From the Sidelines: Save Your Slugger's Arm

boy practicing baseball pitchesWhen my son’s Little League team graduated from machine-pitch to player-pitch, I thought it was quaint how one of the dads tallied how many pitches each kid threw. Being only a casual baseball observer, I assumed he was just a diehard fan, tracking every statistic even among the 8-year-old set.

As it turns out, medical experts say limiting the number of pitches youth players throw is critical to protecting their arms from severe injury — what he was doing was good for the kids! I regret any thoughts I had that the dad was a little nuts.

For boys on the diamond — an estimated 16 million of them in the U.S. each year — being pitcher is being king, at least for that inning. Every boy wants to be the hero leading his team to victory. However, one of the top orthopedic surgeons in the nation, James Andrews, M.D. cautions that the pitcher is “the most vulnerable when it comes to potentially career-ending injuries.”

Parents who want to see their son pitch into adolescence should avoid these three mistakes:

Strike one: Ignoring pitch counts

The formula that Little League Baseball uses to determine pitcher eligibility starts with the child’s age. For instance, a 9-year old should never pitch more than 75 pitches in any game. And say, for example, that he pitches 60 times — Little League’s required rest period is three calendar days. For that 9-year old player, this means no pitching a double-header. It also means no pitching consecutive days in a weekend tournament.

For each age level, these Little League guidelines vary, so it is recommended parents get familiar with them. Many other baseball leagues have no pitch count limits whatsoever. This opens the door for overzealous adults to play a child past the point of safety.

Dan Galaz has coached and trained young baseball players in the Seattle area for more than two decades. I caught up with him recently at the O’Brien training facility in Bellevue, where he currently works with about 50 young players gearing up for their spring and summer seasons. “Some coaches want to over-pitch the kids, says Galaz. “It’s like pushing the horse too far.”

Parents of pitchers should track their child’s throws and let the coach know you are doing it, too. Insist that your son be taken off the mound when he reaches the limit. Also, communicate with the coach if the player is on multiple teams, so pitches in other games can be counted. There are numerous tablet and smartphone apps to help parents track their child’s pitch totals.

Dr. Andrews helped draft Little League’s regulations in 2007 after performing an increasing number of Tommy John surgeries — reconstructing torn ulnar collateral ligaments (UCLs) in athletes as young as middle school age. That injury used to be seen primarily in the professional and college ranks. Andrews is a national crusader against youth sports injuries and added in a phone interview, “It’s best anyway if youth players don't focus on being pitchers too early and rotate through the different positions on the field.”

Strike two: Wrong technique and types of pitches

Baseball pitchesKnowledgeable coaches and instructors can teach the proper mechanics of pitching. Galaz, whose college background was structural engineering, teaches the importance of the deceleration phase of a pitch, right after the ball is thrown. He likes to see the throwing arm cross diagonally downward over the chest. “You’re trying to prevent the arm from throwing forward, says Galaz. “A bent front knee with the chest down towards the thigh and parallel to the ground — that’s how we can prevent the injury, with proper position.”

Experts say boys should not throw breaking pitches such as curveballs and sliders in games until their bones have matured, by around age 13. “I tell my kids the best pitch in baseball is a well-located fastball, says Galaz. After the fastball, a change-up is a good complementary pitch.

Strike three: Starting the season out of shape

Damage or tearing of the UCL is the most common injury suffered by young players. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the injury is often caused by pitchers throwing too much. Though the UCL is the main stabilizer of the elbow for the motions of pitching, baseball is about more than just the arm. Andrews says kids should get physically conditioned before the season starts. Galaz emphasizes development of strong core muscles, in particular, as they “help with the body’s overall stability.”

Year-round fitness does not mean year-round baseball, though that is more common now than ever before. Galaz believes his strongest pitchers are the ones who come into baseball season having done other sports in the winter.

Spring means the start of the MLB season and the anticipation that comes with each new roster, and, in the Seattle Mariners’ case, a new manager too. Many young players are equally anxious to get out and play. As a parent, stay involved and aware; the diamond can be your boy's best friend for years to come.

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