While his starting pitcher was making a run toward history earlier this month, manager Neil Herman found himself running back and forth in the Phoenixville dugout.
Constantly checking in with the pitch-counters, Herman strategically called the spots during Kevin Cushing’s perfect game against Pottstown, April 11.
The pitch count would have been among the last things on Herman’s mind a season ago. This season, though, it’s at the top of the list.
Last summer, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) adopted a revised pitching policy based on pitch count, replacing the old rule of an innings limit. Each state was required to establish its own guidelines with the PIAA setting a single-game limit of 100 pitches and no more than 200 pitches in a week and rest requirements. If a pitcher exceeds the century mark during the middle of an at-bat, he is able to finish out that batter, then must be replaced.
“He (Cushing) ended up with 91 pitches, meaning if he threw a couple more pitches each inning, he wouldn’t have been able to finish a perfect game,” said Herman. “I believe 100 pitches is too little of an amount for a starter.”
Pennsylvania’s 100-pitch rule is among the more strict in the nation, albeit narrowly. Arizona, Maryland, and Florida are the most strict with parameters based on age/grade (95 pitches for underclassmen, 105 for upperclassmen). Massachusetts and Connecticut do not limit pitches. The most common limit is 110, employed by 17 states, including New Jersey.
If a pitcher throws 1 to 25 pitches in a game, no rest is required. For 26 to 50 pitches, a pitcher requires one calendar day of rest. For 51 to 75 pitches, two calendar days are needed. A pitcher who throws 76 to 100 pitches is to be given three calendar days rest.
Under the old guidelines, pitchers couldn’t throw more than 14 innings in a week and no more than nine in a game. If a pitcher lasted more than four innings they were required two days of rest, while six or more innings called for three days of rest.
“There are strategies involved with all of this,” Perkiomen Valley coach Ryan Hinkle said. “It all creates a different part of the game that we have to manage now.”
The changes and their potential repercussions have created a new set of circumstances for area coaches to deal with over the first half of the season:
Going The Distance
To this point, there have been a combined 26 complete-games thrown by a starting pitcher in the Pioneer Athletic Conference this spring.
Last season there were only 24 complete-game efforts (prior to the addition of Norristown and Upper Merion).
Even during their PIAA Class AAAA (now 6A) title run last spring, Boyertown was the gold standard when it came to pitching. Utilizing the 1-2 punch of current senior and reigning All-Area Player of the Year Pat Hohlfeld and Andrew Bauer and boasting plenty of reinforcements out the bullpen, no Bear exceeded the 100-pitch mark all season.
Of the 26 complete-games thrown so far this spring, five have come in games shortened by the mercy rule. In other words, in an effort to preserve pitches, teams are looking to rack up the runs offensively and load onto the bus as quickly as possible.
That high number of complete games is also a testament to the number of quality starters in the league. Division I prospects are running rampant on the mound this spring including Spring-Ford’s Conor Larkin (Penn State), Jake Kelchner (St. John’s) and Ryne Moore (Old Dominion) as well as Perk Valley’s Brock Helverson (West Virginia). Along with Boyertown ace Hohlfeld (Philadelphia University), those five alone have accounted for eight complete game efforts so far.
On the surface, the rule changes seem to take aim on starting pitching. As it has played out, managing relief pitching may be the most challenging element of the new parameters.
“The part that I’m really not comfortable with is the 25 pitches,” Boyertown coach Todd Moyer said. “If you throw a guy in short relief, he can’t throw the next day. That’s hard when you get late in games.”
Poor weather early in the season has created plenty of four-game weeks, making rest restrictions an even greater factor. Of the 12 PAC teams, seven played four games in five days last week.
Among PAC teams, the most common number of pitchers in a game is two. The second-most is three, many times in an effort to keep the first relief pitcher from surpassing a pitch-count plateau. Only a combined 17 times this season has a team featured four or more pitchers in a game.
Enforcement of the new rules is a factor, too. If the home and away statisticians have a discrepancy at any point, the team is to then go with the home team’s count, under PIAA rules.
That doesn’t exactly sit well with most coaches, including Hinkle.
“The big question mark becomes enforcement of the rule,” Hinkle said. “What I felt should have happened was, if the PIAA truly wants to enforce this and have it be mandatory, send out a third umpire whose job is strictly the pitch-counter. It’s his job to count and report it.”
According to the PIAA’s original outline, pitch counts were to be entered and recorded on MaxPreps.com for every team, every game. Compliance is far from universal based on current MaxPreps statistics.
Multiple requests seeking comment from the PIAA on the compliance of the new rules went unreturned.
Down to Size
By the numbers, larger schools will feel less of the brunt than a smaller school with presumably a smaller pitching pool.
