It’s been a pet peeve of many veteran sportswriters — including myself — for years, especially in the spring. The word “canceled” is used to describe when a high school event is rained out, when “postponed” is the accurate word most of the time.
One means an event will not be rescheduled, while the latter means a game or meet will likely be rescheduled. Conference events are postponed 99 percent of time, while non-conference events are hit or miss, depending on the amount of time left in the season and open schedule dates.
But the cancel/postpone debate takes on new meaning this year with baseball.
Thanks to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) has changed the way pitchers are regulated. For several years, it had been based on innings pitched — no more than 10 innings allowed in three days. But modern baseball sabermetricians (yes, that word isn’t in a dictionary because it’s a new term from the word sabermetrics, which is “the application of statistical analysis to baseball records, especially in order to evaluate and compare the performance of individual players”) have stated for years that the amount of pitches thrown is most important in keeping arms from breaking down or serious injuries.
There’s actually a chart on ihsaa.org for both varsity and “sub-varsity” (JV or freshman teams) pitchers. Let’s stick with varsity for the sake of this discussion.
If a pitcher throws 35 pitches or fewer, he doesn’t need to take a day off in between outings. Between 36 and 60 pitches requires one day off; 61-80 is two days off; 81-100 equals three days off; 101-120 pitches is four days off, and no pitcher is allowed to throw more than 120 pitches in a single game. The caveat with that last part of the rule is that if a pitcher reaches 120 in the middle of an at-bat, he can finish the at-bat before needing to be taken out.
Now if this sounds complicated, you’re right. As if high school baseball coaches didn’t have enough to worry about. But in the midst of the issues a coach has to think about now, to postpone or cancel a non-conference game has been added to the mix, meaning an athletic director has to worry about it, too.
What if the weather is bad and fields are saturated for an extended period of time — like the last week or so — and games needing to be rescheduled start piling up? If you’re a program without a ton of pitching depth, you could have a problem.
“For schools with smaller roster, you’ll probably see more cancellations in non-conference play,” said Marquette assistant athletic director Brad Collignon. “In the past it probably wasn’t out of the norm to experience this kind of weather early in the season and by the time May comes around, you’re playing five games in five days. Pitchers went on shorter rest out of necessity. Now it’s more limited.
“You’ve gotta keep your conference games as is, while avoiding the aforementioned five games in fives days that includes non-conference games simply because you don’t have the arms to weather it (pun likely intended).”
That’s the ultimate definition of “unintended consequences.” The spirit of the rule change is to save young pitchers from blowing out their arms due to baseball coaches having proverbial blinders on, not thinking of the kids’ futures. My dad was a victim of such lack of foresight back before there were any rules on pitcher usage.
Back in the early 1960s, he was a really good pitcher for Hammond High. I equate him to Dennis Quiad’s real-life portrayal of Jimmy Morris in the movie “The Rookie” in that when he was the pitching coach for my teams in Little League (and yes, I was a pitcher — average at beast), he threw real hard. At least it was hard to us kids. He actually was challenged by our manager with the latter saying he could hit my dad's pitching. Dad accepted the challenge and proceeded to throw a pitch inside, which hit of the knob of the bat and ricocheted off the manager’s head, giving him a concussion.
But I digress … the point being that my dad probably threw 80 miles per hour, or so, at the age of 39 or 40, but he was faster in high school before his arm blew out, destroying any shot at college or the minor leagues. So more stringent rules on arm usage are fine with me. Coaches are just going to have to be more diligent, such as what first-year Westville coach Larry Babcock is doing.
“I knew in December when I was hired that this rule was coming, so we had to develop some pitchers to get through the schedule,” he said. “We have eight guys who can pitch. I told some of them, ‘let’s just work on a fastball and change-up and worry about curve balls next year.’ Having eight pitchers also gives us some options.”
Yeah, like working a pitching staff like Major League teams — specifically the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians — were doing in last year’s postseason by using reliever after reliever following the starter leaving earlier than usual.
In high school competition now, that’s even more advantageous. If Babcock’s reliever can get through an inning in less than 35 pitches, he’s available the next day, which could help next week since the Blackhawks already have four games in the first five days, and might add one more thanks to postponements.
“It’s two weeks into the season and we’ve only played one game,” Babcock added.
The new pitch count rule adds strategy for a pair of conferences. In its last year in the Greater South Shore Conference, Marquette has to deal with conference doubleheaders on many Saturdays. Michigan City and La Porte deal with the Duneland Conference’s schedule of teams playing home-at-home matchups on Tuesday and Wednesday of each week.
This week, the Wolves and Slicers got the first in on Tuesday, but won’t be playing No. 2 until Friday evening, which resulted in the first day of La Porte’s Dr. Mueller Classic being canceled. And that resulted in Highland, which plays two games on Saturday in the Classic (including vs. the Slicers at 5:30 p.m.), adding a game at New Prairie on Friday to make up for a lost contest.
Oh, the joy of Mother Nature’s effect on spring sports never stops, and it’s even more fun in baseball with the new rule.
Reach sports editor Steve T. Gorches at email@example.com or (219) 214-4206. Follow him on Twitter @SteveTGorches.