By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
In Holy Spirit’s 10-0 victory over Ocean City on April 3, Spartans coach Steve Normane elected to bunt two runners into scoring position in the bottom of the fifth inning while Spirit held an 8-0 lead on the Red Raiders. After the game ended via the 10-run mercy rule following that inning, an Ocean City fan called out, “that’s bush league.”
Welcome to high school baseball 2017. It’s already making baseball purists cringe the way a toddler does when they taste lima beans for the first time.
Normane is as much a baseball purist as anyone and loves the rich history of the game. He played at a high level as a first baseman at Rutgers University. He knows all about the “unwritten rules” of baseball, such as not bunting when you have a sizeable lead. But this year, the NJSIAA instituted new pitch count rules, so get used to seeing some strange things on South Jersey baseball diamonds. In that game against Ocean City, starting pitcher Bobby Spicer was at 48 pitches through five innings. Had the Spartans not gotten to the 10-run rule and Spicer had to go out for the sixth inning, he would have eclipsed 50 pitches and that would have cost him an extra day of rest.
“It makes you think about every situation. (On Sunday) we were in a situation where Clearview took their starting pitcher out with a 3-and-2 count with one out in the fourth inning because he had reached 70 pitches and they wanted him to come back on Wednesday, and if he had thrown his 71st pitch he wouldn’t have been able to come back that soon. So, that changes the game right there. He was throwing well,” Normane said after the game. “We’re in a position where we want to get to 10 runs. We needed to get to 10 runs because that cut Bobby’s pitch count down. He can pitch again Wednesday now if we want him to because he stayed under 51 pitches. We shortened the game by two innings, and that affects the pitch count.
“With these new rules, to get to 10 runs is huge,” Normane added. “As a traditional baseball guy, would I bunt when I was up 8-0? No way, not in the fifth inning. But in that situation, you have to evaluate things differently. They put these rules in place and we have to play by them. I don’t disagree with (fans getting upset), but we’re playing to shorten the game and keep our pitch count low.”
The NJSIAA is following the model that Little League Baseball introduced for the 2007 season. Previously, high school baseball pitchers were limited to 10 innings per week and it didn’t matter how many pitches they threw. It’s different now. Pitchers are capped at a maximum of 110 pitches in a single game and 140 pitches in any five-day span. There are also mandatory days of rest depending upon how many pitches are thrown in a game. Throw 1-30 pitches and you can come back the next day; 31-50 requires one day of rest; 51-70 two days; 71-90 three days; and 91-110 four days.
To avoid any confusion, as part of the pilot program home teams are required to provide an adult pitch count monitor. In theory, the adult pitch counter is supposed to cross check the number of pitches they have recorded with each team after each half inning. In the event a team can’t provide an adult pitch counter, each team is supposed to check with the other after each half inning. If there is a disagreement, the home team has official say on how many pitches were thrown, unless the umpire has definitive knowledge of the correct pitch count.
Coaches and players agree there are pluses and minuses to the new pitch count rule.
“I know it’s going to hurt teams at some point because you won’t be able to throw as many pitches in a game as you did last year. A lot of teams might not be able to throw their No. 1 pitcher as much as they want to throughout the season,” said Mainland pitcher Nick Atohi. “I don’t really think about it when I’m pitching. I just try to come out and dominate and not worry about throwing too many pitches. The coaches told us we might not be able to throw just one player as much as we have in the past. We might have to go with two or three pitchers every game.”
“As a pitcher, I’m not a fan of it. If you throw 31 pitches, you can’t pitch the next day. And that’s like a bullpen session, it’s really not that much. I feel like it should be a step higher than that for a full day’s rest,” Spicer said. “Basically, there will be some weird things happening. We might have a batter 2-2 or 3-2 and we’ll have to take the pitcher out because we don’t want to force an extra day’s rest. Later in April, I think we have five games in five days. We can’t waste another at-bat and another day’s rest. It’s weird to see because you’re not used to seeing it. We’re going to see a lot of weird stuff this year.”