Perkiomen Valley, for instance, competes in Class 6A and features a solid 1-2 punch of starting pitchers Helverson (2.00 ERA in 21 innings) and Tyler Strechay (0.94 in 22-1/3 innings) with an arsenal of arms out of the bullpen.
Perk Valley exceeded the 100-pitch plateau once last season — Helverson stretching it to 103 during a game against Upper Perkiomen.
After running into trouble during his first two starts (both PV wins), Helverson has toyed with triple digits twice – he needed 101 pitches during a complete-game shutout against Spring-Ford, then followed that up with a 95-pitch complete-game win against Phoenixville.
Vikings coach Hinkle doesn’t feel coaches should give more power to the rule than necessary.
“A good coach knows when to take a pitcher out — whether there’s a pitch-count or not,” said Hinkle.
Depth and numbers have hardly been an issue for North Penn, among the area’s schools with the largest enrollment competing in Class 6A. Head coach Kevin Manero explains that the biggest challenge for the Knights’ pitchers will be learning to undertake a new role on the mound.
“Especially later in the week, other pitchers who may not normally find themselves in big spots may be forced to come in and get one or two outs, and they have no choice but to be ready in that big spot,” he said. “I think it forces kids to learn how to pitch economically and obviously it is a good move in terms of ensuring the health of our young pitchers.”
So far on the year, North Penn sits at atop the Suburban One League at 4-2 in Continental Division (10-2 overall).
* * *
Conversely, as a means to try to keep the rotation stocked with enough arms, smaller programs have been forced to pluck members of their pitching staffs off the junior-varsity programs where they’d likely gain more valuable experience.
“Teams are forced to carry an extra pitcher or two,” said Pottsgrove head coach Jamie Nash. “These extra two pitchers realistically are going to have limited innings on varsity, when they could be down on JV developing and receiving more innings. In the long run (it) hurts them.”
Nash and the Falcons, who are in Class 4A but go up against Class 6A schools such as defending PIAA champion Boyertown and Spring-Ford, found themselves in a bind during the very first game of the season.
Clinging to a two-run lead against neighboring rival Pottstown after six innings, starter Alex Stump was pulled from the game in the middle of a two-hitter sitting at 96 pitches. Pottstown rallied for three runs in the bottom of the seventh off the Pottsgrove reliever to claim the win.
In years past, Pottsgrove would have wheeled out Stump for that final inning without hesitation. Under the new guidelines, though, the Falcons were handcuffed.
“We were playing the next day, so (I) wanted to hold on to my No. 2 pitcher in fear he would exceed 25 pitches,” said Nash.
Pottsgrove is 3-9 in the PAC and 3-11 overall. Fellow 4A PAC school Pottstown is 3-10 (3-12). Under longtime coach Jeff Evans, who was critical of the rule change due to the effectiveness of the previous system, the Trojans have given up 10 or more runs in eight games so far this season (all losses), including a run of six straight. During all eight of those games, Pottstown featured more than two pitchers only once — a testament to their effort in preserving arms.
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One 4A team that hasn’t had any pitch-count ill effects is Pope John Paul II.
The Golden Panthers, peppered with suitable pitchers, started the year 10-0 and currently sit at 11-2 (12-2 overall), well ahead of 7-6 Phoenixville in the Frontier Division standings.
“We’ve been able to rely on our pitching staff all season long,” said head coach Josh Hartline. “We’ve got a strong starting rotation and guys waiting in the bullpen.”
Logan Mabry, a five-game winner, has been a key piece. The junior right-hander has hit the limit once, during a 3-0 win over Spring-Ford where he threw 101 pitches across six innings.
Combined, the team boasts an impressive 1.55 earned-run average mixing in an effective blend of starters and relievers. For the season, the team has been a model of consistency. Despite having the arms, PJP has only needed to turn to a second reliever three times — all three of which were wins against PAC Frontier Division opponents.
In light of the rule change, Methacton manager Paul Spiewak and the Warriors have brought with them a new approach at the plate, especially in the early stages of a game. That means working the counts, fouling off pitches and taking a step back in aggression.
He explains that the goal is to see the reliever loosening up in the bullpen as early as the first inning.
“Our goal is to work as hard as we can offensively to get to the second pitcher as early in the game as possible,” Spiewak said.
On the flip side, the rule change has eliminated a part of the Warriors’ game that has been key the past few seasons.
“Bunting early in the game typically gives the opposing team an out on one pitch and could halt a big inning,” he said. “Therefore, we have been more hesitant to do so early in games.”
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Evans summed it up pretty well, calling it ‘just another challenge.’
“For what it is, you’ve got to make the best of it,” he said. “You’ve got to find ways to train your guys and have enough pitching.
“Every team is dealing with it, so it’s just another challenge.”
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