Pitch Counts, Tommy John, And America’s Pastime

With the NBA and NHL playoffs nearing their championships, it’s the time of year for baseball to take center stage.  While our high school seasons are wrapping up across the country (except for Iowa who I personally think does high school baseball correctly), we turn our attention to Cal Ripken, Babe Ruth, American Legion, and all sorts of travel baseball leagues.  There are few things I like more than sitting on the deck at the lake in the summer watching a Cubs game (thank you, MLB At Bat app!), so I get excited about the summer baseball season every year.

Much like with other sports, the trend towards specialization in baseball is hurting the sport and our athletes.  I’ve spoken before about my feelings regarding summer participation and year round specialization, mostly notably here, here, and here.  Baseball throws in a little wrinkle, though, because it is, by nature, a spring and summer sport.  Baseball specialization occurs during the fall and winter, which means that there are certain parts of the country that are more susceptible to this epidemic than others.

In winter sports crazy North Dakota, there just aren’t many places for kids to work on baseball skills year round.  According to recent research, this might be a very good thing.  A group of researchers located in Minnesota and California collaborated on a study that aimed to find the effects of year-round throwing on young arms.  This brief recap examines the findings from the study.  As expected, the researchers concluded that the stress from excessive throwing was harmful to developing arms, and while the study couldn’t claim that kids in the south are at a greater danger than kids from the north simply because of climate, they were quick to point out that the ability to throw year round (or nearly year round) in warmer climates is leading to high rates of injury.

*My favorite quote from that article: “The bottom line for parents…you are not going to turn your 12 year old into a hall of fame pitcher, but you can keep him from becoming one.”*

The injury rate among youth baseball players continues to get more and more press each year.  This article attacks everything from the overlap of high school and club baseball to young kids throwing breaking balls to the money-based organizations that are either intentionally or inadvertently encouraging year round throwing.  All of these factors have lead to a large increase in the number of Tommy John surgeries performed on high school (and younger) aged players.

Recognizing this trend, there are several state organizations making changes to pitching regulations in an attempt to do their part to help protect young athletes.  Most recently, I was sent this article regarding proposed changes to the Minnesota High School League’s regulations for pitching limits.  Many states have pitching limits based on a number of innings pitched; these changes would switch the rule to a more tangible safety number: pitches thrown.

While I believe this would be a positive change to high schools regulations (and would like to see North Dakota follow suit), I also believe that there are other important changes that need to work alongside this one.

  1. All levels of youth baseball need to implement pitch counts.  For the highly regulated world of high school and American Legion baseball, pitch counts can be set and (mostly) enforced.  Where the real work needs to take place, though, is in the lower levels where teams are coached by well-meaning but often uninformed dads.  During my oldest son’s 9 and 10 year old Cal Ripken games, I’ve watched teams who only use two pitchers for the entire year (my guess – and this is pure speculation – is that it’s because those were the two kids who threw enough strikes for the team to win games).  At that age, the pitching wealth needs to be divided both to save wear and tear on young arms and to develop a larger number of pitchers.
  2. I’ve also watched dads telling their 9 and 10 year old sons to throw curve balls on a 2 strike count to get more strike outs.  I currently have a spot on the “Worst Dad Ever” list because I won’t show my 10 year old how to throw one.  That poor, poor kid is limited to attempting fast balls that will generally arrive in the vicinity of the catcher.  While it’s not certain, there’s a greater chance that a kid’s “big” strikeouts via curve ball as a 10 year old will be the end of his highlight reel.  It’s just not worth the risk.
  3. Coaches need to be aware of not only their kids’ pitch counts but also where they are playing when not pitching.  I still have a chance to ump high school and legion baseball, and I often see players pitch one game of a double header then catch the second game.  I get that small schools/teams are often limited with the number of players who can pitch and catch, but for the safety of the kids, it’s imperative to develop more catchers.  At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I’ll admit that I was one of the problem coaches when I first started coaching high school baseball.  If I could do it again, I’d be much more aware of the overall stress on each kid’s arm, not just the amount of pitching.
  4. Lastly, even during the baseball season, make sure kids are taking time off!  There are many very successful baseball players who were multiple sport athletes, and a large part of their continued health as a baseball player is the amount of time they rested their elbows and shoulders from the stress of throwing.  As I mentioned earlier, our winter sports crazy state naturally gives baseball players a chance to rest.  Once the winter hits, most of our kids are on a basketball court, a hockey rink, a wrestling mat, or in a pool.  Staying active in those sports gives them a chance to rest their arms which is essential to overall arm health.

