Less than a week after Florida State Seminoles’ pitcher Drew Parrish walked off Mike Martin Field at Dick Howser Stadium for the final time in 2018, having been eliminated during the NCAA Regionals, he was home fishing with friends, enjoying life, and doing other things that kids should do. And, although the team is no longer playing, head coach Mike Martin, after whom the field is named, is still receiving criticism for how the final game of the season unfolded.
Earlier this week, a New York Daily News story ran, questioning the motives of Martin and his coaching staff after Parrish was brought out to start the ninth inning following a lengthy rain delay. Parrish, a sophomore, had thrown 109 pitches through eight innings before rain halted play for 159 minutes. After tossing pitch number 133, which resulted in a walk-off three-run home run courtesy of Mississippi State’s Elijah MacNamee, the season ended for FSU and its star left-hander.
And so came the criticism of Martin.
Although 11 is no stranger to controversy and critique, this was different. He wasn’t taking heat for a questionable play call, roster move, or in-game strategy— he was being criticized for facilitating prospectively “irrevocable damage” to Parrish’s arm.
Of the decision to allow Parrish to continue, former MLB pitcher Al Leiter called Martin’s decision “shameful” and said that it “scared the hell out of me.” Leiter, whose son is committed to play for Vanderbilt in the spring of 2020, said it is the responsibility of the parents to know how a coach intends to utilize pitchers and maintain their health.
Rick and Gina Parrish have known Martin since he first started recruiting their son, when he was a ninth grader at Rockledge (Fla.) High School. In their minds, there was no better fit for their son. After raising Drew for 17 years, it was time for them to turn their oldest boy over to a new family— his college baseball family. One that, in the words of his parents, was going to take care of him for the next four years.
“We definitely made sure that Drew’s background and his thoughts and his practices lined up very good with FSU,” Rick told me during a recent phone conversation. “We looked at a lot of different schools, and I have never had any concerns about turning our son over to FSU. As far as we are concerned, it’s the perfect fit for Drew.”
“We visited numerous colleges,” Gina said. “We felt the best about them out of all the coaches that he talked to. We felt very comfortable with them. We talked to players that Drew had played with in his travel ball league that had gone up there a year or two before, and we talked with their parents. I can’t say anything but good about the coaching staff.”
The Daily News story also cites former University of North Carolina pitcher Matt Harvey, now with the Cincinnati Reds, and chronicles his health issues tracing back to his time in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Still, you’d think college coaches would have their players’ best interests in mind, but there are plenty of well-known examples of coaches getting caught up in wanting to win: Matt Harvey, for example, threw 159 pitches once in a start for North Carolina, and who knows if that eventually played a role in him needing Tommy John surgery on his elbow to repair the tear in his ulnar collateral ligament.
The fear of Tommy John surgery is not lost on any baseball pitcher. Every kid that toes the rubber does so knowing that career-altering surgery could be one pitch away. The reality is that many pitchers have arm problems. And that’s not changing anytime soon.
Sure, coaches get caught up in trying to win— if they don’t win, they get fired. But, let’s look at the Harvey comparison a bit further.
A 2013 study revealed that 25% of MLB and 15% of MiLB pitchers had undergone Tommy John at some point in their careers. In 2014, the American Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that UCL injuries among youth athletes were on the rise: 57% of procedures had come from the 15- to 19-year-old demographic.
John D’Angelo, director of league economics and strategy for MLB, has identified several risk factors. Perhaps most notable are fastball usage, number of pitch types, average velocity, and peak velocity.
But is it fair to compare Harvey to Parrish?
Prior to undergoing surgery to repair his torn UCL on October 8, 2013, Harvey’s average fastball velocity was between 95.6 mph and 98.6 mph, while regularly touching 100 on the radar gun. That’s not including a sinker that reached speeds ranging from 94.19 to 95.59. In addition, he threw his fastball over 60% of the time in 2012.
That’s not the type of pitcher that Parrish is. With a fastball that maxes out between 91-92 mph, he relies heavily on his off-speed and breaking balls to get batters out.
