Fragile arms spark fierce debate
By CRAIG CUSTANCE
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 05/02/05
It's a sensitive subject, for sure. One Major League Baseball scout politely declined to discuss it for fear he might alienate his high school contacts. An agent postponed an interview, deciding after a night's sleep to pass on the discussion altogether.
The question: Are Georgia high school baseball coaches flogging their thoroughbred aces?
Nobody sweats South Gwinnett's basketball coach when NBA prospect Louis Williams plays nearly every second of a playoff game; they'd criticize him if he didn't. You don't hear a peep when a football coach plays his star both ways in a postseason run.
But baseball is different. Coaches who extend their pitchers into triple-digit pitch counts are ripe for criticism. You pitch a kid twice in a week and scouts cringe. Everybody has seen examples of overusing a standout pitcher. Nobody owns up to doing it.
The balance between winning high school baseball games and preserving a pitcher's future is a challenge for the high school coach.
M.L. King coach Paris Burd felt so strongly about the subject that he typed a 897-word document he called "Best for Team or Best for Pitcher." It wasn't exactly a Jerry Maguire manifesto, but his outline included multiple points about preventing overuse. He's never had a pitcher throw more than 42 innings in a season.
Georgia Tech baseball coach Danny Hall has a lot invested in how high school prospects are treated and in what shape their arms are when they arrive in his program.
"The biggest thing is you have to put the player's health as a No. 1 priority and not worry about a couple wins and losses," Hall said. "When it's all said and done, the whole game is about the players. It's not really about the coaches or how many you won in the league or whether you got in the region playoffs. It's, 'Did the player get better? Did he come out of there healthy, and did he have a chance to have a good career?' "
There are scouts who answer an emphatic "no" to both questions. Steve Kring is the area scouting supervisor for the Cincinnati Reds, and he is passionate about the subject of coaches overusing pitchers. He said he couldn't believe agame where two aces combined to throw, by his count, more than 250 pitches.
"I've left games shaking my head; the kid is on my mind the next couple days," Kring said. "I see too much abuse. There's not enough coaches taking the approach to develop arms."
Roswell's Miers Quigley is widely considered one of the state's best pitching prospects. His coach, Mike Power, limits Quigley to one start per week, and Quigley said the most important way he protects himself is constant communication with his coaches.
When he started feeling pain in his left arm, one that helped him reach speeds in the mid-90s earlier this season, one that likely will earn him a spot in baseball's June draft, he let his coaches know. As tempting as it was for him to try and bulldog through it, he knew too much was at stake.
"I was honest with them. When I had a bout of tendinitis, the communication line was there with us," Quigley said. "It's very difficult. You're just always on the field; baseballs are easy to get a hold of; you just want to throw. On one hand it's not worth it, but on the other hand, you want to help your team out."
Quigley's father charts each game so he can update the team's Web site, but this season he's also tracking his son's pitch count. He's not alone. Southwest DeKalb coach Sean Brinkley said he's seen parents and even grandmothers sitting in the stands with a clicker, tracking pitches.
But, as McIntosh coach Toby Black wondered, "What's the magic number?" How many pitches are too many? So many variables go into it — weather, time of year, a pitcher's build and what pitches he's throwing.
Counting pitches is an inexact science. In Quigley's first start back from injury against Milton, Power said he was scheduled to go 80 pitches and pulled him when he reached that point. Quigley's father said he counted 104 pitches, while Kring's number was north of that.
"They never count the pitches when the kid first starts warming up. In between each inning they throw at least five — they never count that," Kring said. "By the time you total what these kids throw in the game, between innings and warm-up . . . look at the numbers. Any time you're working your arm, you're working."
Kring objects to standout pitchers playing shortstop or outfield after starts because the stress those throws can put on a worn-out arm. It's the reason he said of the state's three best pitching prospects — Quigley, Columbus' Iain Sebastian and Lee County's Buster Posey — only Posey is being handled correctly.
Sebastian, a 6-foot-4 right-hander with a fastball that he consistently throws in the low 90s, isn't the least concerned that his outfield play is a problem after he pitches. His coach addresses this issue by making sure he always hits the cutoff man, and that infielders hustle out to make the throws from the outfield even shorter.
"If I pitched the day before, I'll throw a lollipop in," said Sebastian, who, like Quigley, is limited to one game on the mound per week. "The coaches know that; they understand."
Columbus coach Bobby Howard defended his use of Sebastian: "Just because someone's a scout doesn't make him an expert."
Current Georgia High School Association rules limit the number of innings a pitcher can throw to 14 in four days or 10 innings in one day. For some, those rules aren't strict enough.
Jonesboro coach Don Corr, who has been coaching at the school 21 years, has seen instances this season where a talented region opponent threw more than 300 pitches in a week's span, all within GHSA rules.
As a member of the GHSA's baseball committee, Corr could push for pitch-count limits. Despite the abuse he's witnessed, he, like most coaches, is against limiting pitch counts. It'd be too tough to monitor, he said.
Nick DeSilvio has been Etowah's ace since he arrived at the Woodstock school, earning him a scholarship to Georgia. He recently talked about the struggles he's had balancing his health and what's best for the team.
He looked down at his left arm, admitting he wasn't sure why he felt pain this spring. He didn't think it was tendinitis, maybe just some inflammation. He was taking medication, and it felt great after resting a couple of weeks.
But as he looked out at his teammates, some he's known since he was 4, it was clear he wanted to be back on the mound leading his team to a state title. He said he definitely expected to pitch during Etowah's push for the playoffs, which he did — beating North Forsyth that evening with a seven-inning gem.
"We really want this bad, you can tell," he said.
The risk might be long-term, and the reward of a championship in June is tough for a senior to resist.
"I'm trying to live for today, not look for the future, which might be ignorant on my part," said Quigley, whose Roswell team is considered a state contender in Class AAAAA. "But it's how I am and what I'm about."