As always, let me know what you agree or disagree with.  As I’ve written about previously, I love baseball and everything that can be learned from the game.  I’d like to see us doing our part to make sure our kids continue having a positive experience playing America’s Game.

2 Responses

  1. Randy Lowry

    While I agree with some of your comments, I think some are a bit cliche and therefore, not completely accurate. It’s always easy to blame the “well meaning/misguided” youth coach for pitching ills and yes, they share a portion of the responsibility. However, the damage to young arms isn’t nurtured at 10 or 11, it’s done at the 7-8 grade levels and finished off once they arrive in high school. Parents place way too much faith in high school coaches who aren’t always SME in the sport or, more specifically, in how to coach it. High school coaches in most states have so little time with their players (at least in Missouri) with the short seasons that it’s almost irrelevant. Kids show up in March with sore arms exacerbated by club ball coaches forcing them to throw all winter.

    Parents place a ridiculous amount of faith in these summer coaches, expensive traveling teams in particular, all because the coach had a brief stint in pro ball or played in college. As a former college player (two sports) and having one son currently playing college ball and another on the way, I place the blame squarely at the feet of ignorant parents and summer coaches. They charge crazy prices to play, pricing many kids out of the game completely but that’s for another day, and only care about winning and being able to send a kid to college that they had little to do with developing. Just because you played the game at an advanced level doesn’t mean you can coach it. I see kids throw 4-5 innings and then get sent to shortstop where they air it out the rest of the game and these coaches don’t even blink. They guilt parents into making kids exclusive to baseball (therefore being able to charge more) and NO sport exerts more wear and tear on a body part than baseball.

    Parents should stop placing so much faith in these coaches whom, are NOT well meaning and should know better, and trust their instincts. A kid can’t throw a baseball twelve months a year and expect to stay healthy long term. Imposed pitch counts, and by the way, pitch counts aren’t always the panacea, proper fundamentals are, will only provide yet another easy obstacle for coaches to navigate their way around. Just like weight cutting rules in wrestling. Coaches always find a way to circumvent the system.

    1. highschoolsportsstuff

      First off, thank you for the reply. I enjoy getting feedback!

      Although what I said might appear to be a cliche, it’s anecdotal evidence. I wasn’t taking the easy way out by blaming “parents these days,” I was simply stating what I’ve seen happen in my own sons’ youth leagues. If you read through some of my other posts (I’ve linked a bunch of them below), you’ll find that I agree with your comments. I speak often about how crazy youth sports have become and how all the extra time, money, and work in the world isn’t going to fix a kid’s genetics. Sure, there’s a margin of improvement to be gained from sensible and intelligent training, but if a kid lacks the genetic make-up from the start, most efforts will just be lost time and money. I try to remind parents all the time that money spent on camps/clinics/lessons are only a guarantee of participation, nothing else.

      Regarding pitch counts – I do think they will be more effective in limiting arm damage. Yes, fundamentals and technique are a larger piece of the injury puzzle, but (if we assume that we can’t ensure everyone is taught correct technique) 85 pitches with bad form is still better than 120+ pitches with bad form. The reason I limited my critique to youth baseball was because of the current innings limits at the 7th-8th/Babe Ruth levels. I was saying that similar limits need to be brought all the way down to the lowest levels where kids start pitching. And I absolutely agree with your statement about a kid pitching then playing shortstop. As I mentioned, I far too often see double headers where one kid will pitch one game and catch the other. It’s too much.

      Here are some of the other things I’ve written that are related to this topic (some are more related than others!). Related to too much time at the youth level here; Related to summer participation here and here; related to specialization here, here, and here; related to genetic ability to play here, here, and here; and a five part post that I wrote about sports parenting a couple summers ago that are all linked from here. Thanks, again, for your comments!

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