Iyanla de Jesus didn’t let exhaustion wipe the smile off her face, even after pitching 25 2/3 innings over the course of a single day. Adrenaline carried her along as she helped lead Jackson High School to a second consecutive Class 4A state softball championship.
The following day was a different story.
“My arm and the rest of my body just shut down the next day,” de Jesus said. “I think I slept the entire bus ride (from Spokane) back to Mill Creek.”
The Jackson ace pitched in all four games during the Timberwolves’ state-title run on May 25. Inclement weather interrupted play the day before, forcing all four rounds to be completed on Saturday. As a result, De Jesus threw 402 pitches in a span of about 12 hours.
She wasn’t alone. Glacier Peak’s Makayla Miller pitched all but one inning of the Grizzlies’ four games on Saturday.
Such Herculean efforts are common in softball. Rachel Garcia, who helped lead UCLA to the NCAA championship earlier this week, threw 131 pitches in the title-clinching win over Oklahoma, a day after throwing 61 pitches in a victory over Oklahoma and two days after hurling 179 in a win over Washington.
What allows softball pitchers to throw so many more innings and pitches than their baseball counterparts? Conventional wisdom suggests the underhand windmill motion employed in softball is more natural than the overhand, whipping motion in baseball, allowing softball pitchers to endure heavier workloads.
But some experts and researchers disagree with that premise.
There are strict pitch limits for high school baseball players. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) allows a maximum of 105 pitches in a calendar day and mandates rest days depending on the number of pitches thrown. For example, if a pitcher throws 76 to 105 pitches in a day, he must have three days rest before pitching again. If he throws between 51 and 75 pitches, he must rest two days.
There are no such limits in high school softball.
The WIAA follows the National Federation of State High School Associations’ rule book, which does not mandate pitch limits for softball players.
“The injury surveillance data that the softball rules committee uses each year, we take a close look at whether there is any evidence to … consider (pitch counts),” NFHS director of sports Sandy Searcy said. “And at this point, the data does not support it.”
According to the NFHS data, the injury rate per 1,000 softball participants actually ticked up from 1.1 in 2005-2006 to 1.49 in 2016-2017, but the percentage of those injuries that were throwing related dipped from 17.2 percent in 2005-2006 to 10.1 percent in 2017-2018.
That particular data supports the premise that the softball delivery is more natural. But some experts argue it’s more complicated than that.
“I do think there is a bit of a myth to that,” said Mia Hagen, sports medicine surgeon at the University of Washington who works closely with the school’s softball team. “We know that earlier in the season pitchers are more likely to be injured in softball and that’s because they haven’t done as much muscle conditioning and gotten used to the throwing motion as they do later in the season, which probably speaks to the fact that it’s not much of a natural motion. If you really dissect down the windmill pitch and the different positions that the arm goes through, there is still a lot of force put on the arm in that motion.
“The biomechanics of that underhand motion is a bit more ergonomic and puts less stress on certain portions of the elbow and the shoulder, but pitchers still do have injuries. I think the most common one tends to be shoulder strain, because the rotator cuff is used for that windmill motion.”
Hagen added that pitching injuries in softball are more likely to be tied to overuse rather than a sudden pop or tear, such as when a baseball pitcher tears the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow, which often leads to the infamous Tommy John surgery.
According to Sherry Werner, a biomechanics consultant and pitching instructor based in Arlington, Texas, the stress on the shoulder is often the same for baseball and softball pitchers. She reached her conclusion after collecting data on Major League Baseball pitchers and Olympic softball pitchers and then comparing the effects on the shoulder.
That has led some to lobby for pitch counts in high school softball.
Of the 12 area coaches contacted for this story, the majority expressed no desire for implementing pitch counts or requiring mandatory rest days. The others didn’t have a strong opinion either way.
Many acknowledged the competitive changes such a move would bring. Under current rules, a team is able to ride one dominant pitcher all season long.
“I don’t really understand why we’d have it, and for me there would only be one reason to, and that’s to penalize a team that has a really good dominant pitcher,” Cascade head coach Daryl Stevens said. “If there were injuries like you see in baseball, then I could totally see it. But we don’t have pitch counts in Little League, middle school or college. So high school would be the only one.”
Most high school teams don’t have an abundance of quality pitchers. Everett High School was the rare exception to that rule this season, possessing Kassidy Millar, Jackie Rookaird and Andrea Hedington.
“I don’t know when the last time I’ve seen that,” Marysville Getchell head coach Mike Moran said. “Most teams just have the one really good pitcher and with so much tournament ball and stuff, they’re kind of conditioned to throw a lot of innings.”
While local softball coaches say pitch counts aren’t necessary, they all expressed the importance of managing pitchers to prevent overuse. Some said Wesco coaches are way above average in keeping their athletes’ best interests in mind.
The coaches focus more on stamina, as fatigue can lead to poor mechanics, which can lead to injury. More experienced girls, such as de Jesus, can handle a robust workload while less-experienced hurlers may not be able to do so. That makes it difficult to set a hard-and-fast pitch limit, the coaches said.
There are more pressing problems in the sport than pitch counts, according to most coaches. Sport specialization, for example, risks overuse for pitchers with year-round throwing schedules.
“I think single-sport specialization has become a big problem in our country, as the book has turned toward becoming more competitive, becoming better athletes, making it to the next level, playing college, etc,” Hagen said. “Softball, similar to other sports like baseball and soccer, has fallen into that trap and people are under this misconception, perhaps, that this is a totally injury-free sport and the fact remains that it’s not. Overuse can really lead to injury in the shoulder and back or what have you.”
One Wesco coach said he’s witnessed players pitching for their select teams during the high school season, effectively doubling their workload in the spring.
Some coaches argue that a yearlong throwing schedule strengthens the arm, while others are wary of that premise.
What’s needed is further research, but unlike baseball, softball suffers from a lack of data. There are 30 Major League Baseball teams, 256 minor-league teams and countless semi-pro, independent and college leagues to draw data from to determine how throwing a baseball impacts long-term health of the arm.
Softball’s only prominent professional league in the United States is the National Pro Fastpitch, with just six teams and an average player salary of $6,600, according to a report by ESPN, meaning even the best pitchers rarely have a career that lasts beyond college.
For now, high school coaches are tasked with using their best judgment to ensure pitchers aren’t being burnt out. Area coaches said they believe they’re capable of recognizing the breaking point. Some experts, such as Hagen, aren’t sure that’s the best option.
“It’s a shame that we haven’t defined (limits) like we do in baseball with pitch count and mandatory days of rest,” Hagen said. “Maybe someday we’ll get to that point, but right now it’s the best judgment of the athlete and the family and the coach on how to manage that.”