Coaches look out for pitchers’ health

Published 12:15 am Friday, May 21, 2010

VIDALIA — When faced with the choice of winning a possible state championship or protecting the right arm of one of his star pitchers, Johnny Lee Hoffpauir didn’t hesitate.

He looked out for the health of his player.

That player, Barry Bowden, went on to an All-American pitching career at Southern Miss and is currently pitching in the Kansas City Royals organization.

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But back in 2003, Bowden was just a junior and the ace pitcher for a Vidalia team that made the state finals.

Bowden threw over 100 pitches in the semifinal game on a Wednesday and Hoffpauir didn’t want to bring him back to start the championship game on Thursday for fear of hurting his arm or shoulder.

“People were asking ‘You going to throw Barry tomorrow?’ and I said ‘No, we might use him in the sixth or seventh inning but no sooner than that,’” Hoffpauir said. “I’ll put it like this. If I pitched Barry earlier in that game, we probably have another state championship. But it wasn’t worth ruining a kid. Barry obviously had a future past high school ball.”

The pitch count debate has been brought to light by a controversial decision by the Mississippi High School Athletic Association. The MHSAA ruled that Bruce High School had to forfeit its place in the Class 2A state championship series because senior pitcher Caleb Hanley pitched 17 2/3 innings in the week of the South State championship series against Hamilton.

The MHSAA allows pitchers to throw only 17 innings per calendar week. Because the rule was violated, Bruce was disqualified from the playoffs and Hamilton took its place in the state championship series.

Hoffpauir said Louisiana has no such rule, and he has seen many cases of pitcher abuse by win-hungry coaches.

“I see a lot of coaches throw kids 140 pitches on a Monday and then come back on Thursday and do it again,” Hoffpauir said. “We don’t do that. Over the years I’ve been overcautious, especially at the beginning of the season.”

Hoffpauir said he will generally let his pitchers throw only about 40 pitches per appearance early in the season as they build up their arm strength.

“As the season progresses, we’ll get to 70 or so and keep a close eye on the kid,” Hoffpauir said. “One hundred pitches for some reason or another seems to be the magic pitch mark now.”

Hoffpauir said not only does he keep a close eye on his pitchers during games, but also in practice.

“You have to watch at practice the day after a kid throws because a lot of our pitchers are position players too,” Hoffpauir said. “That can take a toll on their arms.”

Cathedral coach Craig Beesley, who pitched for the Green Wave before pitching collegiately for Delta State, said when it comes to watching pitch counts, it really depends on the pitcher.

“All pitchers are a little different,” Beesley said. “Some of them can throw a bunch of innings and some can be gassed after two or three innings. You have to look at each kid individually when it comes to protecting their arms.”

Hoffpauir said mechanics play a large part in how quickly a pitcher can bounce back from an outing.

“If you get a kid who is a violent thrower, and whose mechanics are rough, you’ve got to keep an eye on him,” Hoffpauir said. “On the other hand, if you have a kid who is a smooth thrower with great mechanics it doesn’t put as much strain on his arm. A hard thrower will tend to not bounce back as quickly as a kid who is a lollypop thrower.”

Beesley said the main thing he looks for when determining whether his pitcher has reached his limit is velocity and location.

“Once that goes, either their legs are tired or their arm is tired,” Beesley said. “That’s the main thing we look for.”

And Beesley’s experience as a college pitcher helps when it comes down to evaluating whether his pitcher has had enough.

“Definitely someone that’s been through it before can see the circumstances of pitching too many innings,” Beesley said. “I pitched quite a few innings my (senior) year, especially in the playoffs. It does take a toll on the arm and shoulder.

“There’s a lot of things that go into how much a kid can pitch and how fast they can come back. Everything has to be looked at to protect a kid’s arm.”

And that is a philosophy Hoffpauir lives by as well.

“The worst thing that can happen is to ruin a kid’s arm,” Hoffpauir said. “You’ve got to be careful. Winning is never worth ruining a kid’s arm.”