“The majority of the pitches that Drew throws are off-speed pitches,” his dad says. “Mostly changeups, so that doesn’t put a lot of wear-and-tear on your arm.”
Many coaches and former players have gone on the record to express their thoughts on the matter. There was even a sports journalist that called Martin’s choice a “terrible, simply terrible” decision.
Parrish’s coach at Rockledge High School from 2013-2016, Greg Clayborne provides insight about a similar situation that he dealt with.
“We had a senior pitcher back in 2006,” he said. “We were ready to take him out of a district championship game against a big rival of ours. It was the last inning and he was at 105 pitches. He adamantly talked us into letting him finish the game and he did.”
Rockledge won the game but Clayborne and his coaches still discuss the decision they made that day.
“Our pitching coach and I did have reservations,” he said about leaving his pitcher in. “And have talked about it since, but there were factors beyond the pitch count that we relied on to make that decision and we would do it again.”
Let’s go back to the specifics of June 2. With Florida State’s season on the line, Parrish was cruising through the Mississippi State lineup prior to the delay. He surrendered only three hits, while striking out six, through eight innings. It was a very similar line to the one he posted on March 27, 2017 during his freshman year, when he fired a complete-game three-hitter without allowing an earned run against Notre Dame. He threw a career-high 136 pitches in that game.
“Having played for Mike Martin,” Clayborne said. “I can say unequivocally that the FSU staff has Drew’s best interest in mind.”
Parrish’s former coach also references the type of pitcher that Drew is and the impact that has on his arm.
“His velocity was still good (88 - 90 mph) when he went back out and his breaking ball was still sharp,” said his high school coach. “Drew averaged only about 13 pitches per inning and had very few base runners. Not too many high-leverage pitches. This likely factored into the decision to send him back out.”
“I was surprised,” Gina said of the move.
I worry about him. I worry about him every single day of his life. But, I’ve never second-guessed the coaching staff there. They’ve always been good to Drew. Off-season, during season, we talk with [assistant coach Mike Martin Jr.] on occasion. We’ll talk with Mike Bell, [coach Martin] on occasion. But I’ve never had any doubts.
Nobody is more concerned about the health of Parrish’s arm than Parrish and his parents. Especially since, as early as next summer, he could be looking at a hefty pay-day.
In hindsight, it’s easy to say that the decision didn’t work and point the finger at Martin. However, questioning the motives of college baseball’s all-time winningest coach is not something that the Parrish family wants to do.
“Everybody can be an armchair quarterback,” Rick said of the criticisms. “On the face of it, oh my gosh 2.5 hour delay, 128 or whatever number of pitches it was, oh my gosh. But, you’ve got to look at the situation. Probably 80% of those pitches were off-speed stuff.
Matheu Nelson, a recent graduate of Calvary Christian Academy (Fla.) in Clearwater, will be a freshman catcher on the FSU roster in 2019. He was selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in this year’s MLB Draft, however, chose to honor his commitment to Florida State.
“I know a lot of people are bashing [Martin] for putting Parrish back out there after a 2.5 hour rain delay,” Nelson told me over the phone. “But that stuff happens in travel ball all the time so I don’t know why they would sit there and bash him on it.”
But arm health is not just a college baseball concern— it’s a baseball concern at every level.
While only a select group really knows what is said and what the conversations are like between a pitcher and his coach, as a catcher, Nelson knows very well what it looks like when a pitcher is being over-worked.
“Realistically, behind the scenes a lot of programs do it,” he said. “Whether it’s high school, college, or anything like that.”
Ultimately, the decision was made by the head coach, however, Nelson was quick to point out that it’s not that simple.
“I understand what [Martin] is doing,” he said. “Leaving it up to him. However, it was also Parrish’s decision to go back out there.”
Certainly if Parrish felt himself tightening up during the delay he could have made the call to opt out of returning to the bump. Make no mistake, though: it was Martin who made the call— that’s the job of a head coach.
