Nick Burns likes to finish what he starts. Last season, when he earned Tri-Valley League Pitcher of the Year honors as a Hopkinton High sophomore, he compiled a record of 5-1 with 60 strikeouts, 11 walks, and a 2.60 earned-run average in 48 innings pitched.
Of the seven games he took the mound as the Hillers’ starting pitcher, Burns threw five complete games.
Though the 6-foot junior lefty did everything he could before his first start this spring — following an offseason workout program, stretching, throwing bullpen sessions — he knew the chances that he would be finishing the game were not good.
“I’m still mostly trying to get the stamina back up,” Burns said.
“My limit for the first game is 20 or 30 pitches below what I can usually go. I’m still trying to build up that stamina slowly because you don’t want to push anything in cold weather.”
At this point in the spring, aces from all over the area will walk off mounds long before their games are in hand. Pitchers, like Burns, who are used to throwing seven innings in May and June may only throw four or five in early April.
While a star pitcher’s early exit may hurt his team’s chances of winning, his coach will yank him with the health of his arm in mind.
“You’re doing a disservice to the kids if you really push the envelope, so to speak, with their pitch counts,” said Hopkinton coach Jay Golden , who said Burns would be limited to around 80 to start the season.
“Kids have their high school careers, but some want to go on to college, and you don’t want to do any long-term damage to their arm. It would just be a disservice to them. We try to put safety first when it comes to that to take care of the kids’ arms.”
As snow still lingers on some area fields, pitchers and coaches alike stew over pitch-count numbers. Finding the right number for each pitcher requires a complicated algorithm, factoring in a pitcher’s size and body type, his preparation over the winter, his recent throwing history, and other maddeningly unpredictable factors like the temperature on the field.
Ever since counting pitches — not innings — has become the norm in high school baseball, many coaches look at the 100-pitch mark as a rough estimate of a starter’s maximum when he’s in midseason form.
Algonquin Regional coach Neil Burke , in his 26th year at the helm of the Tomahawks, remembers pitch counts becoming more of a focus about 15 years ago.
“It’s been a while,” Burke said. “And I think it’s a good thing. I think maybe in the past you might leave a kid out there for maybe too many. One hundred seems to be the acceptable norm so it’s safe to stay there, safe to use that as a barometer when you decide to take a kid out.”
But there is no hard and fast number that every coach will agree on, especially early in the season as pitchers fight the cold to stay loose and build up arm strength.
“Every kid is different,” said Lincoln-Sudbury Regional coach Kirk Fredericks . “I’ll have a kid who hasn’t pitched throw 20 or 30 the first time he gets on a mound. Some kids have been throwing for two months; maybe they’ll go 45 pitches, and we’ll chart them and move them along based on how they feel.”
A pitch count isn’t always necessarily strictly enforced. Coaches have to be able to read body language and see whether a player’s mechanics are failing because of fatigue. Coaches also have to decipher what they’re being told by pitchers in order to determine whether a player should be removed from the game.
“I’ve got competitive kids,” said Newton North baseball coach Joe Siciliano . “One of our guys, Brendan Ryan , he’s as tough as they come. He could throw 400 pitches and tell me ‘I feel great, Coach.’ So, yes, I’ll have him and the rest of them on a pitch count.”
Fredericks once had one particularly fiery pitcher threaten to punch him if Fredericks decided to take him out of the state championship game, even though the player had thrown 133 pitches.
“Every inning, it’s like ‘What’s too much?’ ’’ Fredericks said. “He was doing everything fine, but 133 pitches? I’d never had a guy over 112. He had a college career ahead of him, and he was saying ‘I don’t care if I pitch a game in college.’ It’s hard. You have to know the kids and make decisions.”
Keelan Smithers , a standout lefty at Belmont Hill School from Framingham, hates to have the ball taken out of his hands. Though the 6-foot-4 Princeton commit has a maximum of between 60 and 75 pitches to start the year, he’s still hoping to throw complete games by getting out of each inning with as few pitches as possible.
“This is the time for me to focus on pitching to contact and getting quick outs, not worrying about strikeout counts,” he said.
“I can throw hard, and striking out kids is a good thing, but in these games I’m trying to get tail on my ball, keep it low, and get ground-ball outs. Especially when it’s cold and teams won’t be hitting the ball quite as hard anyway,’’ Smithers said.
“Right now, a seven-pitch inning is much more valuable to me and my team than a 27-pitch inning with three strikeouts and a walk.”
While top pitchers like Smithers can work on fine-tuning their control to cope with lower pitch counts, coaches use this time of year to see what they have for pitching depth. If their strongest arms are off the mound in the fifth inning, that leaves work to be done for the rest of the pitching staff.
“It’s a silver lining for sure,” said St. John’s High coach Charlie Eppinger .
“You’ve got a couple guys you count on and you hope by May they’re lengthened out to 6- or 7-inning outings and maybe complete games. But early in the season, the silver lining for them not being able to go as deep is you learn a lot about the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh pitcher you’ve got, because you put them into those game situations,’’ he said.
“It is nice to be forced to use multiple pitchers because that way you get to see multiple guys.”
Until the weather warms, and pitchers build their arm strength, coaches will be keeping a close eye on their progression and their pitch counts. It’s their job to keep the bigger picture in mind when determining how long a player’s start should last because it’s not always as easy call for high school players, regardless of their talent level.
“If I’m pitching a good game, I don’t want to come out,” Burns said. “But if you can feel yourself getting tired or your mechanics slipping, it’s better to realize that and give the ball off to someone else rather than hurt yourself.”