Maine high school baseball officials spent much of 2016 working to comply with a national mandate to develop pitch limits.
Implementation time has arrived.
Coaches experienced with the innings limits that preceded the pitch counts have been familiarizing themselves with the new standards and how they will relate to their pitching staffs and the compressed high school baseball regular season that encompasses 14 to 16 games over six or seven weeks.
The approved limits for Maine high school varsity pitchers require no calendar days of rest for one to 20 pitches thrown in a day, one day of rest for 21 to 39 pitches, two days of rest for 40 to 65 pitches, three days of rest for 66 to 95 pitches and four days of rest for 96 or more pitches — with a maximum of 110 pitches in a day.
A pitcher who reaches 110 in the middle of an at-bat may finish pitching to that batter before being replaced.
Many coaches don’t anticipate the change from calculating innings to pitches having a major impact on their strategies. Some communities with franchised Little League programs have employed pitch counts at the youth levels for years.
Mansfield Stadium in Bangor already is equipped with a scoreboard pitch counter that was used when it hosted the Senior League World Series, so pitch counts have been on display at Bangor High School home games for years.
“Obviously we have that automatic pitch count up there, but the big thing is having a really good sense of where your guys are at,” said Bangor coach Dave Morris. “Some pitchers recover quicker, some need more time, and then of course you have a lot of positional players who pitch.
“When you look at the last three or four years, some of our top pitchers really weren’t full-time positional players where this year it probably will be different, so you really want to get at least four or five guys going on the mound for that reason. You can’t have enough pitching.”
While larger schools like Bangor are able to develop pitching depth through well-stocked varsity and subvarsity teams, programs from much smaller schools often lack subvarsity teams and sometimes have barely enough players to field varsity squads.
Shead High School in Eastport has been a consistent Class D postseason qualifier under 25th-year head coach Ron Sullivan, but this spring the Tigers are trying to make the most of an 11-player roster that includes several team members who also play varsity tennis.
Shead will approach the pitch-count rule from a unique perspective. Sullivan has a long-held philosophy of dividing games among multiple pitchers in order to keep them all eligible for the next game — even under the former innings-pitched rule.
“I just prefer to throw three guys 40 pitches each and then come back a couple of days later and do the same thing,” said Sullivan. “That’s the way I’ve always done it, to keep them eligible for one thing and to not blow their arms out for another.
“To me you’ve got three games in a week so you want to be competitive in all three and not in just the one game with your best pitcher.”
Sullivan believes many coaches will have to adjust pitching strategies and rely on a deeper staff in order to win more games.
“Most teams have one strong pitcher that they use for the biggest games and try to pitch them as often as they can,” he said. “I want to try to win every game we’re in so if I use my best pitcher in those five big games then I might have to flip a coin for the other nine. I try to keep everyone eligible and fresh and hopefully it works out.”
Just as significant for coaches as pitches are the number of rest days required between appearances. Many high school baseball schedules in eastern and northern Maine are arranged on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday or a Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday basis, meaning one pitcher could have hurled two complete games within a week.
Now, he’ll be able to do that only if he throws 95 or fewer pitches in the first appearance.
“That’s the kicker, that they’ve added that extra day of rest when you get up into that higher pitch count,” said Old Town coach Brad Goody. “We really don’t like to get up to that total anyway until the end of the season so we’ll see how it plays out.”
Teams also must accommodate the vagaries of Mother Nature and student schedules that grow more hectic as the end of the school year approaches.
“It’s [a matter of] when we can get games in around the weather and class trips and graduation,” said Sullivan, whose team’s first two games this spring were postponed. “The spring’s got a ton of stuff going on for kids that you don’t have to worry about with other sports.”
The pitch-count rule also requires some bookkeeping.
The Maine Principals’ Association baseball bulletin says each team must count its pitches and the opponents’ pitches and confirm those counts with each other after each half-inning. The home team’s record ultimately will be considered official, including in cases where there is a discrepancy.
At the end of each game the head coach will sign the MPA pitching chart form and each school must retain a copy of it and make it available to the MPA upon request if eligibility questions arise.
Violation of the pitch-count rule constitutes the use of an ineligible player and will result in forfeiture of the game.
“There are two ways to look at this new pitch-count rule,” said Sullivan. “You try to limit your walks, you pitch to contact, and hopefully your defense can make some plays.
“Then if everybody has an ace — and they’re usually throwing him against us because we’re usually worth the most [Heal] points down here — we’ve got to work the counts and try to get the No. 1 pitcher out of there.
“We’ll see how coaches adapt.”