Since its introduction in 2014, recreational baseball coaches in Little League, Pony, Cal Ripken, and other leagues have used the MLB Pitch Smart standard for in-game pitch counts, rest, and total innings pitched throughout the season.
By committing to being MLB Pitch Smart Compliant, these organizations have provided a tremendous benefit to their participating coaches and players by prioritizing player health.
No 40 pitches are alike. Pitch Smart provides volunteer coaches with a simple structure to understand and implement little league pitch count, giving millions of youth baseball players a higher chance of staying healthy.
Not every system is perfect, but we’ll review some vital pitch count points and technology that can help monitor how much a player is throwing beyond pitch counts.
When Did Little League Pitch Counts Start?
The current version of pitch count rules started in 2006, with Little League international running a pilot study that offered pitch count guidance for player usage. Rather than the previously used innings-based limit that did not consider the actual pitching count in those innings. Coaches and players understand that one inning can mean 15 pitches or 30. Leaving some holes in using innings as a guide for how much a pitcher has thrown.
The MLB Pitch Smart rules specify pitch count, with rest guidelines correlated to the volume of in-pitching to different player ages.
MLB Pitch Smart Guidelines
So what are the MLB Pitch Smart Guidelines?
These guidelines are very straightforward. Different ranges of pitches result in a different number of rest days—a specific improvement over using innings as a guideline.
Tracking Pitch Count for Little League
With scoring apps like GameChanger and iScore, you can typically get an inning-by-inning record of pitch counts. What I would do as a coach is keep my own record in our practice guide and then consult/confirm with my scorekeeper at every half-inning.
Because the MLB Pitch Smart guidelines are very binary, there were times when I would confirm pitch counts on a batter-by-batter basis. Once a pitcher hits one of the pitch count limits, they can continue until:
- The batter reaches base;
- The batter is put out;
- The third out is made to complete the half-inning of the game;
- The pitcher is removed from the mound before the batter ends their at-bat.
This is true whether the pitcher reaches the maximum per day pitch count or the threshold for pitches and mandatory days of rest.
It’s easy to say that these are good in a vacuum, but there are many moving pieces to ensure that a team is compliant. In reality, managing pitch counts is a team management activity.
Fundamentals of Little League Team Management
Before getting further into pitch counts, we need to understand that effectively managing pitch counts means effective team management. It also means we should have more of a developmental focus.
What we’re trying to do with each game is:
- Keep it competitive
- Provide opportunities for learning & development
- Set the team & players up for success
The fundamentals of how we think about baseball can be summed into:
- Development matters more than selling out to win every game.
- The Skills that Scale are skills we’ve identified that can help athletes both now and in the future.
- If we want to have youth athletes continue playing baseball, they need to be having fun.
- We want to encourage multiple positions and not pigeon-hold players into specific roles.
- Tracking abilities in practice lowers the pressure to only rely on game results for improvement.
Little league athletes are not small adults. Kids take winning and losing personally. If they win, they are a winner, and if they lose, they are a loser. This pushes kids to want to play more and more games to validate the feeling of being a winner.
Introducing competition and tracking in practice can ease this negative feedback loop by showing that practice can result in individual improvement.
So how can we relate these principles to pitch counts?
Pitch counts should be seen as an opportunity for development.
The most significant positive downstream effect of enforcing limited pitch counts is that it:
A) Discourages coaches from continually over-using their best pitchers.
B) Should force them to develop more pitchers on their teams.
Coaches need some structure to guide how they use pitchers in practice and in-game.
To roughly map out how we can safely and effectively use pitchers in-game, we can bucket pitchers by ability, giving different practice paths for athletes at different talent levels.
This is based on my own experience coaching in Little League for the last ten years, so your own experience may vary, but the principles should generally still apply.
Managing Pitch Count for Little League
While there will still be coaches who skirt the rules, if leagues require coaches to follow MLB Pitch Smart guidelines, the development of more pitchers should be an expected and inevitable outcome, which is absolutely a good thing.
You can then create some structure for using your experienced pitchers, developing pitchers, and kids who need limited exposure to pitching.
One main piece that we want to avoid is putting kids who are reluctant to pitch in when the spotlight is on them in the game. This means we’ll want to plan these pitchers to throw in practice or in the bullpen during a game.
Bucketing Little League Pitchers
One of the significant issues for holding teams to pitch count guidelines is that the talent level is increasingly wide. Players who are physically older and bigger than their peers may outperform smaller players. So a pitching staff will resemble a very wide range of talent. We can start by bucketing pitchers into four main groups.