“It’s going to be interesting. I don’t think it will have the kind of crazy effect that some people think it might because I think a lot of teams in the area do the right thing by monitoring how many pitches their kids throw, and they’re not overusing them. You run into more arm issues during travel ball, where they are playing multiple positions where they might be playing shortstop one inning and the next inning they are on the mound. Our experience with the coaches in the area, there’s a really good group of young coaches and they are doing what is right for the kids and are taking care of the kids’ arms,” said Egg Harbor Township pitching coach Sean Coyle. “There’s going to be some monitoring that needs to be done. (Head coach Bryan) Carmichael and I try to put together a good schedule, but sometimes there are four or five games in a week. We take the approach that almost every guy on our team is going to be pitching. We have about 10 guys who are going to throw for us this season.”
The good news is, there will be plenty of pitching positions opening up for younger players to get a chance to play varsity baseball. The bad news is, coaches are going to have to deal with a lot of inexperienced pitchers at the varsity level. Some teams, such as Mainland Regional and Ocean City, relied heavily on a couple of starters the past two years and they’ll have to find more arms to add to their pitching staffs. Other teams, such as Oakcrest, haven’t had a true No. 1 or No. 2 pitcher the past couple of seasons so they are used to having a lot of different guys take the mound.
“With us, we never really had an issue with pitch count because we never really sent guys out there for an extended amount of time. Our pitchers, as a staff, everybody is pretty similar. We don’t have a dominating kind of guy, we don’t have a true ace where we can say give us as much as you can for as long as you can. We went into the season with 16 guys on our varsity roster and 13 of them have thrown bullpen sessions. We’re not going to run away from it. We’re going to put guys out there, and our motto is going to be throw strikes, field it, and hopefully we hit more than the other team,” said Falcons coach Sean Olson. “For the coaches who are going to have those set three or four starters, they are going to have to pay really close attention. For us, we have two starters that we know of and then everybody else has thrown bullpens. We’re seeing who is going to be a starter and who is going to fill a reliever role. So, on our end, we’re not really too stressed about it because we’re going to put arms out there and hopefully throw strikes, make plays and hit the ball.”
One positive effect should be that pitchers will be encouraged to throw strikes more often, which could lead to quicker innings — or bigger offensive rallies. Coyle said the new pitch count rules haven’t changed the approach his EHT pitchers have. He’s constantly trying to get them to pound the strike zone. Not only does that help the pitcher get into a groove, but it also keep the defense on its toes.
“We’re always in the mindset that we want action in three pitches or less. We want to pitch to contact and stay away from deep counts,” Coyle said. “I think what you’ll see is a lot more pitchers attacking the strike zone and a lot less ‘waste pitches.’ Pitchers aren’t going to want to go to 2-2 or 3-2 counts. And, the onus will be on offenses to really grind out at-bats. If you can get guys to grind out seven- or eight-pitch at-bats, that’s a win because you’re driving that pitch count up. Teams are going to have to attack the strike zone, or guys are going to be out of the game pretty quickly.”
The biggest change perhaps will be in how coaches view the 10-run mercy rule. Generally speaking, most high school baseball coaches have spent a lifetime in the game. They know there are going to be days when their team is getting thumped, and they never want to get shown up by the other team. But now, coaches almost have to get to the 10-run rule as quickly as possible if they get a big early lead. So, you may see a game that is 10-1 in the bottom of the fifth being played as though it’s a tie game in the bottom of the seventh, because that one extra run becomes that much more important.
“Without a doubt, that’s going to come into play. We were playing Cape May Tech and were up by seven, so we were in a similar situation and I bunted a guy over knowing I don’t have the arms other teams have, so if I have a chance to shorten a game and save some pitch count, coaches are going to have to do that,” Olson said. “The mercy rule is going to come into effect. It’s going to be a little different than it has been in the past and the mercy rule is going to have a big effect on games. Hopefully, coaches won’t take it to heart. I think most of them will understand. I think the coaches will understand it more so than the fans, without a doubt. The baseball purists are going to be like, ‘why are you bunting when you’re up by that many runs?’ But you might have three more games coming up in the next three days and you have to coach a little bit.”
So, for all you baseball purists out there, get used to the taste of those lima beans. You’ll be getting a steady diet of them this season.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN