronado’s pitch count.
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.
Idaho high school baseball has never needed so many arms.
Idaho’s new rules
Counting pitches and resting pitchers aren’t new developments in high school baseball. The key differences this year involve specific, mandatory parameters.
In July 2016, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) mandated pitch limits for states that sanction baseball. The Idaho High School Activities Association, which sanctions baseball for the regular season but not the state tournament, fell into that category, so it began to look at various states that already had pitch restrictions. In December, the IDHSAA finalized its current pitch limits, identical to the restrictions in Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii and Utah.
Idaho’s in-game pitch counts used to be limitless. Now, a pitcher cannot exceed 110 pitches — unless he reaches that number in the middle of an at-bat, in which case he’s allowed to finish the hitter.
A pitcher who totals 86 to 110 pitches in a game must rest three full days before he sees the mound in another game. A pitcher who throws 86 pitches on Monday, for example, must rest Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Players are required to rest two days if they throw 61 to 85 pitches in a game, and one day if they toss 36 to 60. Players can pitch the next day if they throw fewer than 36 pitches in a game.
Both teams in a given game are required to keep track of each pitcher’s total and post the counts to MaxPreps.com. The state board of control can discipline teams that provide incomplete pitch data; last week, it ruled that Coeur d’Alene High must forfeit an April game that featured a self-reported pitch count violation.
What’s the use?
Injury prevention is ultimately why the IDHSAA enforced pitch-count rules this year, and that’s why numerous Magic Valley baseball coaches and players are proponents.
Decades of research made this point clear: A baseball pitcher’s arm is more likely to get hurt the more he throws. And that’s true at every level. Elbow and shoulder injuries that require surgery or retirement occur in 5 percent of youth pitchers, according to a 2012 paper by Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Glenn Fleisig. More than half of Major League Baseball pitchers go on the disabled list in a given year, according to the 2016 book “The Arm.”
In an email, Andrews said fatigue is the No. 1 factor in pitcher arm injuries — both on a macro level (fatigue over seasons and years) and a micro level (fatigue in games).
“If a young thrower throws with fatigue, there is a 36 to 1 times (chance) an injury can occur to the throwing arm,” said Andrews, an Alabama orthopedic surgeon renowned for operating on the arms of injured pitchers.
For decades, innings pitched was the primary number MLB teams used to measure their pitchers’ workload. The 1989 book “The Diamond Appraised” focused on batters faced per game to measure pitcher overuse. In 1998, then-Baseball Prospectus writer Rany Jazayerli took it a step further with the Pitcher Abuse Point system. PAP attempted to quantify overuse via pitch counts, specifically when a pitcher was fatigued.
The MLB’s focus on pitch counts has sharpened this century. Detroit’s Justin Verlander led the league with an average of 107.9 pitches per game last season. In 2011, that number wouldn’t have ranked in the top five.
At the high school level, only one baseball-sanctioned state — Massachusetts — doesn’t have some kind of pitch maximum or required rest days. Before the NFHS pitch count mandate last summer, however, Massachusetts was not alone. Just ask Jake Nelson.
Nelson, a freshman pitcher for the College of Southern Idaho, in November tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm, his throwing arm. Four months later, he became yet another pitcher to undergo Tommy John surgery, which replaces the UCL with another tendon, either from the player’s body or from a cadaver.
The surgery was developed in 1974 by Dr. Frank Jobe, who first conducted it on Los Angeles lefty Tommy John. The surgery has experienced a steep incline the past 20 years among MLB arms, according to the Hardball Times. It’s even more common at the youth level. During 2007-11, 56.7 percent of all Tommy John surgeries were performed on 15- to 19-year-olds, according to the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.
In 2015, Nelson graduated from Utah’s Herriman High School. His home state didn’t institute pitch counts until this spring.
“Why didn’t they have that when I was there?” he said. “That would’ve saved my whole surgery.”
