Little League Baseball has been correctly lauded for being the first youth baseball league to institute pitch-count limits for young pitchers. The history is as follows: until 2005, Little League pitchers could pitch six innings in a calendar week (Sunday to Saturday), regardless of the number of pitches thrown by a young pitcher. While that was still the rule in 2005 and 2006, Little League started a “pilot” pitch-count program in which 50 leagues in 2005 and about 500 leagues in 2006 instituted Little League’s pitch-count limitations (varying depending on age) to see if this would be something that all Little Leagues should follow. In 2006, Little League, with much fanfare, announced that, beginning with the 2007 season, all leagues would now follow a mandatory pitch-count rule.
Little League had consulted with world-famous youth arm expert Dr. James Andrews and his second in command, Dr Glen Fleisig, prior to instituting the pilot program in 2005. Drs. Andrews and Fleisig recommended that pitchers in the 11-12-year-old range (i.e., those who pitch in the televised Little League World Series in August) throw no more than 75 pitches per game and no more than 100 pitches per week. Little League took these recommendations and decided that 11-12-year-old pitchers, in the pilot program of 2005 and 2006, could pitch up to 85 pitches per game (10 pitches per game higher than the doctors’ recommendations) and then would need four days of rest before pitching again. No weekly limit was set.
BUT A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO PROTECTING THE ARMS OF YOUNG PTCHERS.
When Little League announced that the pitch count rule would be mandatory starting in 2007, THEY CHANGED THE DAYS OF REST IN THE REGULAR SEASON FROM FOUR DAYS TO THREE WITHOUT MENTIONING IT IN THEIR PRESS RELEASE AND WITHOUT CONSULTING THEIR OWN DOCTORS.
This had far-reaching effects that even Little League didn’t quite understand. For example, little leagues often will play Monday-Friday, Tuesday-Saturday, Wednesday- Sunday, etc. With the reduction in days of rest (from four to three), this would mean that, in 2007, your top pitcher could pitch TWICE in a calendar week (up to 85 pitches, 170 in five days), something that was impossible under the old six-inning rule (if you pitched more than three innings in one game) and well-above the doctors’ recommendation of 100 pitches per week.
If you were involved in any little league, it wasn’t hard to imagine that managers in the Little League Majors (11-12-year-old players) would eagerly pitch their “star” pitcher twice in a week. This certainly hurt the notion that Little League would develop lots of new pitchers, one of the goals of the new rule.
BUT IT WAS MUCH WORSE FOR THE LITTLE LEAGUE ALL-STAR TOURNAMENT THAT CULMINATES IN WILLIAMSPORT, PA.
Inexplicably, and against anything remotely resembling their doctors’ recommendations of 75 pitches per game and 100 per week, Little League lowered the days of rest from THREE in the regular season to TWO in the Williamsport tourney. Understand what that means: an 11- or 12-year-old pitcher could now throw up to 255 pitches in SEVEN DAYS (compared with the doctors’ recommendation of 100 pitches in seven days).
Despite a Little League official stating that Little League consulted with the doctors before instituting the change from four days of rest to three days, Dr. Fleisig specifically told this writer that Little League never consulted either doctor before instituting the change. And even Little League officials don’t claim that they consulted the doctors when instituting the “two-day rest, 255 pitches in a week” rule for the tournament.
What does Little League say about the change from four days of rest to three? In a Little League “online chat” on October 18, 2006 with Nick Caringi, Little League Baseball and Softball director of operations (still posted at littleleague.org), the following question was asked and answered:
Randy, a local Little League vice-president and manager in Oceanside, Calif., asks:
“Is the pitch count regulation for 2007 going to be adjusted at all? For example, three days of rest instead of four? Although most of us believe in the pitch count rule, we have a hard time with a four-day rest period.”
Mr. Caringi’s answer was telling:
“Randy, you must be referring to the limitations on the Pitch Count Pilot Program, in which a 12-year-old pitcher was required to have four days of rest if he/she threw 61 or more pitches in a day. Your position was a common one among the leagues that took part. FOR THAT REASON, the rest has been reduced exactly as your (sic) suggest.” (emphasis supplied)
Mr. Caringi’s answer is telling, not just because the reason that is given is that the leagues (as opposed to the doctors) didn’t like the four-day rest, but also, and more importantly, because the DOCTORS’ views (75 pitches per game, 100 per week) are never mentioned in the answer (because, according to Dr. Fleisig, they were never consulted on the change).