High Performing Pitcher Group – HPP – 2 Players
The HPP is a player who will throw consistent strikes and has enough velocity to generate a good amount of swings and misses or bad contact. They are in a place where they continue to refine what is already a good base as a pitcher. They have a confident approach, plan of attack, composure, and control – and again, this player has stuff on the mound.
Medium Performing Pitcher Group – MPP – 3 Players
These pitchers may throw consistent strikes but do not throw hard enough to generate more swings and misses and/or consistent bad contact. Or this could be a player who does throw harder than average, but the location is poor. They will generate a good chunk of swings and misses or bad contact, but you may have to tolerate some walks.
Developing Pitching Performance Group – DPP – 3 Players
The DPP pitcher is still developing their approach to pitching. This may mean the player is still getting comfortable working down the slope, may not have a secondary pitch, and may be more spotty when it comes to consistent strikes – but is on the path to resolving those attributes.
Introduction To Pitching Group – ITP – 4 Players
These types of players are much better suited for a progression that generally looks like this:
- Introduction – Getting on the mound and just getting familiar with throwing down the slope
- Tiered Bullpens – Scale down, establish performance, increase familiarity, scale up to competition
- The link above is to a pitching game that we’ll play at Driveline. The mound can, at times, be an intimidating place. A way to ease that can be adjusting the distance players need to throw. Adjusting distance tracking progress can, ideally, mean they see improvement throughout a season.
- Practice / Live ABs – Introduce competition, and refine basics of approach, responsibility & intent.
- Competition – Full competition reps
This gives the coach three different ‘types’ of pitchers, all of whom will be used in games consistently. The fourth group will spend more time practicing pitching in hopes that some can pitch in games near the end of the year.
We are assuming that any pre-All Stars end-of-season tournament that leagues may run does not determine its seeding by regular-season record. Coaches should be incentivized to approach their regular-season games to keep their pitchers developing over the season.
If we can bucket our team of players into these categories, we can create “Groups” of players who will be pitching in games each week.
Grouping Pitchers to Plan within Little League Pitch Count Rules
With groups 1 and 2, we can feel reasonably confident that our High Performing Pitchers and Medium Performing Pitchers can probably get us somewhere around two innings at about 20-25 pitches per inning at worst.
|Group 1||Group 2||Group 3||Group 4|
|1 HPP1 MPP1 DPP||1 HPP1 MPP1 DPP||1 MPP1 DPP1 ITP||1 ITP1 ITP1 ITP|
Referring to the MLB Pitch Smart guidelines, that should put us in a position for those two players to have mandatory prescribed rest of 2 days.
Little League teams typically play no more than three games a week – two during the week and one on the weekend. We should be able to have this group’s pitchers work on, for example, a Tuesday, rest on Wednesday through Friday then be back ready to pitch again on Saturday. Although we can assume they’ll play the field on Thursday and have some amount of throwing. An example of how this grouping and the player bucketing system would look like is as follows:
Understanding that general framework, you can then take this format and apply it to your team and its needs.
Managing Little League Pitch Counts with Multiple Pitchers
For example, if you look at the week 1 schedule for game 1, we start with one of our MPPs (Medium Performing Pitchers). Our next pitcher will be one of our DPP (Developing Performance Pitchers). Ideally, our DPP is getting through 2-3 innings at around 50 pitches.
In an ideal scenario, the game has played out that our DPP is not put in a position where their success or failure is not going to decide whether the game can continue or not due to run/mercy rules. If we can get this DPP player through 1 to 2 innings under 50 pitches, we’re then in a position to have the game closed out by our HPP (High Performing Pitcher).
With this kind of structure, there is a fair bit of “bet-hedging” going on and indeed hinges on a lot of best-case scenarios that sometimes can go awry in youth baseball.
This approach hinges on coaches embracing an approach to youth baseball that puts player development of all players as a priority.
Ultimately we believe that this approach will pay dividends by developing a more competitive and higher-performing team over time. Because it affords players at different developmental stages the opportunity to compete, pitchers can refine their existing skills and develop new ones. The outcome of this approach should be a more competitive team over the long term. It sets your team up to play its best baseball at the time of the year that it should matter the most – the end of the season, rather than the beginning.
With this kind of bucketed approach to pitchers, we can also look at where they play in the field.
