How a 157-pitch game in Kansas explains everything wrong with youth baseball

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

LAWRENCE, Kan. – Outside of Hoglund Ballpark, where his team's season had ended via mercy rule moments earlier, Jeff Hoover stood behind a black fence, banned from the premises. A week earlier in a regional championship game, Hoover, the coach at Wichita West High, allowed a junior named Colby Pechin to throw 10 innings and 157 pitches. Kansas State High School Activities Association rules allow a maximum of nine innings in a day. It suspended Hoover and Pechin for running afoul of the edict.

Wichita West High's Colby Pechin threw 157 pitches over 10 innings. (CatchitKansas.com/Ryan Tarletsky)
Wichita West High's Colby Pechin threw 157 pitches over 10 innings. (CatchitKansas.com/Ryan Tarletsky)

West won the game in 16 innings and headed to the state tournament. It was supposed to have been a triumphant day for Hoover. He had resurrected West from the dregs of Kansas high school baseball. The Pioneers didn't win a single game between 2008 and 2012. In April 2014, when Hoover took over the program, they snapped a 122-game conference losing streak that stretched back nearly a decade. Here they were just two years later, facing a Shawnee Mission East High team stocked with Division I kids and one, Joey Wentz, likely to go in the first round of next week's amateur draft.

And they were there without their coach. Hoover wore his West maroon, his baseball cap, his standard-issue wraparound sunglasses and the veil of ignorance that kept him from the field. While Tommy John surgery across the major leagues this season has fallen to its lowest levels in years – unfortunately most doctors and researchers believe it's statistical noise and bound to rebound rather than signal a step forward – the number of ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgeries in teenagers continues to surge. A 2015 paper in "The American Journal of Orthopaedics" found 56.8 percent of Tommy John surgeries between 2007 and 2011 were on 15- to 19-year-olds, and doctors say that number is bound to rise in coming years.

Why? Because Colby Pechin isn't unique, and overuse in all forms – high single-game pitch counts, throwing multiple times the same day, too many pitches clustered among multiple days, playing competitively year round – pervades the youth-baseball landscape. This is the worst time of the year for it, with high school teams trying to stay alive and universities aiming for the College World Series. Previously the headquarters of arm abuse, professional baseball is today far and away the safest place for a pitcher.

In amateur baseball, the onus falls on parents and coaches – and the ultimate decision is almost always the coach's, which presents grave cases of moral hazard. It is 2016, and any coach at any level who allows a pitcher to throw 157 competitive pitches in a game does not deserve to coach. And those like Hoover, who either understand what they're doing and ignore it or don't understand and aren't willing to educate themselves – both of which, frankly, are unacceptable – must understand the damage they're doing.

So I came here to have a conversation with him about the subject and hopefully help him understand the research on the matter.

"I'm sorry," Hoover said. "I can't talk."

I asked whether it was his choice or if the school put a gag order on him. Hoover politely suggested I speak with Joel Hudson, the principal at West. I inquired the same of Hudson: After making national news, was the school now refusing to address the criticism it brought upon itself?

"I think he just wants to focus on being with his team right now," Hudson said. "I'm happy he's with his team right now. I just want to let the boys enjoy the end of the season. They've had a great season. They should be proud."

Hudson, I would find, had a particularly strong ability for completely avoiding the questions being asked of him. And understand: These are important questions, and those being asked are not indemnified from answering for misdeeds done to children simply because they're in the sports space.

I tried again: Does West have any intentions of implementing new limits for its pitchers?

"That's entirely up to the state association," Hudson said. "They make the rules."

Nothing, I said, prevents West from implementing its own set of standards.

"We'll follow all the KHSHAA rules," Hudson said.

Right, but KHSHAA's rules offer no limits on pitches thrown, which is a far greater indicator of use than innings.

"We'll follow all the KHSHAA rules," Hudson said.

He smiled. I don't know if Hudson was satisfied by his smugness or annoyed at my refusal to accept his sloppy attempt at spin. Probably both. I reminded him he wasn't answering the question.

"We'll follow all the KHSHAA rules," Hudson said. "Now, enjoy your day. That's all you're gonna get out of me. Hope you had a good experience here."

I hadn't. I came to see if someone involved in the destruction of youth arms would take responsibility and vow to do better. I found the same men as always: ones who turtle away from accountability. Though when I approached Hoover once more, he left open a glimmer of hope.

"Do me a favor," he said, "and call me."

