FALMOUTH — Falmouth High School senior Reece Armitage knows this season’s new baseball pitch count rules could force him to adjust his hard-throwing approach.
The left-hander also knows why limiting the pitches thrown by high schoolers is important.
“I think my sophomore year in regional finals I got up to 120 (pitches) and so I had elbow problems and it was kind of tough thing to go through,” said Armitage, who will pitch in college for Division I Marist University. “I think the pitch count is for the safety of the players. I’ll have to limit (throwing) balls this year so I can go deep into games.”
Under the new rule, Maine’s varsity pitchers will have to leave a game if they reach 110 pitches. And if they throw more than 95 pitches, they must have four days off before returning to the mound – an extra day compared with Maine’s previous innings-based rules.
That’s why Cam Guarino, Falmouth’s co-ace who will pitch in college for the University of New Haven, said he’ll focus on staying under 95 pitches in each start.
“My goal is to go all seven innings and not be a burden on the team and not leave it to a reliever,” Guarino said.
The new rules are in response to a mandate by the National Federation of State High School Associations requiring all states to implement pitch counts for the 2017 season. Each state was allowed to set its own rules.
Monday was the first day for Maine high school pitchers and catchers to begin throwing, and the new rules already were having an impact.
“Last year I pitched three guys to get us through the entire high school season,” said Portland coach Mike Rutherford. “This year I have 21 kids coming in this week.”
Driving the change is a concern for player safety, specifically a documented rise among high school players of ligament-replacement elbow surgery – known as Tommy John surgery for the big-leaguer who first had it done in 1974.
A 2015 study by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons found 57 percent of the 790 Tommy John surgeries performed from 2007 to 2011 were on high school pitchers age 15 to 19, with an average 9 percent increase per year in that age group.
“What we’re trying to do is generate awareness, that you’ve got to pay attention to these arms and not let them throw forever,” Dr. William Heinz, a Portland-based orthopedist, told the Press Herald last summer. Heinz is a past chair of the high school federation’s medical advisory board and serves on the sports medicine committee of the Maine Principals’ Association.
In November, the MPA adopted its new pitch count standards: 0 to 20 pitches, no rest day required; 21-39 pitches, one rest day; 40-65 pitches, two rest days; 66-95 pitches, three rest days; 96-110 pitches, four rest days.
A pitcher who reaches 110 pitches during an at-bat will be allowed to complete the at-bat before being removed.
Pitch counts will be kept by both teams and checked after each half-inning. At the conclusion of games, each head coach will sign an MPA form and retain a copy to be made available upon request of the MPA. A violation of the rule would be considered using an ineligible player and result in a forfeit.
Sub-varsity pitchers have similar breakdowns, with 90 pitches set as the maximum.
Maine’s rules are the strictest among the New England states.
Massachusetts, which does not abide by the high school federation’s rules, has no limits for either pitches thrown or days of rest. Vermont and New Hampshire established 120 pitches as the maximum and three days of rest for more than 75 pitches.
Rhode Island will use 110 as the maximum with three days of rest for over 75 pitches. Connecticut has no maximum but mandated days of rest, including five days for over 110 pitches.
Nationally, Maine is one of 21 states (among 46 that sanction baseball) that will use four days of rest for pitchers who reach the upper limit.
In the major leagues, where pitchers are under much more pressure, throw much harder and usually take the mound every fifth day, starters threw an average of 93 pitches in 2016, lasting 5.6 innings per game.
In previous years in Maine, the most rest days required was three, when a pitcher worked four or more innings.
Teams often play three games in a week. High school games are seven innings.
“It goes from being able to pretty much roll with a two-man rotation with a spot starter, to now, most teams, if not all, are going to need three and four starters,” said Mike D’Andrea, the Scarborough High baseball coach. “It’s going to change the game a lot. But the good thing about it is, the intention of the rule, we all agree with that. And we all have to follow the same rules so nobody’s at a disadvantage.”
Falmouth coach Kevin Winship said he expects “more gamesmanship,” with teams purposely taking more pitches – particularly when facing a team’s ace.
“So now do we just attack the batter? Do you want to waste a pitch on an 0-2 count?” Winship said. “Obviously it changes your strategy.”
Portland’s Rutherford foresees other changes.
“You’re going to see some high-scoring games, late in games especially, because teams will be bringing in relievers,” he said.
The pitch count rules likely will have their greatest impact in the playoffs.
Last season, Sacopee Valley senior Roderick Maynard needed 138 pitches to finish off a 17-strikeout Class C regional semifinal win. Bangor’s Trevor DeLaite hit 110 pitches in his 5-0 shutout win over Falmouth in the state final.
“We lost to Falmouth 5-0 in the regional semifinal and we were facing Armitage, a strikeout pitcher,” Rutherford said. “If we’d had the pitch count I would have had my batters really work the count and try to get to their bullpen.”
When that situation arises this year, Winship said, “Then we just have to make sure we have a reliever who can come in and throw strikes.”
Steve Craig can be contacted at 791-6413 or at: