The only thing scarier than losing the ability to throw a baseball as a 20- or 30-year old pitcher is to lose that ability as a teenager.
With professional teams signing baseball players directly out of high school, the pressure for young athletes to perform is high.
From little league to high schools, professional scouts are everywhere and are always looking for the next great player.
As a result, young athletes begin competing seriously at younger ages. From pre-teen sluggers going on weight training programs to little league pitchers throwing curveballs as young as 8 or 9, the race is on to be the next rising star.
But along with trying to win that race comes danger.
In an article written for The Sporting News, former Major League relief pitcher Todd Jones wrote about the dangers that young pitchers face, especially when attempting to use breaking balls, which require a different arm motion than does a fastball. The arm motion required to throw a breaking ball puts more stress on the elbow and shoulder which, at a young age, can cause significant injury.
“These kids may be risking their baseball futures by using breaking balls to help their team with the Little League World Series,” Jones said.
The theory that breaking balls are dangerous to young pitchers is one that Atlanta Braves pitcher Tim Hudson fully believes in.
“If you’re a young kid, you want to try to limit the breaking balls you throw,” he said.
The medical field backs up Hudson and Jones. Bradley R. Noon, M.D. of Georgia Sports Orthopedic Specialists in Gainesville said that “kids throwing sliders and curves at a young age creates more stress on the elbow.”
Not only does the type of pitches thrown seem to be dangerous for young pitchers, the overall amount of pitches thrown is also a risk factor.
Tara Bruno wrote in Science World that because “throwing a pitch is not a natural arm motion, over-pitching can result in a torn ulnar collateral ligament (a main ligament in the elbow). Surgery to replace this piece of tissue, which holds together the ulna and humerus arm bones at the elbow, has been on the rise of high-school pitchers over the last 12 years.”
Bruno goes on to add that “pitchers (who) overuse their arm are 36 times more likely to need surgery later in life.”
To help prevent potential injuries, many youth leagues have developed a myriad of ways to limit the amount of time a young pitcher is on the mound.
Hall County Parks and Leisure imposes an inning limit on its pitchers. In the 9-10-year-old little leagues of Hall County, a pitcher is limited to a “maximum of eight innings a week,” and “a maximum of seven innings a day.”
At the next age level, 11-12, the number of innings increases to eight a week but remains at seven in a calendar day. These numbers stay the same at 13-14, but are increased for tournaments to 16 innings per week and 10 in a single day.
However, limiting the number of times that a pitcher can take the mound also has its drawbacks. If a young thrower hopes to have the opportunity to get noticed and be invited to join a travel team, he has to be on the field.
A travel team is one that journeys around the country, playing the best competition that can be found.
By doing so, players are expected to develop at a faster rate and improve enough to continue play into high school, college and beyond. If the coach of a local travel team makes plans to visit a team on a specific date, that might not be the date that the best players are on the field, or in the case of a pitcher, on the mound.
In an attempt to combat this scenario, Steve Hutson, the athletic coordinator for Hall County Parks and Leisure, said that the county tries to reduce the health risks of young pitchers by scheduling games in a way that limits the amount of innings that are available to be pitched. By doing so, young arms are protected and the best players can take the field every time the team plays.
“We try and schedule games so that the number of innings pitched shouldn’t be an issue,” he said. “As long as the innings aren’t available to be pitched, a young pitcher doesn’t have the opportunity to overwork his arm.”
That way, there are only so many innings available to be pitched, regardless of who takes the mound.
Hall County only offers two games a week for teams and those are scheduled three to four days apart.
In addition to limiting the number of innings pitched, Hall County also requires a mandatory amount of rest between appearances on the mound.
“If a youth pitcher in the 9-10 league throws over three innings during regular league play, they have to have at least 48 hours of rest,” Hutson said. “In a tournament, they can’t throw more than 10 innings in the entire tournament and still have to be given 48 hours of rest if they throw more than three innings.
“The health of these young athletes is paramount, so we try and keep that at the forefront of our scheduling.”
Lumpkin County athletic coordinator Andy Brand echoed Hutson’s remarks, stating that Lumpkin County follows the same guidelines that Hall County does for mandatory days of rest following at least three innings pitched.
“We are also kicking the idea of pitch counts around but have not decided on that for our spring sports as of yet,” Brand said.
Keeping count of pitches is the method which major league teams use to track the work that a pitcher’s arm has put in. Neither youth recreation nor high school leagues in Georgia have a regulated pitch count.
The Georgia High School Association only regulates the number of innings that a high-school pitcher can throw: 10 per day and no more than 14 in four consecutive days.
So with no specific pitch count regulation in place, what can youth pitchers and coaches do to protect young arms while still getting the most out of them?
Gainesville High’s Jeremy Kemp tries to focus on keeping track of how many pitches an arm is forced to throw.
“We do our own pitch count. We try to keep them all below 100,” Kemp said. The overall number of pitches thrown is not the only thing that Kemp uses to protect his pitchers; he tries to balance the number of pitches thrown to when they are thrown in the game.
“The laboring innings late in games is what we feel like really wears a pitcher out,” he said. “They can have a tough inning early on in the game and get by with their pitch count being a little higher, but as long as they are throwing 10-15 pitches an inning a little later in the game then we will leave them in a little longer.
“Those high pressure, long-work inning late in games really hurts a young arm.”
Kemp’s method seems to work; Gainesville won Region 7-AAA this season and made the quarterfinals of the Class AAA state tournament.
Hudson also believes that the key to protecting young arms lies in limiting how many high pressure situations a young pitcher is forced to battle through.
“For me its high-stress pitches,” Hudson said.
“Kids may go out there and throw 60-70 pitches in a game and never get in a jam, never get a guy on base, which are easy pitches to make. But if a kid goes out there and throws 60-70 pitches and there’s guys on base every inning, he’s throwing a lot of breaking balls, he’s throwing 100 percent; (and) those types of pitches are a lot different than those when you’re controlling the game.”
Kemp tries to limit how many pitches thrown in those late, pressure filled situations.
“Those late innings like the fifth or the six when your throwing 40 pitches, that’s when a kid’s mechanics just aren’t where they need to be,” he said. “That’s where there’s a good chance the elbow is going to be below the shoulder and that’s when they really can get hurt. So we stay away from those laboring innings late in the game.”
In a study conducted by J.T. Davis and other scientists, published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers found that the most important aspect of youth pitching is mechanics. Davis wrote that “youth pitchers with better pitching mechanics generate lower rotation torque, lower elbow load and more efficiency than do those with improper mechanics. Proper pitching mechanics may help prevent shoulder and elbow injuries in youth pitchers.”
Hudson believes that mechanics are an integral part of keeping a pitcher’s arm healthy and focusing “on a shoulder program and a good rotator cuff program” will help to “make sure (the) technique is good.”
Perhaps most important of all, Hudson said that “rest and recovery” are a pitcher’s best friend.
“A lot of these kids throw everyday, and its not bad to take a day off and rest your arm,” Hudson said. “Your arm, rotator cuff and elbow are tiny, tiny muscles and they need rest like any other muscle in your body.”