Mike Cowell tore his elbow ligament back when he pitched for Shelton High School. The pain isn’t sharp, he said, but it’s persistent.
But what caused it?
“Certainly, I think there were some mechanical flaws that had to be fixed, and I think that still have to be fixed,” Cowell said. “When you look at the stress that you put on your arm when you throw a baseball, anybody’s elbow or shoulder is a ticking time bomb.”
The National Federation of High Schools is taking aim at overuse in an effort to save kids from arm injuries.
Last June, the organization called on each state to provide mandatory rest for pitchers based on how many pitches they threw in their last start.
Connecticut is following suit, and is trying to limit pitch counts.
Fred Balsamo is the director of the state baseball tournament for the CIAC -- the state's governing body of high school sports. He said the CIAC consulted doctors before making its ruling, and it has mandated a new rule for 2017: there’s no firm limit to the number of pitches that can be thrown -- but the more a pitcher throws, the more rest the rule requires.
“We’ve allowed the coaches to pitch their kids wisely and save arms as they need to, so that they have pitching throughout the course of the season, or in a short span,” Balsamo said.
But Dr. Keith Penney said there’s no magic number of pitches, and that learning to throw the right way can also help avoid surgery.
Penney is an orthopedic surgeon at Charlotte Hungerford Hospital in Torrington. He estimated that he does eight to 10 elbow ligament reconstruction surgeries -- also known as Tommy John surgeries -- per year.
He thinks the responsibility falls on parents and coaches.
“It’s still a very subjective thing, because they have to know their kids, really pay attention to mechanics and fatigue, and see signs that the kids are struggling, despite pitch counts,” Penney said.
Cowell, now a red-shirt freshman who pitches for Fordham University, underwent surgery on his elbow shortly after graduating in 2015. While he thinks pitching restrictions can help pitchers from being exposed to injury, he said that he rarely threw a high number of pitches when he was in high school.
“I went over 100 pitches one time,” Cowell said. “So, pitch count was never really an issue. Surgery or anything that happened to me was not a coach’s fault or being overused, it was just something that happened.”
In Vermont, the rules have been in place for 10 years, and are similar to Connecticut’s -- except a coach is not allowed to keep a player in for more than 120 pitches, unless the player is finishing an at-bat.
Patrick Greenan pitches for St. Johnsbury, a defending Vermont state champion.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to help the team win,” Greenan said. “I don’t really have any preference. I haven’t really even gotten up that high very often, so I haven’t had any issues with it.”
Penney, the Connecticut orthopedist, is the father of three teenage boys, including a pitcher. He said parents should use common sense. Form matters. But a couple hundred pitches in a week is just too much.
“Despite what the pitch count rules are, I think there is a limit that you have to adhere to, but you also have to know your individual athlete and I would be very hesitant to let them throw that much,” Penney said.
Connecticut’s pitching restrictions are in place under a one-year review. Coaches manually enter number of pitches per appearance into a computer after every game, which will help the state enforce the rule, and collect data that will help it either keep the rule or modify it.