“Absolutely he would want to finish out that game,” Parrish’s mother said of her son’s desire to go back out for the ninth inning. “But if he was unable to finish it, if he was tightening up, Drew’s smart enough to let the coaches know.”
“He wants the ball in big situations,” his dad said. There was no bigger situation on June 2, clinging to a 2-0 lead with only three outs separating his team from victory.
Nelson, like many others, may have done things differently but was also very quick to say “that’s baseball and that kind of stuff happens.”
“It’s one mistake,” he said. “He left it up to Parrish. So at the same time I’m not blaming it on Parrish, I’m not blaming it on anybody.”
While Parrish and his family find themselves in the midst of this recent debate, the conversation does not end there.
“I just wish people would stop and think for a second,” Parrish’s father said of the critics. “Before they start throwing all this blame and everything out there.”
Incoming FSU right-handed pitcher Jack Anderson, recently selected by the New York Yankees in the 37th round of the MLB Draft, has no concerns about his future under coach Martin. And neither does his father.
“If I know Drew like I know my son, you’re going to have a hard time taking the ball out of his hand,” Peter Anderson, Jack’s father told me in a recent phone call. “[The coaches at FSU] are the reason that Jack is coming to Tallahassee.”
Parrish, having recently been selected to represent Team USA this summer, is in position to hear his name called next year during the MLB Draft. That’s something that his parents recognize while also entrusting the coaches at FSU to help him get to the next level. After beig examined by the FSU trainers earlier this week, the left-hander will be limited to 12 innings during the summer.
As Nelson mentioned, questions about pitcher safety linger throughout all levels of baseball. It’s a problem that has plagued younger athletes for years. In fact, it has become such a problem that the high school ranks have implemented a pitch limit.
Implemented in 2017, Florida is one of the strictest states in the country when it comes to pitch-count regulations. Regardless of pitch type, average velocity, or peak velocity — the FHSAA (Florida High School Athletic Association) does not care if a pitcher throws 80% off-speed pitches.
The hard-and-fast rule is that a maximum of 105 pitches allowed for 17-to-18 year-olds while that number drops down to 95 for 15-to-16 year-olds. In addition, pitchers must adhere to rest-day requirements based on the number of pitches thrown.
- 31-45 pitches: 1 day
- 46-60 pitches: 2 days
- 61-75 pitches: 3 days
- 76+ pitches: 4 days
Mr. Parrish feels that it would benefit the college ranks if the NCAA were to implement something similar.
“I certainly think that guidelines probably wouldn’t hurt,” he said of the proposition. Mrs. Parrish concurred with her husband’s sentiments.
“I would not be opposed to some kind of regulation,” she said. “You have it now from little league through high school. Overall, I think they need to sit down and discuss it.”
The FHSAA, being as strict as they are, also adds limits for 19-to 22-year-olds. While the rule only holds true for high school athletes, it poses an interesting debate on why the NCAA wouldn’t sanction something similar. After all, what’s the difference between a 19-year-old high school pitcher and a 19-year old college pitcher?
In this scenario, if Parrish, 20, were still in high school he would have been shut down after 120 pitches and required to rest for a minimum of four days. That is not the case, however, and so you are left to question the decision that ultimately ended Florida State’s bid for its first College World Series title.
Rather than looking at a singular decision made by a Hall-of-Fame baseball coach and demanding swift action, perhaps the NCAA should entertain the idea of altering its rules.
“You also gotta look at the environment now that leads up to being scouted for pro ball,” Parrish’s mother mentions. “They don’t get time off. When he went to college it was the first time he got any rest from pitching.”
Baseball is a year-round activity in Florida and she suggests that perhaps it’s magnified at the college level, but it starts well before that.
“You’re playing in the spring in high school, you’re playing all summer, now there’s fall ball. They have all of these tournaments and it’s exhausting. If you want to look at the wear and tear on a kid’s arm, that plays a large part in it too. We really had to limit Drew on what he did.”
While Athletic Director Stan Wilcox has not made an official determination on Martin’s future at FSU, Drew Parrish’s mother wants to make one thing perfectly clear.
“There’s more to it than one coach making a decision like that.”