There’s something about social media networking that turns otherwise reasonable people into long-distance would-be experts. Or, perhaps more accurately, long-distance critics.
Ask Rochester High School baseball coach Jerry Striegel.
Bloggers throughout the nation — the vast majority possessing little or no interest in Washington high school baseball — have been quick to bash Striegel for his pitching strategy during the opening day of last week’s district Class 1A Tournament.
Striegel allowed starter Dylan Fosnacht to pitch the first 14 innings (and face two batters in the 15th) of Rochester’s 17-inning 1-0 win over La Center in a first-round district contest. Fosnacht was originally reported to have thrown 194 pitches, although some later estimates put his pitch count closer to 180.
Rochester ace Dustin Wilson worked the final three innings of that contest, then pitched the full seven innings of the Warriors’ 5-3 victory over Elma later in the day.
Those events drew the attention of such national media outlets as the Washington Post and ESPN, plus a veritable cornucopia of radio talk show hosts. The vast majority expressed outrage over the pitch counts, with many linking the overwork of high school pitchers to the increase in arm injuries at the major league level.
Even former American League Cy Young Award winner David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays entered the fray by tweeting Fosnacht to congratulate him on his feat. That message, however, also included a shot at Striegel.
Fosnacht, it should be noted, did not want to come out of the game even in the 15th and has vigorously defended his coach against all accusations.
I’m always wary of people offering strong opinions on events they didn’t witness, particularly when they don’t know the circumstances or the people involved.
Elma’s 91-0 football victory over Tenino in 2002, for example, drew predictable outrage from observers who assumed that the Eagles had run up the score. While I didn’t cover that contest, I was later told that, due to a high number of one-and two-play “drives” and defensive touchdowns, the game got out of hand far more rapidly than the Eagle coaching staff anticipated. The halftime score was 70-0.
I almost laughed when a caller (who admitted he hadn’t attended the game) asserted that Elma coach Jim Hill was attempting to impress the state pollsters with the margin of victory. In some 40 years of covering high schools, I can’t recall a coach less interested in state rankings than Hill. If a constitutional amendment barring high school polls was ever introduced, he wouldn’t oppose it.
The personal attacks on Striegel are similarly ill-informed.
The Rochester coach is highly respected by his peers and is widely regarded as one of the good guys of his profession — sentiments that I share. Those who characterize him as an unfeeling, win-at-all-costs monster clearly don’t know the man.
Even good guys, however, sometimes make questionable decisions and Striegel has subsequently expressed regrets over Fosnacht’s pitch count. Hoquiam coach Steve Jump empathized with his predicament.
“I think Jerry is a good coach,” Jump said. “I don’t think he would wish to hurt any of his players. Sometimes a coach and the players get caught up in the moment, with the game on the line, the crowd into it, etc. Sometimes the long-range goals you set at the beginning of the season get lost in the current moment.”
The real problem in this case was the absence of state high school pitching regulations governing such marathons as the Rochester-La Center contest. While prep pitchers who throw more than three innings in one game must rest for at least 48 hours before making their next mound appearance, they are permitted to work an unlimited number of innings in a single game.
The national Babe Ruth organization, in contrast, limits pitchers to seven innings per week during the regular season and to a maximum of seven innings in consecutive games in both the regular season and tournament play. A pitcher who throws three innings in one game, for instance, is restricted to a maximum of four innings in the next contest.
Little League officials have adopted even more restrictive regulations, related to pitch count. Under a complicated formula that almost requires a degree in calculus to comprehend, Little Leaguers who reach a certain pitch threshold must sit out a designated number of games (based on the number of pitches thrown) before returning to the mound.
This well-intentioned rule, unfortunately, has also significantly diminished the entertainment value of Little League tournament games — frequently transforming 90-minute contests into 3-hour affairs due to the multitude of delays while pitch counts are checked and relievers are warmed up.
Perhaps more to the point, most Little League-aged players want to swing the bat. The current rules encourage them to take more frequently in an effort to elevate an opposing ace’s pitch count.
Pitch counts can also be deceptive.
“Keep in mind that everyone is different,” Jump said. “Some pitchers are sore the next day after a few innings, others feel pretty good after only a couple of days rest. Our cold weather does not help our pitchers’ arms.”
In addition, there is little evidence that high pitch counts in a single game leads to long-term arm or shoulder damage. While I’m no authority on sports medicine, the guess here is that it is the wear and tear that results from an extensive workload over several months — going directly from high school to traveling teams or from the college ranks to the pros — that eventually poses a problem for professional pitchers.
While a pitch-count rule at the high school level could be counter-productive and difficult to enforce, I would support a proposal that would combine the current state rules on rest between appearances with Babe Ruth-type regulations on pitching eligibility.
Although the seven innings per week restriction wouldn’t be practical in an area where rain-outs frequently force teams to play makeup games on four or five consecutive days, restricting pitchers to seven innings in a single day or consecutive days seems reasonable. Jump said he would back such a rule, or one that limits pitchers to nine total innings in a single-day tournament.
It’s a good bet, in fact, that Rochester’s experience at district this year will spur Washington Interscholastic Activities Association representatives into making some changes in the state high school pitching rules.
Even bloggers might agree that would be a positive development.
Rick Anderson, The Daily World’s sports editor, can be reached at 360-537-3924, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org