A Different Sort of Overuse Problem Among College Pitchers

Earlier this week, I wrote about UCLA’s pitcher overuse problem. At one point in that piece, I provided a comparison between league-wide and Bruins-only Pitch Smart violation rates. Pitch Smart represents a series of guidelines designed to protect the health of young athletes.

The NCAA benchmarks I reported in that post on UCLA were slightly different than those I found last August, as Pitch Smart’s age 19–22 guidelines have changed over the past year.

A brief summary of the old and new criteria:

The Differing Pitch Smart Guidelines for Collegians
Full Days Off For Recovery 2016 Pitch Range 2017 Pitch Range
0 1–30 1–30
1 31–45 31–45
2 46–60 46–60
3 61–75 61–80
4 76–105 81–105
5 106–120 106–120
Additional recommendations: Both last year and this year, pitchers were advised not to pitch in multiple games on the same day. This year, pitchers were also counseled not to pitch on three consecutive days.

By and large, the 2016 and 2017 guidelines are similar. But there are two differences: one is a change in the pitch boundary separating three- and four-day rest periods; the other is in the fine print, where it’s recommended that pitchers shouldn’t be used on three consecutive days. Because that qualification didn’t exist last year, there was a loophole in the “rules.” MLB and USA Baseball didn’t (and still don’t) set a firm ceiling for workloads — they say that the appropriate limit varies from arm to arm — so pitchers could throw fewer than 30 pitches each and every day without defying the guidelines. Now, a Pitch Smart-adhering pitcher can’t string together more than two straight outings.

Let’s look at how often the average NCAA pitcher defies both editions of Pitch Smart recommendations. Both sets of violation rates are broken up by class year for the 2012–2015 NCAA pitcher population.

The guideline adjustments send nearly all collegiate violation rates upward. In the regular season, the figures only rise by a few ticks. But when it comes to tournament appearances, rates increase by an extra 1% for sophomores, juniors, and seniors. The end result is a further magnification of the overuse issues across college baseball. The older a pitcher gets, the more likely a coach is to abuse his arm. And violation rates rise sharply in the NCAA tournament, where upperclassmen are being used irresponsibly in over 10% of their appearances.

Gerald Schifman is the lead researcher at Crain's New York Business and a writer at The Hardball Times. He previously worked in the New York Mets' baseball operations department and in Major League Baseball's publishing department. Follow him on Twitter @gschifman.

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5 years ago

Reads to me like absent any fine print, coaches and players stuck tighter to the rules. Now that the fine print explicitly states that it’s just a recommendation, more participants are deciding that they can ignore it.