Managing Little League Pitch Count and Playing the Field
The first thing we want to avoid is having players pitch and catch in the same game. While MLB Pitch Smart guidelines have that as a part of their guidance, oftentimes, it seems the demands of the game ignore this recommendation.
All too often, the best players that you have are the types of players you feel that you have to play at the “high leverage” positions – pitcher, catcher & shortstop.
Meaning we need to think in advance about balancing competitive reality with our approach to managing pitch counts.
Our bucketed approach does not depend on having our best players pitching every single inning of every single game. Meaning we can distribute our players appropriately.
If we have 2 HPPs on our team, and it just so happens that both of them are also the best options you have at pitcher, catcher & shortstop, we can distribute our “talent” with an eye for competitive team play and keeping players healthy.
If our #2 HPP is not going to pitch in game 1 of week 1, then we can have that player play shortstop when Group 1’s MPP is the starting. The idea is that this pitcher is more likely to give up more hits, and the team will want to have a competitive player at shortstop to turn these hit balls into outs.
If necessary, this player can also get moved to the catcher position when the #1 HPP is tasked with closing out the game. This may be needed if your best pitcher throws hard enough that certain players may struggle to catch them.
This enables us to balance the competitiveness of the team and is not negatively affected by allowing the basepaths to turn into a revolving door of baserunners due to repeated passed balls.
With planning and roster management, we can ideally avoid mixing in pitching with the other high leverage and high expected throwing volume positions on the field. And because we also believe in the benefit of giving all players in recreational baseball opportunities to learn how to play a variety of positions on the diamond (more on the value of this approach in our Youth Baseball Development certification course), we can integrate this approach to how we distribute positions, development and playing time to the whole team.
Monitoring Pitching Workload In Addition To Little League Pitch Count
One downside to MLB Pitch Smart guidelines is that it is very binary. It doesn’t consider the amount of throwing done outside the mound, whether these throws occur in the field or in warm-ups to go pitch.
Research has shown that pitch counts only account for approximately 40% of total pitches made in a game at the high school level. We can break this down by estimating warm-ups for pitchers.
High intent throws:
- Sixty pitches in three innings.
- Three innings at 5-8 warm-ups for 18 pitchers
- Fifteen pitches before the game in a warm-up bullpen
- This equals 93 total pitches and a pitch count of 60 pitches. Not including throws that are warm-ups or done on the field.
Trying to hand count every throw that a player makes is nearly impossible in any baseball environment—much less youth baseball, where coaches have to be hands-on with everything from instructions to tying shoelaces.
But this doesn’t tell us two things:
First, players are making more total throws than we think.
Second, to make better decisions, we need to be at least aware of these throws, even if we can’t count them all.
With a tool like Driveline PULSE, coaches can monitor players throwing workload with the least possible calories to burn and the greatest possible insight. We can do this by following the simple steps:
- Charging the PULSE sensor
- Putting on the PULSE strap & sensor before throwing
- Syncing the PULSE sensor after throwing
- Observe throwing workload over time
We know that measuring in-game pitches misses a significant amount of non-pitching throwing because we are talking about making better decisions about pitching and player health we cannot afford to miss this information.
Driveline PULSE gives coaches tremendous leverage by collecting this information on throwing and using next to no bandwidth to go beyond little league pitch count. Then by using the PULSE dash and reports after the game, coaches can ensure at a much higher level of fidelity that we are establishing, developing, and maintaining throwing volume throughout an entire season – which gives you massive leverage to keep players healthy and safe.
The introduction of mandatory Little League pitch count rules has hugely benefited millions of youth players worldwide. Especially when these standards have been adopted by Little League, Pony, and Cal Ripken.
We can only hope that the coaches – and parents who put their children under the care of these coaches – are aware of these limits to try and keep pitchers healthy.
Youth players are generally pretty resilient. But stress testing that resilience by having coaches remain ignorant of this type of common-sense regulation on pitching is a way to put players’ health and ability to stay and grow in our game at risk.
Given that the upside of this risk is so incredibly marginal – winning a youth baseball game by overtaxing youth players who will not recall the outcome in 6 months, let alone six years – we hope all coaches see the benefit of pitch count monitoring and rest.
Whether you do so with a standard like MLB Pitch Smart guidelines, or you pair compliance with that standard with Driveline PULSE, it all works toward what we believe to be a necessary approach to youth baseball that trumps all else:
Keep Kids Healthy and Having Fun
This blog was written by Deven Morgan and edited by Michael O’Connell