On Pitch Counts.
This past Friday, in the thick of the Minnesota State Amateur Baseball Tournament, the Moorhead Brewers’ pitcher Tanner Dahl threw not one but two complete games. When all was said and done Dahl, a recent University of Jamestown (North Dakota) graduate, walked away with two Moorhead victories while allowed just one run while running up his pitch count to a whopping 222 pitches.
While the monumental performance was celebrated by Minnesota baseball enthusiast as gritty and gutty, outside of the bubble, people were head scratching the decision to let a pitcher toss that many pitches.
“It was simultaneously impressive as it was embarrassing,” Driveline Baseball’s Kyle Boddy told me about his reaction to reading Dahl’s stat line. Boddy, who works with pitchers from all levels of the game and uses a data-driven, science-based approach at studying the arm, understands the mindset of pitchers which often throws all the rational thought out the window when the adrenaline is pumping.
Baseball observers work themselves in a lather over two triple-digit figures when it comes to pitching -- velocity and pitch counts. Whenever a pitcher encroaches either, it becomes a topic of conversation. Dahl’s totals are unfathomable at any level this day and age.
The news of Dahl’s feat spread among Baseball Twitter and soon the influencers were levying their thoughts on the crazy total of pitches.
“I’m curious,” ESPN.com’s Keith Law tweeted. “Will the Brewers pay for his rehab or surgery if he hurt himself today?”
The answer, obviously, is no, the Brewers will not. Not in a direct, insurance-policy-gots-you-covered-Chief sort of way. However, knowing the camaraderie and community that goes into a Minnesota town ball team, they would assuredly organize a Kickstarter or (more likely) a beer bust to help offset medical expenses incurred because of his dedication to his team.
Clearly, that was Law’s point. When someone signs their mandated player contract to participate in the Minnesota Baseball Association, the language says nothing about bankrolling any major surgeries and rehab that may come from participating in the game. The 23-year-old pitcher -- who was recently a part of the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks independent league team -- was risking his future baseball livelihood and would be left paying for the repairs if his arm blew out.
“Pitcher abuse” is a hot button topic. If it wasn’t, Jeff Passan’s amazing book, The Arm, would not be a New York Times bestseller.
Each year during the NCAA tournament we see reports of a school having a pitcher throw 150 or more pitches only to throw again in another day or two. This season alone, a Minnesota State-Mankato pitcher caught everyone’s attention by tossing 171 pitches in an 11-inning game.
On May 19, the Mavericks’ Dalton Roach threw 171 pitches in a victory over St Cloud State in NCAA D-II Regional play (meanwhile SCSU’s starter, Reese Gregory, threw an efficient 121 pitches by comparison). Roach told the media after the game that he felt fine and it was Ok because he threw mostly fastballs (“The single most dangerous pitch out there right now is a hard fastball. That’s typically the pitch a player gets hurt on,” Dr Pearce McCarty III, one of the Minnesota Twins’ orthopedic surgeons, told the Star Tribune recently). People called for his coach’s head.
To prove how fine his arm was after the outing that inciting all the pearl-clutching, a little over a week later Roach was pitching in the Northwoods League where, in his first start on May 31, he threw 101 pitches and struck out an Eau Claire Express-record 18 (he started the game by striking out the first 12 batters he faced). Roach, who is heading into his third year of college ball, would make one more start for the Express before being shut down because of an imposed innings limit.
Maybe Roach is one of the genetically lucky ones -- the proverbial rubber arm. The guy whose mechanics and muscle structure refuse to break. (Or maybe the wear-and-tear just hasn’t caught up to him yet.) Still, the idea of risking his arm for a Division II championship feels short-sighted. As Boddy put it, almost all pitchers have the mentality of *wanting* to keep throwing but someone (I don’t know, a paid coach perhaps) has to be the adult in that situation.
That burden of deciding when to lift their pitcher will likely be removed from the coach’s responsibility this coming season, at least at the high school level.
In the Minnesota high school ranks, the state organization is currently weighing the idea of setting a pitch restriction for the young, developing arms. As it stands now, the rules are written in a way that says a pitcher cannot throw more than 14 innings in three days. That is a large enough loophole for a bullpen car to drive through. As written, it means a high school pitcher could essentially pull a Tanner Dahl, throwing back-to-back complete 7-inning games while amassing 200+ pitches. There’s nothing to stop a coach from doing that beside some attentive and vocal parents or their own conscious.
It should be noted that the state’s coaches association already has suggested guidelines designed by the Mayo Clinic for pitch counts for their high school players posted on their website, such as a max of 90 pitches for a 17-to-18-year-old on four days of rest, but that’s like a beer company suggesting a fraternity “drink responsibly” during a toga party. That is why the Minnesota State High School League is taking measures to correct that. In October, the state coaches association will discuss the proposed pitch limits which caps the amount at 105 for the upperclassmen (Alabama has a 120 pitch limit) and 85 for the younger grades with required rest days in between outings.
How would that process work? The high school association in Illinois recently outlined a similar proposal, limiting their pitchers to a 115-pitch count. It would require teams to keep track of both theirs and the opposing team’s pitch count, and compare pitch count totals during even number innings. The oversight is needed but there
These are all good steps for the developing pitcher with a future ahead of him.
While it makes sense to monitor a college pitcher whose financial aid or potential professional career may be tied to being able to pitch (and not recovering from arm surgery) or keeping the teenaged hurler injury-free so that he may have better looks from colleges and the professional ranks, amateur players like Dahl and others operate in a Lord of the Flies-like town ball baseball society.
From a personal experience, I played on a team with a pitcher who had a decent college career and played for several years in independent ball prior to joining the team. Despite the fact that he was retired from his professional ranks, he was no less tenacious in his approach. He was six-foot-plus, the size of a fullback and had legs like sequoias. On his day to pitch,he had such intense, laser focus that I was positive that somewhere in the universe another planet exploded from its force. It was going to take a tranq gun to pry the ball out of his hand. He could, and routinely did, throw over 120 pitches a game.
There’s no question in my mind that someone was constantly asking Dahl if he felt alright each time he came back in the dugout beyond the seventh inning of the first game and each inning into the second game. One of the team’s administrators tweeted back at Law and said that their number two starter was ready to go the moment Dahl said he was done. Hell, even former Major League catcher Chris Coste plays on Dahl’s team (he smack a dinger in the tournament). There were plenty of grown adults well aware of the situation.
At 23 years old, you probably still want to play some baseball in the summer for a few more years, or eventually play catch with your kid, or not pay for major surgery. For outsiders, risking all that for a Class “B” town ball title feels like a silly gamble. That being said, if he does blow out his arm because of the 222-pitch day, Dahl will always be able to retell the story about the day he threw back-to-back complete games and helped lift his team into the 2016 championship game. This post has been promoted to an article