Typically, yanking a starting pitcher from the mound after a couple of innings signals trouble. At Nansemond-Suffolk Academy, it’s simply part of the plan. That’s because head Coach David Mitchell implemented a piggyback pitching system for 2016. Instead of expecting the starting pitcher to throw until he falters, Mitchell enters each game knowing he will replace the starter, and any pitchers who follow, once they reach a pre-set limit of innings or pitches.
The new system provides multiple benefits. “It keeps opposing hitters from seeing the same pitcher more than twice, which certainly benefits the pitcher,” Mitchell says. “But more importantly, it helps keep our pitchers’ arms healthy. At the high school level, guys often go out and throw seven innings every four, five, or six days. Then after three or four starts on that workload, he’ll have a sore shoulder or elbow. Since our pitchers throw less, they don’t experience as much of that.”
In Mitchell’s system, starters usually pitch three innings and then relievers each throw two innings. When the schedule calls for it, he occasionally has the starter go four innings followed by a reliever throwing three innings. Should a pitcher struggle on the mound, Mitchell will replace him with a predetermined bridge pitcher who fills the gap until the next scheduled pitcher is set to come in. Mitchell and his staff tried to ensure that their pitchers got the most out of each outing, while maintaining a strict limit of 50 pitches per game. Match-ups against opposing lineups were taken into account when Mitchell decided who to put on the mound. In addition, pitchers with different styles and arm types were paired to keep batters on their toes.
The piggyback approach was successful. The Saints finished the season 17-6 and were ranked third in their division in the state. Mitchell first learned about the system three years ago while coaching for the Peninsula Pilots in the Coastal plain league, a collegiate summer league. With a pitching staff composed of players competing in the spring, summer, and fall, Mitchell says it was difficult to rely on just a few starting pitchers for a bulk of the innings. The approach had become increasingly successful for the Pilots over the past three years, which convinced Mitchell that it could work for his team. But getting the pitchers to buy into this new plan took some doing, especially for those who hoped to play in college and use the season as a showcase for their talent. To get them on board, Mitchell used preseason workouts to explain that everyone would benefit by throwing fewer innings because it would keep their arms healthy and help the team be successful.
Though one of the seniors who expected to be a top starter was skeptical before the season started, any doubts about the new plan quickly dissolved when the team opened the season with three straight wins against top teams with numerous NCAA Division I recruits. Parents also quickly bought into the new approach. “If they want their son to pitch at the collegiate level, they know he’s going to have to be healthy,” Mitchell says. “And they know throwing seven innings every four or five days increases the risk for injury.” Mitchell found that the system even provided a boost to overall team morale. He says 12 players were regularly given the chance to pitch, far more than most seasons.
Since his season has ended, Mitchell has talked to a couple of college coaches who were considering the piggyback system for their squads. “It’s worked for us, but it might not be for everybody,” he says. “For schools that have smaller rosters, or teams that are playing a lot of games in shorter amounts of time with a smaller pitching staff, it can be successful and help keep pitchers’ arms healthy. But it will only work if the pitchers buy into the idea.”