Understand that Dr. Tim Kremchek, orthopedic surgeon for the Cincinnati Reds and a doctor who often works with young pitchers and operates on their injured arms, when asked about the 255-pitches-in-a-week rule during the Williamsport tourney, was very blunt:
“That’s utterly ridiculous and I’m going to call it abuse. What about the kids?”
THE 2008 CHANGES: GOOD, BUT NOT ENOUGH
So, in 2008, Little League has “refined” the pitching rules. While they make much of a change that a pitcher can’t catch in the same game after he throws a pitch (obviously a good rule that will have managers scrambling to get more kids to catch, no easy task), the main helpful change is that, during the regular season, a pitcher, while still only having to rest three days (they should have changed it back to four like the pilot program), now needs a game in between starts plus the three-days rest before he/she can pitch again (see page 34, Rule VI (d), of the 2008 Rule Book) .
As anyone involved in Little League knows, this is a huge change. For the most part, Little Leagues play two games (sometimes three) in a week. If there are a lot of rainouts, then you can play three in a week consistently. But this change eliminates what was obviously going to happen in 2007: no longer can a star pitcher pitch Monday-Friday, Tuesday-Saturday, etc. without an intervening game, an unlikely occurrence before rainouts.
Having said that, it would be better and safer for young pitchers to just return to the four-day rest period set up by Little League in the Pilot Program after the original consultation with the doctors.
NO SIGNIFICANT 2008 TOURNEY CHANGES, HOWEVER
While Little League already has a game-in-between-starts requirement in its tournament rules (see pages T-12-13, rule 4f, in the 2008 Rule Book), in addition to only two days of rest, the reality is that the tournament schedules are such that teams often play three games in four days. For example, the Little League Championship Game is always on a Sunday and the semi-finals are the day before. Friday is always an off day (in case of rainouts, according to the Little League) and to play on Saturday you have to win on either Wednesday or Thursday. So your Sunday teams will have played either Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday or Thursday, Saturday, Sunday. This means that your star pitcher can throw 170 pitches in either four or five days (Wednesday-Sunday or Thursday-Sunday), an absurdity under the doctors’ recommendations of 100 pitches per week.
If those same pitchers pitch either three or four days before (which they sometimes do), you have the absurd situation where a 12-year-old throws 255 pitches in seven (called abuse by Dr. Kremchek) or eight days. Understand that this tournament can have these schedules for up to six weeks in July and August, so this isn’t an isolated occurrence. Also understand that no game in between is needed (only two days rest is needed) if the previous game was at another level (district to section to state, etc.), see page T-13, rule 4(f)(2), in the 2008 Rule Book.
SO, WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
The only hope is for the doctors to say something, publicly or privately, to Steve Keener, the main man at Little League. Keener has already said that, if Dr. Andrews calls and recommends a return to the four days of rest, Little League would seriously consider it. While Little League says it changed the rules for 2008 after consultation with, and the approval of, Drs. Andrews and Fleisig, here’s hoping that the doctors understand the damage this amount of pitching can do to young arms, based on their own studies and recommendations.
After all, if pitching coaches and managers in the major leagues would be fired (and they would be) if they trotted out Santana or Beckett or Webb or (you fill in a name) to throw 85-90 pitches on a Monday, Thursday and Sunday, for 255 pitches in seven days, then there is no rational explanation for Little League or the doctors to allow 11- and 12-year-olds to do the same in the 2008 Little League Tournament. You get the point.
Please don’t fall for the Little League response that other youth leagues have not instituted a pitch count and, thus, kids can be throwing unlimited pitches if they play for multiple teams. While it would be great if other leagues followed suit (and Little League and Dr. Andrews and Dr. Fleisig are to be, and have been, lauded for their initial pitch count rule), this article ONLY talks about throwing 255 pitches in a week IN THE LITTLE LEAGUE. For multiple leagues, if the parent doesn’t keep and enforce his/her own pitch count for his/her own child (yes, sometimes under enormous pressure from other parents, coaches, etc.) in accordance with doctors’ recommendations, that parent is a fool.
Hopefully, the Little League and its recommending doctors will do the right thing and change the 2008 Little League Tournament rules before this summer. Then they can change the Little League regular season rules for 2009 to meet their own doctors’ original suggestions.