Little League Limits Pitches Per Game

It's Little League night in Coon Rapids and the Cardinals and Giants are playing for first place.

As the Giants' Nathan LaBrant steps into the batter's box, all eyes are on the pitcher's mound, where Tanner Lowe, 12, twists and kicks before throwing another fastball.

As the ball hits the catcher's mitt, volunteers for each team stand by their dugouts and mark a scoresheet. After each inning, they meet behind the backstop and count the pencil marks to make sure their totals match.

In the highly competitive world of kid baseball, where the wear on young arms has become an alarming problem, counting pitches is now a big deal.

So big that Little League International this year has instituted its most significant rule change yet to limit the number of pitches its 2-million-plus players can throw in a game.

"It's really going to save these kids' arms," said Mitch Wachman, president of the Golden Valley Little League. "Your kid wants to pitch, man. But on the other hand, you don't want to turn your kid's arm into mincemeat."

Little League made the move after studying research by the American Sports Medicine Institute that showed a dramatic increase in arm injuries among teenaged players.

The most startling finding: reconstructive elbow surgery for teens, often called "Tommy John surgery" after the major leaguer who was the first to successfully undergo the procedure, had soared from overuse.

Glenn Fleisig, research director for ASMI, and James Andrews, the surgeon who gained fame for his expertise with the surgery, compiled the data by reviewing more than a decade of Andrews' cases.

--From 1995 to 1998, nine of the 119 elbow surgeries performed by Andrews involved high-school-age pitchers, Fleisig said.

--From 2003 to 2006, 148 of the 619 surgeries were on teenagers.

Fleisig said a player's height, weight, age and tendency to throw curveballs, which stress the elbow, were considered contributing factors. None, however, had as much impact as overuse.

"How much you pitch was the Number One factor for who got hurt," Fleisig said.

Under old guidelines, pitchers could throw no more than six innings a week, regardless of the number of pitches thrown. Under the new rules, league players worldwide are limited to a set number of pitches per game, depending on age and the number of days of rest between games.

An 11- or 12-year-old, for example, is allowed as many as 85 pitches in one outing. Players 10 or younger max out at 75.

But all players, ages 7 through 16, are required to follow the same requirements for rest. Players who throw at least 61 pitches must rest for three days before they can pitch again. Those who throw 41 to 60 pitches must rest two days, while those who throw 21 to 40 pitches must take one day off.

"In the past, if coaches didn't know how to coach, they could really overuse a kid's arm. And let's face it -- these are (kids)," said Scott Latta, president of Coon Rapids National Little League.

"Unfortunately, there is a lot of insanity out there," said Jerry Sandler, administrator for the Minneapolis-area Little League district, which includes 20 leagues. "Everybody wants to win and they push these kids too much. It's not good."

Sandler and Fleisig said they hope the decision encourages other leagues, and particularly travel-team administrators and parents, to trim schedules -- some teams play 50 or 60 or more games a season -- and allow players more time to rest.

"The last 10 or 20 years there's basically been a revolution in how baseball is done," Fleisig said. "And the revolution is why we have this big problem here. Independent teams and all-star traveling teams have become more popular. ... There are no rules on the number of games kids are playing now. And they are pitching much more.

"Today's 15-year-olds and younger are playing year-round baseball. And they are the ones ending up on our surgery table here."

Gary Tonsager, vice president of the Robbinsdale Little League and a longtime coach, said that, to his knowledge, there haven't been many serious arm injuries over the years. But sore arms aren't unusual.

In one case, he said, one coach overused his son, leading to soreness that kept him from pitching in the playoffs.

Coaches "are very competitive," Tonsager said. "And when you are in the heat of the battle, and you just want one more out ... and it's a big game for first place, maybe you keep 'em in."

In Coon Rapids, a volunteer from each team -- usually parents of players -- counts pitches. After each half-inning, they huddle behind the backstop to make sure their numbers agree. In Robbinsdale, each team keeps track with a hand-held clicker and compares totals between innings.

Now, a coach's competitive fire comes out in more cerebral ways.

"You have to do a lot more thinking about where you are going with a pitcher," said Wally Langfellow, a Robbinsdale coach. "You have to know what your schedule is, when the next game is. You think, 'If you use this guy this day, is he going to be available two days from now? Three days from now? Are we winning or losing? Am I up by enough runs where I think I can pull him out and save him?'

"There's all kinds of stuff going on right now you never thought about before."

Pitch limits also force coaches to develop more pitchers.

"Instead of having a team of two or three pitchers, you are going to be grooming four, five or six kids on each team," said Tim Keefe, president of the Robbinsdale Little League.

"Without the pitch count, we have had a few pitchers in the league who can just dominate the league," Tonsager said. "They are so good and so far above and beyond anybody else's skill level, they just dominate. Now, those kids don't pitch as much."

A few veteran coaches say they prefer the old way of doing things.

Unskilled pitchers tend to walk more batters and give up more hits, Langfellow said, leading to longer games. He said one recent game in Robbinsdale lasted 3 1/2 hours and ended in a tie.

The rule also creates a scenario, although unlikely, where players could pitch more than before. Previously, a player could pitch only six innings a week. Now, a pitcher might throw 85 pitches on a Monday, then 85 more on Friday.

"If you are on top of it, you know when a kid has thrown enough," said Langfellow, who has coached for nearly 30 years. "You reach that 60 or 70 pitches mark and you know he's done. You don't want anybody to get hurt.

"The people I've talked to would prefer that the change wouldn't have been made. But it's here."

Earlier this season, with Tonsager's team trailing in a game dominated by the opposing pitcher, he noticed the boy was nearing his limit. In the middle of the inning, he called out to the opposing coach to say that the boy had thrown 83 pitches and could throw only two more.

"It was sort of an exchange that would never ever have happened before," Tonsager said, chuckling and adding: "Before he would have gone the whole game. ... This year, we haven't had anybody even close to going six."

With first place at stake in Coon Rapids a few days ago, the Cardinals' Tanner Lowe did just that.

Tanner threw 78 pitches in five innings, then retired the first two hitters of the sixth (and final) inning on six pitches, putting him one short of his limit. However, the rules permit a pitcher to face one more batter if he is under the limit at the start of the at-bat.

He ended the game with a strikeout.

"I've thrown close to six innings twice this year, but I couldn't finish it," Tanner said excitedly. "I was one batter away each time. This was my goal, because I haven't been able to finish one since last year."