Editor's Note: This is the first story in a three-part series on pitching in high school baseball.
Jason Cavanaugh knows the signs of a tired pitcher well.
The Sycamore baseball coach is in his 16th season with the Spartans and was a catcher at Eastern Illinois. He's helped mentor Will Strack and Jake Turner to careers as Division I pitchers and, in his tenure at Sycamore, he hasn't had a single pitcher miss a start due to injury, rare for a prep sport where Tommy John or rotator cuff surgeries have become more common place.
Cavanaugh has developed a magic number, a firm commitment to pitch count as a way to help ensure the long-term health of Sycamore pitchers.
"When a pitcher's count nears 100 they are on a short leash," Cavanaugh said. "For our three starters I won't go past 100 pitches. They actually start to lose their best stuff long before 100. You can see either a drop in velocity, pitches located up in the strike zone, their overall location suffers and they take more time between pitches."
Pitch count management isn't an exact science. Each team keeps one, but all coaches deal with them differently as they try to maintain the delicate balance of winning a game while trying to protect a pitcher's arm from excessive wear-and-tear which could result in a future injury.
Because he has a firmly established number, Cavanaugh eliminates the possibility that a starter feels obligated to finish the game. A tired pitcher could be exposed to an arm injury if their mechanics fall apart because they are overly fatigued. He's frequently told a pitcher in the fifth or sixth inning not to hold anything back because their start is about to end.
"It really takes the pressure off a pitcher," said Cavanaugh, who added Sycamore pitchers have seven days rest between starts. "They quit thinking of saving anything and empty their tank."
Major League Baseball statistics support Cavanaugh's number. In 2012 MLB starters averaged about 95 pitches, according to Baseball-reference.com. According to Stats LLC, in 1998, 212 major league starts featured more than 125 pitches. The number went down throughout the decade before dipping below 100 starts of more than 125 pitches in 2001 and has stayed there ever since.
Perhaps pitchers coming up through the amateur ranks haven't built up the required arm endurance necessary for elevated pitch counts seen in the 1990s. Or in the copy-cat profession of coaching, amateur coaches are following the example set by their professional colleagues and closely monitoring starters' pitch count.
Interestingly, after bottoming out at 14 starts of more than 125 pitches in 2007 the number has been on the rise in MLB. In 2011, the 125-pitch threshold was hit or eclipsed 40 times.
DeKalb coach Jake Howells, worked in scouting and player development as a Los Angeles Dodgers' intern. He was the Recruiting Coordinator at California Baptist and coached the now defunct DeKalb County Liners, a summer league team for collegiate baseball players.
For Howells, coaches need to keep a pitch count and are also responsible to get a pitcher's count up early in the season. The muscles used to throw the ball need to be properly conditioned.
"To be a good coach you have to know where a pitcher's count is," Howells said. "Pitch count is a guide. At some point you need to know what it is so you don't put a kid's arm in a position it hasn't been in before."
Current Chicago Cubs starter Edwin Jackson threw 149 pitches in a no-hitter while with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010. That supports Howell's theory that an individual and a game situation can dictate pitch count.
"You've also got to know a pitcher's personality and the situations in each game that they've gone through," Howells said. "If they've been in very high-stress situations, it'll have an effect on them differently than if they just have a high pitch count."
There's also the issue of a player having a "rubber arm." Scientifically impossible to prove, some players have the ability to respond to a stressful start with a high pitch count better than others.
Indian Creek coach Joe Piekarz classified himself as a crafty lefty as a prep pitcher and at Northern Illinois. Because he wasn't a strikeout pitcher trying to throw the ball past every batter, Piekarz said he had a durable arm and could easily throw back-to-back days.
"There's no magic number," said Piekarz who was a pitcher at Northern Illinois. "I always keep in mind how much pressure they've been under and what is their current arm condition.
"Some guys, myself included, have a rubber arm. They can throw 100 pitches and want to come right back out the next day. But not everyone has that ability. It's up to us as coaches to know which of our players can bounce back quickly or can extend themselves in a game."
Coaches also said they need to be in sync with their pitchers and catchers. Hiawatha coach Sean Donnelly keeps a pitch count but also looks for feedback from players. This year he's had a pitcher leave a Little Ten Conference double header after one inning and one scratched from a game two start when they told him they had sore arms.
"I trust pitchers and catchers to tell me the truth," Donnelly said. "We use the count as a guide but communication is key. They've let me know if they've got anything left if their count is getting up there. I always error on the side of protecting a player's arm so they can continue to enjoy playing the game and stay healthy."