DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are specific to college baseball and do not apply to youth or high school baseball.
The college baseball world was in an uproar Monday evening when North Carolina pitched potential first round pick Kent Emanuel 51 pitches in relief, one day after he threw 124 pitches in a start (UPDATE: Emanuel was selected in the 3rd round by the Houston Astros). Anyone who follows such topics on Twitter saw the immediate backlash at Coach Fox for allowing him to pitch on such short rest and at the NCAA for not having maximum pitch counts and mandated rest periods. Writing the "take that decision out of the hands of the coaches" article is easy. The more difficult article to write is the one examining the flaws with that logic and some of the reasons behind why this abuse happens on a regular basis.
Maximum pitch count limit
If college baseball instituted a maximum pitch could limit, it certainly could decrease some of the abuse of collegiate pitchers. The issue becomes where do you set the limit? 120 pitches? 130 pitches? Every pitcher is different, and some can handle 120 pitches in a start, especially since most college pitchers only throw once a week. The problem with the post season is that pitchers are asked to come back on short rest, and pitchers who may only throw one or two innings at a time during the regular season are now asked to throw 3, 4, 5 innings at once. This mandatory pitch limit would not help protect this pitcher.
Mandated rest periods
Another common sense change the NCAA could make is to mandate rest periods after a certain number of pitches thrown. This would have prevented the situation that occurred Monday night because Emanuel would have been ineligible to pitch in that game. Many people feel that this change would only be necessary in the post season since most starters pitch one time a week and rarely, if ever, pitch in relief between starts. The post season is where you see this more often because of the large amount of meaningful games that are played in a short period of time, and this is where much of the glaring issues arise.
Why it happens?
It is very easy to just point the finger at the coach as a greedy, win-at-all-costs, monster who completely disregards his player’s safety. I believe that to be partially correct, but there are more factors at play than just “win-at-all-costs” coaches. NCAA Division I baseball has turned into a high pressure industry like most other college sports where the coach’s job depends primarily on winning. In reality, college athletic departments probably don’t tract the future health of the players who played for their coach and make decisions about his job based on that. They look at wins and losses, retainment rates, and graduation rates.
Keep in mind that for these coaches, coaching college baseball is not a hobby. They are not volunteers the way youth coaches are, and they are not paid a small stipend the way high school coaches are. They make very good money (some make hundreds of thousands of dollars) to win ball games. If they don’t live up to the expectations of the athletic department, they will lose their job and may lose their livelihood which can negatively impact their families.
Who is at fault?
Obviously, the coach should be the voice of reason in this situation, and should set their own limits on pitch counts and pitcher rest. The coach is certainly at fault to an extent, however we are not talking about 15 or 16 year old kids. College, and college athletics, is preparation for your future career. If Kent Emanuel were in UNC’s school of business (he may be for all I know) and he developed a million dollar business idea but didn’t protect it properly with a copyright or patent, nobody would bat an eye when someone else took it and made money off it. Kent Emanuel has a million dollar asset; his left arm. He should protect it the same way someone with a million dollar business idea would.
What can be done?
Putting pitch count limits and mandatory rest periods on post season play are certainly worth the NCAA’s time to investigate. But not everyone pitching in the post season has a million dollar asset that needs to be protected.
What if Emanuel weren’t a possible first round pick? What if he wasn’t a possible draft pick at all? What if he was just a college athlete who will never play professionally (like most college athletes are) and wanted to compete and give his team a chance to win a national title? If the NCAA instituted pitch count limits and mandatory rest periods, will they make a distinction between those who are protecting a million dollar asset and those who have no future past college?
The simple answer is no, they will not make that distinction, nor should they. And that is why I believe that pitch count limits and mandatory rest periods are not the best way to solve this problem. The senior who throws 170+ pitches in three days and was not planning on playing past college has suffered no loss by trying to help his team win. The player who has long pro career ahead of them and does the same has put their professional career and potential earnings at risk.
The NCAA (in all major sports) has conflicting motivations at work. Some players use it as preparation for a professional career, for some it is the pinnacle of their athletic career, and for coaches it is a way to earn a very good living. Because of these conflicting motivations, ultimately the player is responsible for their health, and should learn to advocate on their own behalf.
The best way to prevent future situations like this is to educate pitchers on the risks of such behavior. That way when the coach approaches a million dollar pitcher and asks “Do you have anything for me today?” The pitcher can make an educated decision and take responsibility for it regardless of the outcome.
In now way am I insinuating that throwing 120+ pitches or throwing on short rest is healthy for a pitcher's arm. Pitching in and of itself is a dangerous action. I am simply stating that college athletes are 19-23 years old and should be allowed to make decisions about their future the way any other adult can.
We all make mistakes that end up costing us something. Hopefully, Monday night will not hurt Kent Emanuel’s draft status and will not cost him a future injury. However, if he does fall in the draft because teams are afraid of the injury risk, or if he gets injured later in his career as a result of Monday's outing, he has nobody to blame but himself.