Every day, it seems, a new case of pitching abuse pops up, and I ask myself when things are going to change. I spent almost four years writing a book about the pitching arm, and as much as I tried to focus on youth baseball and where we've gone wrong, obviously I didn't devote enough space to it, because here we are, not just high school and college kids throwing too much but barely pubescent ones.

One of the most resonant messages of the silly season came from an Illinois man named Thomas Blamey. In a Facebook post that has been shared more than 70,000 times, Blamey wrote what amounted to a public apology to his 17-year-old son Matt: "After I stopped being Matts coach at age 14, I allowed coaches to over use him. I take the blame. I knew his pitch counts like my own SSN. And because I didn't want to embarrass him or have his coaches think I'm a crazy dad, I let him throw until the coach decided to pull him. And often times that was after the game ended. Here is what can happen."

 Underneath was a grisly picture of a just-sewn-together elbow – Matt's, after his Tommy John surgery. Thomas said his son wants to pitch in college. So, presumably, does Colby Pechin, whose fastball reaches 88 mph and who is listed on a number of recruiting websites. I would have asked him, but a proxy for West said none of the kids on the team was talking, either.

Even if he weren't, that doesn't matter. So many of the arguments proffered by high school coaches and players rest on the idea that this is a kid doing it for his team or a kid whose arm can handle it or a kid who doesn't plan on pitching after high school. All of these are nonsense.

If a kid must throw 157 pitches for his team to succeed, that means his coach did a poor job developing other quality pitchers. One child should not have to pay for his coach's mistake. Similarly, nobody knows what a kid's arm can handle – least of all the coach who only gains from using it. If a proven method to predict arm injuries existed, perhaps then coaches could speak with such confidence.

The worst is the he's-not-pitching-anymore argument. The consequences of overuse do not end at high school graduation.

This is a minuscule fraction of the people who understand the consequences of arm injuries. To act like the deeds done in childhood won't resurface in adulthood is a moral failing.

It's just as egregious when done at the college level. Kyle Cody, a senior at the University of Kentucky expected to go in the top 100 this year, threw 137 pitches in a recent game. The next day a GM texted me and said he took Cody off his draft board that morning.

A Minnesota State-Mankato starter threw a 171-pitch complete game. Southern New Hampshire University summoned a reliever for nine innings and 145 pitches after he'd never thrown more than 3 1/3 innings. It's not just small-time programs. Clemson used a pitcher after a 2-hour, 41-minute rain delay. Rice and the University of Connecticut pushed pitchers well beyond reasonable usage on multiple days.

The battle for arm health often pits winning games against looking out for the player's future. This is an anachronism. And it will change once enough pressure descends on the coaches whose selfishness guides so many of these choices.

I called Jeff Hoover this week at the school, like he asked. The woman who picked up the phone said Hoover was not there but she would send him an email with my contact information. I never heard from him.

In an interview with The Wichita Eagle, Hoover expressed no regret. He argued that Pechin shouldn't have been suspended – a perfectly reasonable perspective, since punishing the child for his coach's misdeeds seems excessive – but then dipped into the classic playbook of cockamamie coach excuses that only reinforce the depth of their witlessness on a subject they should be required to understand better than anyone.

"I know I have to look out and save a kid from himself," Hoover told the Eagle. "His velocity was the same as it was in the third inning. Everything was good. He felt fine. … He said, 'If you asked me at the start of the year if I would sacrifice myself for a chance to go to state for a game, then I would have said yes. I stand by that.' "

This is where a responsible coach commends the kid for his noble intentions, thanks him for his 100 pitches and removes him from the game, no matter how painful it may be. Because it's the right thing to do. Even if we don't know the proper number of pitches – and we don't – and we're just guessing as to what a reasonable threshold would be, implementing a limit among children is never a bad plan, not with arms as fragile as they are.

The KSHSAA rules, by which Hudson said West would continue to abide, are actually quite terrible. The nine-inning threshold is too arbitrary. Allowing a pitcher to go 12 innings over a 48-hour period is inviting trouble. If Kansas wanted to stop this, it could do what Illinois, Texas, Minnesota and other states are trying: implement hard-and-fast pitch-count rules.

This won't eliminate pitching injuries. Nothing will. Throwing a baseball at high velocities can be dangerous even among the most coddled kids. And clean movement patterns or superior genetics spare others from the pain of injuries. No easy solution exists. What coaches can do is play the odds, and those say the less overuse for a child who pitches, the less likely he is to get injured. I'd love to tell this to any coach who wants to talk about it and understand more on the subject – even Jeff Hoover.

He's got my number. I don't expect a call. I hope I'm wrong.

What to Read Next