For more than three hours on Friday, June 11, 2010, Tottenville High School’s ace Jonathan Silva and Lehman High School’s Tyler Gurman matched each other pitch for pitch. Over ten innings, each, determined to outdo the other, refused to be taken out of the game. Finally, in the tenth inning, a weary Gurman misplayed an easy bunt and Tottenville scored, giving them a 1-0 victory and Public School Athletic League (PSAL) City Championship.
The 2300 fans at Coney Island’s MCU Park roared in appreciation as the two young athletes walked off the field and into the dugouts. Yet such a game will not be played again. In accordance with a new PSAL policy, pitchers will not be allowed to throw more than 105 pitches per game and must take a mandatory rest period afterward. In last year’s final, Silva threw 141 pitches through the ten innings. Had he been taken out, a different champion might have been crowned and the sport might have lost a championship game classic.
The new policy was brought about by complaints from parents and city council members. “We have a responsibility to our students,” PSAL baseball commissioner Bob Pertsas said in an interview with NY1. “We want to make sure they play in a safe environment.”
The 105 cap on pitches is not the only new rule the PSAL has decided on. If a pitcher throws more than 91 pitches in a game he will be required to rest for four consecutive days. The mandatory rest period will be three days if he throws 76 to 90 pitches, two days if he throws 51 to 75 pitches and one day if he throws 26 to 50 pitches. No rest day will be required for fewer than 25 pitches. Similar guidelines are being implemented at the Junior Varsity level as well. However, their pitch counts have been scaled down even more to protect the younger developing arms.
“When we look at evidence and injury rates in baseball, there are significant shoulder and elbow injuries with the pitcher especially at risk,” Dennis Cardone of the NYU hospital for Joint Diseases said in a NY1 interview. “This policy is a true, important step in protecting young athletes.”
Elbow injuries are often caused by overuse, and can lead to Tommy John surgery, a complex medical procedure which replaces a ligament in the elbow with a tendon from elsewhere in the body. According to a study done by MedScape, before 1997, only 12% of athletes receiving Tommy John surgery were 18 years or younger. However, in 2005, 62 of the 188 total operations performed were on high school players. It is becoming increasingly apparent that young pitchers are being overworked, a trend the PSAL is hoping to reverse.
Though some PSAL coaches do overburden their pitchers, the majority of coaches put the well-being of their players first. “I can understand why they want to do this, because some coaches do abuse young people’s arms and it’s for the protection of the young players so they can hopefully continue in college,” said Matt Hahn, coach of the Stuyvesant Hitmen. “On the other hand, for coaches who are diligent in their jobs, I think it’s a slap in the face.”
The new regulations will place some teams at a disadvantage against teams with large rosters and deep bullpens. With less flexibility in their pitching rotations, coaches are going to have to look to their bullpens more often. They are going to have to build bigger pitching staffs, which, at smaller schools, will be difficult.
“The bigger schools are going to benefit from this because they’ll have more pitchers on the bench,” Stuyvesant Hitmen head coach John Carlesi said. “A smaller school without much pitching might have only one or two pitchers on the whole staff.” Some teams may be forced to rely on players that have never pitched before, and in extreme cases might have to forfeit because of a lack of pitching.
In addition, there is the question of how effectively the regulations can be enforced. The PSAL has stated that the coaches will be required to record the number of pitches each pitcher throws in a game and then report it to the PSAL website. This allows room for discrepancies in pitch count as coaches may count below the actual number while opposing coaches count above.
“How are they going to regulate this?” Hahn said. “Each coach is going to watch each other and it’s going to cause arguments. I think it’s going to be a big mess. I say to the umpire he has 105 [pitches] and [the other coach] says ‘I only have 98’.”
In a situation like this, the PSAL would be hard-pressed to decide which statistic to believe. “They say they’re going to put spotters out on the field, but you never know when they’re coming,” Hahn said. “It’s just going to cause tensions between teams.”
Dishonesty very well might become a problem. In many cases, coaches will do anything they can to improve their standings. “Every team looks to get an edge,” Carlesi said. “That’s not saying teams will look to cheat, but we’ve dealt with people trying to get around rules before so we’ll see what happens.”
For Stuyvesant’s varsity baseball team, the Hitmen, it looks as though this policy may not cause any significant changes to the team’s makeup. Hahn and Carlesi have prided themselves in keeping their pitchers healthy. “I usually don’t let a kid go over 100 pitches, unless I think they are truly capable of it,” Carlesi said.
“I don’t think it will have a big impact on us,” Hahn said. “We’ll just have to develop more pitching. Hopefully, young pitchers like juniors Evan Lubin, Kyle Yee, Peter Ferguson and Quinn Hood will step up to create a strong and balanced staff.
The rule has brought mixed reactions from the players themselves. “As a starting pitcher I like to be able to go as long as my arm can carry me,” senior pitcher Jack Zurier said. However, the pitch count restriction will benefit hitters because the regulation has changed the way pitchers must approach each batter.
“I’m going to try to take more pitches because if you can work a ten or an eleven pitch at-bat then you will have a better chance of facing a weaker pitcher at the end of the game,” senior catcher Clay Gibson said.
“Throwing first-pitch strikes is something that you are always coached to do,” Zurier added. “You can’t be throwing ten or eleven pitches to a batter. You have to get through the whole lineup.”
As data piles up, high school leagues around the country are becoming more conscious of athlete safety and implementing rules designed to protect their health. In the PSAL, the pitch count rule is the second new rule to be implemented in the past four years. Metal bats were outlawed in New York City in 2007 after repeated studies showed that the reaction time of a player to a ball off of the metal bats was significantly lower than off of wood bats. Cases were reported of serious player injury due to hard hit balls from metal bat. Since that change, New York City high schools have switched to wood bats and have become some of the very few schools in America not using aluminum.
While the PSAL is working hard to protect its young athletes, in the end, trust must be placed in the coaches to do their jobs the right way. A flurry or new regulations and laws will only take away from the essence of the game. Baseball’s beauty will be shielded by wrist guards and knee pads. A phenomenon like the ten inning pitcher’s duel will be lost. Such games illustrate the purest form of the sport, when strength, endurance and heart are the only limits.