Picking Splinters: No Justice for the Pitchers?

Should both head coaches of one of the best baseball games ever be summarily fired?

Should both head coaches of one of the best baseball games ever be summarily fired?

By now you probably heard about the epic, 25-inning game between the University of Texas and Boston College during this year’s NCAA Regionals leading up to the College World Series. The game was every bit as thrilling and impressive as a 25-inning, tooth-and-nail struggle sounds. Two heroic hurlers combined for the outings of their lives, with UT pitcher Austin Wood and BC bullpen man Mike Belfiore matching up for a combined 22.2 innings and 298 pitches in relief before Texas finally pulled it out.

Those excessive pitch counts (Wood: 169; Belfiore: 129) helped preserve the arms of their teammates so they could labor on in the tournament even after the marathon regional game. Both were gutsy performances that have since been chronicled by numerous writers (including Sports Illustrated football guru Peter King) in an Iliad-like manner. But there is a counterpoint to the usual tale of perseverance and athletic heroism. That would be the issue of gross negligence on behalf of both head coaches.

In a blog post for ESPN Insider Sunday night, Scouts Inc.’s Keith Law called for both B.C.’s Mikio Aoki and UT legend Augie Garrido to be summarily fired. The contention? By allowing their pitchers to record absurdly high pitch counts, the managers may have sat by and watched both players severely damage potential careers in professional baseball.

“Sending any college pitcher, especially one with a pro future, out there to throw three or four times as many pitches as his arm is accustomed to throwing, and doing so when his arm is already fatigued from an outing the day before, is a firing offense,” Law wrote. “Both coaches should be terminated immediately before they get a chance to blow out anyone else’s arm.”

At first, it seems a bit extreme to axe Aoki and Garrido (who has won five College World Series titles) for doing what, presumably, they’re being paid to do: Put their teams in the best possible position to win an NCAA Championship. However, Law has a very good point that has been largely overlooked in the afterglow of this epic.

Coaches have a responsibility to their players that goes beyond winning and losing. They are also trusted with the wellbeing of their teams. Aoki and Garrido let down their pitchers that night and there’s already evidence that it will damage at least Belfiore’s career in the pros in the immediate future.

There have been a plethora of medical studies devoted to testing the limits of the human arm as far as pitching is concerned. The general conclusion is that the more pitches a player throws, the more damage you do to it – particularly if those pitches grossly exceed a player’s standard work load. As relievers, Wood and Belfiore are accustomed to throwing a fraction of the innings they did in their 25-inning clash, but as long as they were throwing scoreless ball they had no intention of leaving that game. And given their masterful contributions, their coaches were content to leave them in. They should not have.

In the wake of the game, while Wood and Belfiore were receiving their much-deserved laurels from the media, Law interviewed several Major League scouts about the effects of that outing on the draft stock of Belfiore, a Top 100 prospect. Each was firm in their assessment that the workload was too much. One said his team was seriously re-evaluating whether or not to draft him in the first round now.

Should Belfiore slip in the draft, this one outing could end up costing him hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in signing bonus money.

Any sane coach will tell you that winning isn’t everything, and I suspect both Aoki and Garrido would tell you the same thing if given the opportunity. The well-being of the player needs to be considered as well and, in this case, it appears that Aoki and Garrido failed in that regard.

Is that a fireable offense? Maybe that’s a little harsh. After all, the coaches may still pay a price. Not all prospects are team-first gamers like Wood and Belfiore. When it comes to deciding on a school, rather than take a chance at harming their future, they may simply take a pass on the programs at Texas and B.C.