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Limiting pitches important for health of young baseball players

The term “pitch count” wasn’t prominent when Jim Walker, MD, played youth baseball in the southcentral Kansas town of Nickerson. Schedules that were lean on games by today’s standards offered adequate periods of rest in most cases for young arms.

But Dr. Walker, medical director of the Via Christi Stroke Center and Neuro Critical Care Unit at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis, applauds Wichita-area youth organizations like League 42, Southwest Boys Club and Westurban Baseball, which set limits on the number of pitches a player can throw based on age.

“With the number of games that they play and the year-round nature of the sport these days, I think it’s critically important to be cognizant not just of innings pitched, but the number of pitches thrown,” says Dr. Walker, who pitched collegiately at the University of Kansas and was a third-round draft pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 1993. His professional career was cut short by a shoulder joint injury in his pitching arm.

USA Baseball, the sport’s national amateur governing body, and Major League Baseball collaborated to establish guidelines to help young players avoid overuse injuries. Pitching fatigue can cause breakdowns in mechanics that serve as a legitimate injury threat.

“When young people are growing, the growth plates in the shoulder and elbow are still open,” says Andrew Porter, DO, with Via Christi Sports Medicine. “Those areas of the body are most vulnerable to injury.

“You can cause so much damage by overthrowing a young person. It’s better to play it safe. It really is.”

Westurban’s league rules define pitch limits in four categories: pitches allowed in one day followed by two days of rest; pitches allowed in one day and still pitch the next day; pitches allowed on two consecutive days followed by a day’s rest; and maximum innings allowed in one day.

For example, in the 11- and 12-year old division, a pitcher can throw 75 pitches in one day followed by two days rest or throw 45 and pitch the following day with a cumulative limit of 60 for two days. The maximum innings allowed for that age group in one day is six.

While pitch count guidelines are designed to be an effective tool for coaches, parents and players, Dr. Porter says it’s important for a pitcher who experiences pain to stop throwing and tell an adult. 

“We want to create the right type of balance for children to teach them how to be a good, strong competitor but be smart about it,” Dr. Porter says. “Pitch counts are an area where this can really help. They’re very reasonable, and to follow them just makes sense to me.”

Ironically, Dr. Walker’s endurance on the mound contributed to one of the signature moments in KU baseball history. As a senior, he pitched all 10 innings of KU’s 3-2 regional championship victory over Fresno State, helping the Jayhawks advance to the College World Series.

The long outing was an anomaly for Dr. Walker, who primarily pitched as KU’s closer that season. He was called on to start the regional final after the Jayhawks’ pitching staff was depleted by four regional tournament games in four days.

Still, the 98 innings Dr. Walker pitched in 33 games during his final season at KU took a toll.  

“I was pitching much more frequently than what you’d think of a typical closer,” Dr. Walker says. “I’d come in the seventh, pitch three innings and didn’t look at the pitch count.

“By the end of the season, I could tell the fatigue factor really was a thing.”