Every pitch counts now more than ever for high school baseball teams across the state of Missouri.
New rules enforced this season by the Missouri State High School Activities Association limit how many pitches a player can throw in a single game and sets a mandate for days of rest following outings on the mound.
Area coaches agree the regulations have the right intent of protecting pitchers from injury and fatigue.
With that being said, the changes impact how teams strategize as they navigate through a loaded, sometimes unforgiving spring schedule that often includes several games per week.
"As a coach, you kind of really earn your keep so to speak because it's all a cat-and-mouse game trying to cut guys at certain limits so they can throw another game," Mark Twain coach Ian Hatton said.
The rules stipulate that juniors and seniors are restricted to a daily maximum of 105 pitches, while sophomores and freshmen are allowed a max of 95.
If a pitcher throws 76 or more pitches in a game, he is forced to take four days of rest. Within the range of 61 and 75 pitches requires three days’ rest; 46 to 60 pitches means two days’ rest; and between 31 and 45 pitches requires one day of rest.
"After I really sat down and looked at the chart that they gave us, I think what they did with it is actually pretty good," said Hannibal coach Daryl Zessin, who utilizes three starters and two arms out of the bullpen. "Overall, it's a positive thing in general."
Derek Vanlandingham, the Monroe City coach, echoed similar sentiment, adding his plan is to deploy more pitchers this season than the Panthers have in past years.
Before the season began, however, Vanlandingham admitted the rules would take some getting used to.
"It's going to be different," he said. "We've got about six or seven pitchers we're going to have to look to this year to be successful."
The rule change impacts some squads more than others. Smaller schools in Class 1 are put in a tough position due to lack of manpower.
Marion County, for example, only has 10 players on its roster, making it difficult to find enough arms to remain competitive through the season's grind.
"It's really, really hard for us," Marion County coach Jason Keilholz said. "We've got down where we've just got two games a week. We can't play more than that. We can't schedule three games a week, because we'll get to the third and not be able to play."
Keilholz said he thinks and plans ahead to make sure his team is put in the best position possible.
"I kept all my kids under 60 pitches tonight and we play again Thursday," he said Tuesday after a loss to Van-Far, "so they'll have two days of rest and all be available again."
After each game, coaches meet to confirm the pitch count numbers for every pitcher used on each side. If discrepancies arise, the home team’s count is official. These numbers must be reported to MSHSAA within 24 hours. Failing to do so results in a fine.
Zessin said reporting pitch counts has proven a simple task thus far.
"So far, it's gone pretty smooth," he said. "Every team that we've played so far, especially conference opponents, we've been checking back and forth every half inning or so just to make sure we're on the same count."
Palmyra coach Mark Loman said the reporting process is the only fair way to ensure a level playing field for all squads.
"The paperwork trail is not a fun one to take care of during the game, but it is necessary to hold everyone accountable so that we keep kids safe," Loman said.
Loman said his program will have to be mindful of grooming more pitchers from a younger age.
"Kids must be taught at a young age how to properly throw a baseball and then also learn how to handle themselves on the mound," he said. "I think pitching is a fun position for baseball kids to learn."
The veteran skipper said the rule's effect on player health and safety won't be clear until a few seasons down the road. But the last thing anyone wants, he added, is to put a kid in a position where they might have an injury.
"We will see how the rule impacts numbers of arm injuries as time passes," he said.
When teams start running out of options on the hill, new and often younger pitchers are thrust into key roles. For these rising young guns, this presents both an opportunity and a setback, according to Zessin.
"Some teams sometimes play four, maybe five games a week, and you can't hardly do that without having to call up younger kids into a varsity situation that maybe they're not truly ready for," he explained. "That can be unfortunate No. 1 for the kid because it can be a de-motivator. The confidence level can wane because they're getting crushed. And for those teams that have to put them in there, maybe they lose a lead when they should have beaten a team. It all plays in to the psyche of the team."
This year is not the first time coaches in the area have cared about pitch counts. In fact, quite the opposite. But it's fair to say it's never been as emphasized as it is now.
"In years past, we would let the kids throw and we'd always have a clicker and if we felt they were starting to labor, we'd say, 'Okay, what are we looking at? Where is he at?'" Zessin said. "But now, you know every half inning where he's at because you have to know."
Travis David and Chuck Embree contributed to this story.