Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Too many pitches, not enough pitchers

For 15 years I've been umpiring Little League games. I've called no-hitters, district championship games, and many more games that have been absolutely forgettable. Rarely have I called a game that was so bad it was unforgettable, but yesterday I called such a game.

Or maybe I should say half a game, since the game was suspended due to darkness. With two on and none out in the bottom of the third inning. After an hour and forty-five minutes. With the score 17-12.

Now, it's not unusual to have a rough game early in the season. The weather is bad, some of the kids are playing in the "majors" for the first time, there are some inexperienced pitchers, coaches are still figuring out their lineups...lots of things that still need to be worked out. But the one thing that this game had that I haven't dealt with over the last 15 years is a pitch count.

This year, Little League has allowed leagues to scrap the traditional pitching limits (six innings per player per week) for a pitch count. Essentially, if a player throws a certain number of pitches in a day, they need to have a certain amount of rest, and the number of days of rest increases based on the number of pitches thrown. For instance, a pitcher who reaches the 85-pitch limit has to sit out four calendar days before they can pitch again.

While this may save the wear and tear on a pitcher's arm (I'm not convinced, but that's the intent), it plays havoc with the level of play in leagues that are not stocked with great pitchers. It used to be that a team could get by with three pitchers most of the time and only need a fourth if the team had an extra inning game or a rainout. Now teams will probably need to use seven or eight pitchers some weeks.

Previously, umpiring a game on Monday night meant that I would see the teams' #1 or #2 pitchers, depending on whether the teams played on the preceding Sunday. With the pitch count rules, any player who throws even one pitch must have a day off, and a pitcher cannot throw more than 85 pitches a day. So even though last night was the second game of the week for both teams, each team had at least three pitchers who were ineligible to pitch because of rest. That meant that as last night's game went on (and on) teams were forced to go to pitchers #4 and #5 and so on.

I am all for protecting the health of our players, but there are better ways of doing it. For instance, I think leagues should ban breaking pitches, which have been shown to cause arm problems in younger players. But the if the byproducts of pitch counts are going to be endless parades of walks and wild pitches (for instance, the top of the first yesterday saw the visitors score ten runs on just two hits), we'll end up with disinterested fielders, batters who are conditioned to walk instead of hit, and discouraged players who are forced to pitch even though they do not have the skills to do so successfully.

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