Nelson said he threw as many as about 125 pitches in a high school game, and he threw 100-plus every other week. He pitched on short rest, and he often remained in games with a tired arm.
“My hand would be shaking, and I was like, ‘Dude, I can’t pitch,’” he said. “I’d end up pitching.”
Nelson had it easy compared with some high school hurlers. Last year, an Illinois high school coach received national criticism for allowing right-hander Brady Huffman, an Illinois State recruit, to fire 167 pitches in a game. Former MLB star Kerry Wood — a poster child for promising young pitchers derailed by arm injuries — threw 175 pitches in a high school game, according to the Dallas Morning News.
Not every case of pitcher overuse is due to an overly competitive coach. Nelson, for instance, often volunteered to remain in games when he was fatigued.
“No one likes sitting out,” he said.
Nelson’s right arm blew out during CSI’s fall world series. He reared back to throw a fastball, but the ball bounced yards in front of the catcher. His arm, which had been sore for years, radiated pain from his pinkie to his elbow. He heard a pop. So did his coach.
“I’m screwed,” he thought.
Nelson’s arm was in a brace from February until early April. The scar on his right elbow looks like a zipper. He has been doing bicep curls with light resistance, and he just began to throw, although he won’t step on a mound for another nine months. He does 26 exercises six times a day.
Tommy John surgery saves 80 percent of pitching careers, according to “The Arm,” so Nelson’s long tunnel is well-lit. When he does return to the mound, he plans to treat his right arm with extra caution.
“If I feel pain, I’m gonna shut it down,” he said. “It’s just not worth it.”
Correct, or overcorrect?
No coach or player wants to see an arm injury, but some wonder whether Idaho’s new pitch limits are the best way to tackle the issue.
Even pitch counts’ supporters admit they are arbitrary. While the baseball-sanctioned states structure their limits and rest days similarly, the specific numbers vary.
Some states force players to take four days off from pitching after they tally a high pitch count during a game, while Idaho and others mandate only three days. The lower limits of these high counts range from 75 pitches to 106. Some states prohibit players from throwing more than 100 pitches, but the highest maximum is 125.
Jazayerli’s PAP system focused on 10-pitch ranges from 100 to 150 pitches. Those are easily digestible round numbers, but, as Jazayerli admitted, they bear little statistical significance. Four years after PAP was introduced, Jazayerli and colleague Keith Woolner made some adjustments to the system. Still, Woolner wrote, “it is difficult, if not impossible, with present record keeping and medical knowledge to ascertain where a particular pitcher’s threshold is.”
Today, 100 pitches qualifies as a lengthy start in an MLB game, but nobody knows how much is too much. The answer isn’t any clearer at the youth level.
“Is 110 the magic number? I don’t know. It could be right on, it could be five over, it could be five under,” said Ty Jones, the IDHSAA’s executive director. “The guy who knew the exact number would be a millionaire.”
As Andrews noted, fatigue isn’t limited to games or even seasons. The American Sports Medicine Institute — where Fleisig is research director — discovered that young baseball players who pitched competitively for eight-plus months a year were five times more likely to receive arm surgery, according to “The Arm.”
“It’s too much baseball,” said Olsen, Kimberly’s coach. “I’m of the mindset that kids need to play multiple sports.”
Burley High head coach Devin Kunz has firsthand experience with arm injuries. The lefty was a pitcher in the Texas Rangers’ farm system in the early 1990s. He tore his UCL in 1993 and received Tommy John surgery from Jobe. He didn’t pitch again.
Kunz has embraced pitch counts and decries sports specialization, but not because of his injury. Kunz didn’t pitch in high school, and he was an outfielder for his entire career at Brigham Young University. When he finally saw the mound as a senior, he came in from the outfield late in games. One hundred pitches wasn’t a consideration. Kunz started some games in the minor leagues, but he came out of the bullpen in 25 of the 34 games he appeared in.
Kunz wasn’t an outlier.
