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Friday, April 30, 2004

On high schoolers and pitch counts 

Good Rob Neyer column today, on the story of Garrett Berger, a high school pitcher whose career may or may not have been ruined because of the way he was used in high school, and the way his baseball coach reacted when Berger's parents tried to limit the amount that he pitched.

After getting ridden hard as a high school senior, including having a 155 pitch outing (where he ended up pulling himself from the game, incurring the wrath of his coach), Berger was drafted in the second round by Florida, and just months later underwent Tommy John surgery. Berger's career has yet to recover.

The issue of pitch counts is still hotly debated, of course, with old-school types like Jeff Torborg, Larry Dierker and Jack McDowell seeming to scorn the notion (despite their first-hand experiences with A.J. Burnett, Scott Elarton, and McDowell himself, respectively), while the Beanian new-breeds embrace whole-heartedly the idea of keeping pitch counts down. The tandem starter system, which Grady Fuson brought to Texas from Oakland, is based, in large part, on the theory that by keeping pitch counts low for younger pitchers, you will avoid injuries (while also teaching your pitchers to be more economical with their pitches).

But the horror stories out there, of guys like Garrett Berger, guys like Bud Smith (who threw 134 pitches in a no-hitter at the age of 21 and has never been the same), would seem to serve as cautionary tales, would lead high school coaches to be more cautious with their pitchers.

Nevertheless, you still have someone like Kerry Wood, who insists to this day that throwing 200 pitches in one day, in the pursuit of the state baseball title for Grand Prairie High, was the right thing to do, even after missing almost two seasons to arm problems not long thereafter.

Yeah, there's no way to definitively link Wood's or Smith's arm problems to one particular game. Either one may have ended up having arm problems anyway...and Garrett Berger's torn elbow ligament may, just may, have been completely unrelated to his over-use in high school.

But given the risks, is it really too much to ask that coaches, particularly high school and college coaches, not treat young players with developing arms like they are Nolan Ryan or Curt Schilling?

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