The Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association state baseball playoffs might feature more new strategies than in years past.
The changed approach is a result of new pitching regulations that were instituted by the National Federation of High Schools. In an attempt to lessen arm injuries among high schoolers, the NFHS decided to follow Pitch Smart, a set of guidelines put together by MLB and USA Baseball after years of research on safe pitching practices.
The old rules in Maryland were based on innings thrown. A pitcher used to be able to throw either 14 innings throughout a seven-day period, or 10 innings throughout a three-day period. Starting this year, innings aren't counted, but rather the total number of pitches thrown.
The rule changes are the most drastic Jason Woodward, director of the MPSSAA's baseball committee, has seen since he became involved with Maryland high school baseball in 1998.
"It's a big change, but it's definitely change for the good," Woodward said. "The rules help protect a pitcher's arm, and in this day and age, with all the research we have on arm injuries, care prevention, it's definitely a move in the right direction. Our coaches do a very good job of taking care of the pitchers, with rest in between outings and not overusing them. In other parts of the nation that wasn't happening, so the NFHS put the idea of following Pitch Smart in play."
After the NFHS decided to institute universal pitching limitations, the MPSSAA's state baseball committee, along with input from coaches, created guidelines that would be best for Maryland. The process ended with the MPSSAA having close to identical regulations to what Pitch Smart advises, only the MPSSAA decided to categorize a pitcher based on his academic year as opposed to his actual age.
Seniors and juniors must be taken out after the at-bat in which their pitch count reaches 105, while for sophomores and freshmen it's 95. If a pitcher is a senior, junior or sophomore, they must have four rest days before taking the mound again if their pitch count exceeds 76 pitches. For those three grades, if a pitcher throws 61 pitches, they must take three days off, and if they throw 46 pitches, a two-day rest period is required. At 31 pitches, a pitcher in those three grades must take a day off, while no days off are required for 30 pitches or less.
The rules have been positively received for the most part throughout Maryland, though they've definitely changed the way teams play.
To Catonsville's head coach Rich Hambor, the emphasis on getting quick outs, rather than overpowering opposing hitters, is something he's noticed.
"You need guys who pitch to contact, rather than a strikeout guy," Hambor said. "It's easier to get through a whole game with one pitcher that way. We had a pitcher throw a complete game, one run on 75 pitches with just three strikeouts. Had he been in the 10-12 strikeout range, we would've had to go to the bullpen, because his pitch count would have gone up more quickly."
The new rules have also affected the way teams approach hitting.
Patapsco's head coach Tony Maggard said he's been telling his players to be more patient at the plate, especially when the Patriots are facing an opponent's ace. If the team works long at-bats rather than quick ones, Patapsco's opponents will have to rely more on pitching depth.
"Be selective, instead of going up there to hack, let's take a few pitches," Maggard said. "If enough of our guys do that, the other pitcher will be out quicker. You need to have enough confidence in yourself as a hitter to produce with two strikes, which, I think down the road, will help them tremendously."
In addition to in-game strategy, the new rules have required coaches to be accountable.
Teams are in charge of keeping track of their pitches during games -- a third party, like an umpire, is not involved. Most teams delegate a student manager or assistant coach to keep track of not just their own pitcher's pitch count, but their opponent's as well. Both teams are also made aware of any player's pitching limitations because coaches exchange sheets that document any limitations for pitchers on their rosters before each contest.
Coaches have to value the health of their players more than winning. Woodward is happy the MPSSAA hasn't heard of any coaches trying to circumvent the rules or find a way to overwork a pitcher that's within the rules. It wouldn't be illegal for a senior or junior to throw 30 pitches three straight days before throwing 105 on the fourth, though it would be dangerous.
Hambor likes the new rules and thinks they help preserve pitchers' arms, but believes what's most important is having coaches who put their players' health first.
"Making it safer for the kids will always be on the coaches using good judgment and knowing their players," Hambor said. "If you're depending on just the rules, they won't work. The key is having sensible adults in charge."
Coaches are still figuring out how the changes affect the playoffs, which began May 11. Under the old rules, a pitcher could throw all seven innings in round one, and then throw three in round two. With these rules, a complete game effort by a team's ace in the first round likely meant he won't be available in the second round, two days later.
It's a problem Patterson Mill head coach Matt Roseland will have to confront. The Huskies' ace is Austin Koehn, a junior, who started for Patterson Mill in the 2016 MPSSAA 1A state championship. While Roseland said this might be the deepest pitching staff he's had in his 10 years at Patterson Mill, he admits how the team uses Koehn will be critical to how far the Huskies go this year.
"The key number will be 60. If he goes over 60, he isn't pitching in the next round, because it'll require three days' rest, so at that point it won't matter from a purely strategy perspective if he throws 61 or 105 pitches," Roseland said. "A lot of it will be in-game decisions, and, obviously, how our pitcher is feeling health-wise."
It should make the postseason even more fascinating than usual, as teams attempt to figure out the most effective way to use their pitching to get to Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Md., for the MPSSAA state championships.
Issue 233: May 2017