The bullpen isn’t always safer than the rotation, and MLB relievers visit the disabled list every year with arm and shoulder injuries. Relievers throw fewer pitches per game than starters but appear in more games, and they average higher pitch speeds than starters. In 2015, Hardball Times discovered that the third of MLB pitchers who averaged 93 mph on their fastball were almost twice as likely to reach the disabled list the next season as pitchers whose average fastball clocked in at less than 90 mph.
The only way for a pitcher to completely prevent an arm injury is to stop pitching. And yet, many pitchers manage to avoid the operating table. This was true before pitch counts, and it will be true going forward.
“Every arm is different, and genetics play a big role as to longevity of the throwing arm in baseball,” Andrews said.
Eric Miller, pitching coach at Minico High, had a career similar to Kunz’s. Miller pitched in the minor leagues in the 1990s, tore his UCL and underwent Tommy John surgery by Andrews. He also says in-game pitch counts are incomplete methods for tackling the arm injury issue.
Before the operation, Miller asked Andrews if there was anything he could have done to prevent the injury. The surgeon’s response: Every arm has so many throws in it.
“Maybe I was not meant to play pro baseball,” Miller said. “Maybe I was meant to go elk hunting. Maybe I was meant to marry my wife and have two awesome kids. God has a plan.”
Effects in Idaho
Idaho has some kinks to work out with its pitch-count rules, but teams are already feeling their impact.
Keeping track of pitches in games is simple but tedious, especially for schools that approached pitch counts in a lax manner before this year. Posting the counts to MaxPreps is another step that some busy coaches don’t enjoy.
Enforcement has experienced some growing pains, too. Last month, the Idaho Statesman reported that 35 percent of games involving Treasure Valley teams did not include complete pitch-count data. Even if that figure were zero, the pitch limits would not account for other areas of pitching like warm-ups, practices, Legion ball and fall ball.
Not even the state tournament is enforced. The IDHSAA sanctions baseball only in the regular season, Jones said, so teams are not required to follow the pitch-count rules at state.
Pitch limits affect small schools more than large schools. 4A and 5A programs have enough students and enough baseball players to build large stables of arms. 2A and many 3A programs don’t have that luxury, but they can no longer rely on two or three pitchers to get them through a season.
“Everybody who comes into a program, you’re a pitcher until you prove otherwise,” Declo High coach Doug Meyer said.
Aces like Coronado were used to pitching until they became too tired or too ineffective. This year, they are increasingly subjected to their least favorite sight: the head coach walking out of the dugout, approaching the mound and asking for the ball.
High school pitchers aren’t the only ones being pulled from no-hitters. Last April, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Ross Stripling was pulled from his major league debut after reaching 100 pitches, despite throwing 7 1/3 no-hit innings.
But for every Braden Coronado, there’s a Lars Christiansen.
Christiansen was disappointed when he couldn’t preserve Coronado’s no-hitter on March 18. But he wasn’t discouraged.
Christiansen hardly saw the mound last season as a sophomore. This year, the right-hander made eight appearances by April 25, including five starts. He likely would have pitched more this season even without pitch counts, but they’ve contributed to his increased workload.
“Pitching,” Christiansen said, “is my favorite thing.”
Christiansen was the starting pitcher against American Falls on April 17. Entering the seventh inning, he had allowed only one base runner and no hits. His pitch count hadn’t even reached 80. Efficient work.
Christiansen struck out the first two batters of the seventh, leaving him one out away from a feat Coronado never had the chance to accomplish. The third batter of the inning, Brandon Long, lined a single to right field on the first pitch.
“I’m a Cubs fan,” Christiansen said, “so I’m used to dealing with curses.”
Olsen didn’t visit the mound after that hit, and he stayed in the dugout after Christiansen allowed his second straight single. Christiansen’s pitch count was still no concern. Two batters after he lost the no-hitter, he forced a popout to end the game.
His final pitch count: 87. Two shy of the count that ended Coronado’s bid a month earlier.