With a newly implemented pitch-count rule and adjustments to the state tournament format to come, change is afoot for high school baseball in Kentucky.
Tates Creek embraced change more fully than other teams in Lexington. It welcomed its third baseball coach in school history after hiring Larry Poynter to succeed Dom Fucci in June.
Poynter, who played under Ron Cole, the first Commodores coach, and coached under Fucci, has had an easy time transitioning into what he’s called a dream job. He assisted under Fucci the previous two seasons, about 10 years after his first stint on the Commodores bench. He was the head man at Bryan Station and Paul Laurence Dunbar between those stops.
“Not much has changed,” Poynter said. “Our expectations are still as high as they’ve ever been. … Hopefully we can continue the tradition that we have here.”
The Commodores, headlined by University of Kentucky commitment Jaren Shelby, were 4-1 entering their spring break trip to Fort Walton Beach, Fla. That’s a marked improvement from their 0-3 opening a year ago.
Tates Creek finished last season 17-16 and lost in the first round of 43rd District play after reaching the state tournament in 2014. Poynter’s players are motivated to get Tates Creek — a program that’s won three state titles and played in eight state tournaments — back into contention and embrace the pressure that comes with big expectations. He considers it a teaching tool to help make his players not only better at the game, but at life.
“This is nothing compared to the pressure that you’re gonna face in real life,” Poynter said. “When you have to pay a mortage, when you have to pay a car payment, when your kids are sick. Real pressure’s coming. This is the fun pressure of learning how to be a young adult.”
Out for the count
Effective beginning this season, the KHSAA adopted a pitch count. Kentucky became the most recent state to adopt such a rule, joining Colorado and Vermont. Alabama’s governing body approved a pitch-count rule in October, three months before the KHSAA, but will not implement it until the 2017 season.
The new rule, which requires three calendar days of rest after a pitcher has thrown 76 or more pitches, supplanted an innings-limit rule. Under the old rule, a pitcher could throw nine innings in a single day but no more than 15 innings in a seven-day stretch. (A more complete look at the pitch-count rule is in the attached chart.)
Poynter’s previous teams managed pitchers according to a pitch count prior to this season and he believes the statewide adoption is safer for kids. Lexington Catholic Coach Taylor Brooks thinks it won’t affect “99 percent of the people in high school baseball.” Most coaches were already good about protecting their guys, he said.
“It hasn’t affected us and I don’t think it’s affected anybody we’ve played yet,” Brooks said. He acknowledged it might become more of a factor during district and regional play when games come in a more rapid succession.
The home and visiting coach (or designated representatives by those parties) must each sign off on the opposing team’s pitching chart. Both coaches must be presented with the opposing team’s sheet before play begins.
While the paperwork has gotten more involved, one subjective element of the game — the art of persuasion — becomes less taxing on coaches.
“This way, it takes out the possibility of a kid talking you into another inning,” Poynter said. “It just makes it easier. ‘You’ve reached your count, you’re done.’ It takes a little pressure off of us and I think in the long run it’ll be better for the kids.”
Two-week state tournament
Neither Brooks nor Poynter favors the new state-tournament format, which will feature a two-week slate of games rather than the five-day marathon seen in recent seasons. The first round and quarterfinals will be played Thursday through Saturday with the semifinals and finals taking place the subsequent Friday and Saturday.
The adjustment was made in response to research conducted by Lawrence County athletic director and baseball coach Travis Feltner, who advocates for a four-class system as was previously used in football. Lafayette Coach Chris Langston wishes the KHSAA would do just that; the new format swings the pendulum too much in the favor of teams who can only put one or two good pitchers on the mound, he said.
“Now if you’ve got a good draw, you can win the state with two pitchers,” Langston said. “Before, you had to have a whole pitching staff because you’re gonna play three or four games in a week. … I have eight or nine guys that can throw. There are a lot of coaches that don’t have that.”
Brooks, whose Knights are ranked No. 5 by the coaches, doesn’t desire a class system. “It means that much more when you get it,” he said of the “one-true-champion” model. But, in addition to thinking it creates an advantage for teams with top-dollar arms, he believes the two-week format will make it harder to keep guys focused.
“It’s tough to start a state tournament during the week, play a weekend then come back after a week break,” Brooks said. “ … I guess you gotta try but it could come back and bite some guys in the butt if (teams) can rest a guy for a week.”
New pitch-count rule
The following applies to KHSAA pitchers in the regular season and postseason during a single day. Pitchers who reach the maximum pitch threshold during an at-bat will be allowed to finish that at-bat before being removed from the game.
Maximum pitches in one day: 120
76-plus pitches: Requires three calendar days of rest
51-75 pitches: Requires two days rest
26-50 pitches: Requires one day rest
1-25 pitches: No required rest
Coaches’ top 20
(Record through Thursday in parentheses)
1. Ballard (5-3)
2. McCracken County (7-2)
3. West Jessamine (7-1)
4. St. Xavier (6-3)
5. Lexington Catholic (4-3)
6. Greenup County (7-0)
7. Elizabethtown (5-2)
8. South Warren (8-3)
9. Meade County (9-1)
10. Trinity (6-4)
11. Central Hardin (9-1)
12. Pleasure Ridge Park (3-3)
13. Beechwood (2-1)
14. Bowling Green (6-2)
15. Daviess County (6-2)
16. Lafayette (3-2)
17. Mercer County (3-2)
18. Madison Central (9-1)
19. Paul Laurence Dunbar (5-0)
20. Southwestern (7-0)