Pitch Counts, Limits, Recovery and Pitcher Injury Prevention
I get a lot of questions from youth coaches and parents about pitch counts. How many pitches should my son throw at age 11? Should a 12-year-old start throwing curve balls? How many pitches can he throw each week? How much is too much? Unfortunately, there is no magic number when talking about pitch counts or injury prevention for pitchers. A pitch count can be a valuable piece of information when determining the proper workload for a player; however, it is simply one piece of the puzzle. This week I will discuss how to properly use a pitch count to its maximum effectiveness and the proper way to increase a player’s pitch count.
Pitch Counts as Pitch Limits
Pitch counts can be misleading if not used properly. For example, many people use a pitch count as a pitch limit, when the pitcher reaches that limit he is done. The problem with this approach is not all pitches are created equal. Consider the following situation: Player A starts a game and throws 3 innings, in each inning, he throws 30 pitches for a total of 90 pitches on the day. Player B starts the same game for the other team; he throws all 9 innings but only throws 10 pitches each inning for a total of 90 pitches on the day. Both players throw the same number of total pitches but did they have an equal workload? I would say that Player A had a much more taxing day than Player B.
Pitches Per Inning and Tracking Pitch Counts
Pitches per inning can be used to create a more detailed look at a player’s workload than using just the total number of pitches thrown. A properly trained pitcher at the higher levels can go out and throw well over 70 pitches and easily recover for his next start if he only throws 10-15 pitches per inning. When a pitcher throws 20+ pitches at a time the pitches have a much greater effect on his body. A high pitch count in one inning can greatly reduce the effectiveness of a pitcher while multiple innings with high pitch counts can lead to poor recovery and even injury. Another way to think of this is consider doing squat jumps. If I asked you to do as many squat jumps as possible without rest how many could you do? If you were to rest for just one minute would you be able to do the same number of squat jumps again? My guess is probably not. What if I asked you to do 5 squat jumps every minute allowing you to rest during any unused time, now how many can you do? Not only would you be able to do more squat jumps in the second scenario but you would also maintain a higher quality of jump for a longer time.
Pitcher Preparation and Workloads
Pitchers rarely get hurt from throwing too many pitches. Injury is almost always a result of inadequate preparation. Not only are pitchers under-prepared but the preparation they do have is often ineffective. So how do you prepare pitchers and increase their work load?
Bullpen Sessions and Pitch Counts
A goal I like to use for my college pitchers is that every inning should end in 15 pitches or less. With that in mind, we can set up bullpen sessions in sets of 15 to help simulate a game. When getting started in the pre-season I would recommend just two sets of 15 pitches. Players can throw from both the stretch and wind up but we want to keep the workload low and increase slowly. This will allow the pitcher to adequately recover and build endurance. I recommend sticking with 2×15 for the first two bullpen sessions with at least 3 days between sessions. From there a safe progression would be as follows: 3×12, 3×15, 3×15, 4×12, 4×15, 4×15, 5×12, 5×15. Once you add a fourth set you will want to have 4 days between sessions then 5 days once you add the 5th set.
Pitch Counts and Performance
Now for the question of how much is too much?. This is a tough one to answer as everyone’s body is different. Some pitchers can handle more work than other and some recover faster than others. It is important to consider the individual player when planning their workload but there are some guidelines we can use to make that easier. Decisions should always be made based on the individual’s level of conditioning and preparation. We never want to ask a player to go too far beyond what he has been trained for as this can result in major setbacks. We also want to consider the effect of each individual inning has on the player when deciding how many innings to use him for. A player may be conditioned to throw 70 pitches in a game but if he throws 37 in the first inning it may be too much to ask him to go all the way to 70 pitches.
Pitch Counts By Age Group
Coaches at the youth level also need to consider the age of their players. Ages 6-9 should stick with just throwing 1 or possibly 2 innings at a time when the gain experience. Ages 10-12 should gradually move up to 3 innings at a time. Ages 13-14 should build up to throw up to 4 innings at a time and pitchers at age 15 players should train to be able to comfortably handle 5 innings.
Pitch Counts and Conditioning
A pitch count can be a very effective tool if used properly. One of the most important things to consider is a player’s level of conditioning and the amount of rest they are given. For youth players, you should always error on the side of being cautious. Youth players need time to master their skills, building up a pitch count can happen slowly as they get older only if they remain injury free. In future posts, I will discuss how to properly warm up including a bullpen routine, how to cool down properly and speed up recovery, and the appropriate workload on days between mound sessions.
Consult an Expert
The only way to make sure you are acting cautiously with your pitcher is to consult an expert. Working with a professional pitching instructor to properly prepare your pitcher for the workload for their age level is important. All players should have regular physicals and consult with a sports physician before undertaking any training regimen. Any physical discomfort should be taken very seriously, especially in the elbow and shoulder, and no more throwing should take place until medical clearance has been given. Icing should be used along with proper rest for proper recovery between pitching outings.
Pitch Smart – PitchSmart.org
International Youth Conditioning Association – Pitching Injuries and Young Athletes
Andrews Sports Medicine Center – Article on Pitch Counts and Recommended Recovery
American Sports Medicine Institute – Preventing Injuries in Baseball Pitchers Article
Let us know if you have any questions. These players health is to important to risk!
This guest article was written by Jordan DeGeorge.
Currently in 3rd year as Pitching coach at Wheaton College and a member of the American Baseball Coaches Association. Jordan is a graduate of Beloit College where he was a four-year letter winner. In 2009, he set single-season wins record, single season strikeout record and helped lead Beloit College to it’s first Conference Championship. He was a two-time All-Conference selection, 2009 All-Region selection and four times selected Academic All-Conference.