Morris: College needs pitch counts

June 7, 2013 

— THE NCAA AND ITS baseball coaches will someday be forever grateful to ESPN’s Kyle Peterson for recently speaking out on behalf of the protection of pitchers’ arms in the college game.

Peterson questioned the use of a North Carolina pitcher as a reliever during Monday’s nationally televised regional game against Florida Atlantic. Peterson, serving as a studio analyst that night, proposed that the time had come to institute a pitch count in college baseball.

A rule is long past overdue.

Professional baseball scouts long have complained about the misuse, overuse and sometimes abuse of pitchers’ arms in the college game. On occasion, in areas of the country where college baseball is closely followed, the media has called into question the practice of coaches placing winning above the long-term health of the competitors.

Before Monday, never had the controversial subject found such a public, national stage. That it came from an ESPN analyst who once pitched in the major leagues gave the argument for mandatory pitch counts instant validity.

That it came from ESPN, which traditionally has maintained an incestuous relationship with college programs and their coaches in all sports, meant the network that virtually runs college athletics had taken off its gloves.

The fight is worth it, and in due time, you have to believe college coaches will come around to realizing that pitch counts only can protect pitchers’ arms. They also will understand that no advantage will be gained by one team over another if all are playing by the same restrictions.

Most importantly, coaches will recognize that an enforced pitch count limitation will be for the betterment of college baseball.

For now, though, coaches become defensive and bristle at such suggestions.

“To have pitch counts for college pitchers would be a terrible idea,” said North Carolina coach Mike Fox. “I’m a little surprised it’s even being discussed. Again, I would not agree with that. I think pitch counts are overrated.”

Fox said there are too many other factors that come into play when inserting a pitcher into a game, including number of days rest, the individual pitcher’s arm strength, stamina and physical size. His belief is the coaching staff knows their pitchers and their arms better than anyone.

Fox was at the center of Monday’s firestorm when he called left-handed pitcher Kent Emanuel out of the bullpen in North Carolina’s 13-inning victory over Florida Atlantic that sent the Tar Heels to the Super Regional against South Carolina.

Emanuel threw 51 pitches over 12/3 innings. His velocity was down, according to Peterson and John Manuel of Baseball America, who was providing color commentary for ESPN’s telecast of the game. Emanuel had thrown 124 pitches over 72/3 innings two days earlier in a start against Towson.

Much of the discussion centered on Emanuel being a potential selection in this week’s Major League Baseball draft. He was the first player picked in the third round by the Houston Astros.

Had there been a pitch count, Emanuel likely would not have been allowed to pitch against Florida Atlantic. Had there been a pitch count, the decision to send Emanuel to the mound would have been taken away from Fox and UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes.

College baseball and the major leagues are virtually the only two levels of the game that do not have pitch count restrictions.

“Should they have it in the major leagues,” asked Chad Holbrook, USC’s first-year coach. “Are they more educated than we are to do the pitch count thing?”

Every major-league organization long ago instituted pitch count limitations on their minor-league teams. Professional baseball teams have too much money invested in their employees to risk injury.

While the major leagues do not have a pitch count limitation, per se, they all are cognizant of how pitchers are used. Rarely, does a starting pitcher come out of the bullpen between starts. Teams limit the number of games in a row that relief pitchers are utilized.

Additionally, teams are lightening the load on their pitchers. In 2000, there were 454 starts of at least 120 pitches in the major leagues, according to ESPN. The same study showed that by 2008, the number had fallen to 71 starts of at least 120 pitches, and the numbers presumably will continue to decrease.

Major league baseball does not need pitch count limitations because the teams police themselves. It behooves them to protect their arms at the highest level and throughout their systems.

If college coaches could police themselves better, they would not need pitch count regulations. Unfortunately, college coaches have proven incapable of putting the health of pitchers’ arms ahead of winning.

We can hope the charges made by Peterson on national TV will lead to reform that only can be for the betterment of college baseball.

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