Another baseball season is underway and that means thousands of young pitchers are throwing at all levels of youth league competition. For many of these youngsters, this effort becomes the peak of their athletic careers. It’s not just sometimes because of a lack of desire to continue on, but also often an inability to do so. Each summer, the best 12-year-old players in the world compete in the Little League World Series, almost all with the dream of eventually playing in the major leagues; it’s particularly disconcerting that only one individual that has actually pitched in a little league World Series has ever pitched at the major league level. Even more eye opening is the fact that less than 10% of these pitchers ever compete in that capacity at any level of collegiate baseball. Aside from mental burnout that pushes youngsters away from the game, there are perhaps four controllable variables of which to be aware to prevent the injuries that prematurely often remove our young talents from the game; pitch counts, pitch types, throwing mechanics and conditioning.
Pitch Counts: This is probably the most controllable and most critical of the four factors. More vigilant guidelines have been set by Little League Baseball with the hope of preventing future arm injuries. However, it is the responsibility of coaches and parents to adhere to these guidelines, which can be found at littleleaguebaseball.org. For parents, we recommend utilizing a basic handheld counter during games. Additionally, we highly recommend players take one season off a year and even participate in a second sport.
Pitch Types: Currently there is no hard evidence that the curveball puts any additional stress on the throwing arm when thrown correctly. However, effective pitching is best accomplished by changing speeds and locating pitches. More effective pitching and habits can be developed with throwing an effective fastball and changeup. It is often difficult for a young athlete to physically throw the same ball of identical size and weight that the adult athlete throws, reproducing optimal mechanics and thereby resulting in no greater risk of injury.
Mechanics: When a ball of any pitch type is thrown correctly, stresses on the throwing arm are significantly lessened. However, these mechanics must be properly taught by properly experienced individuals. Often, not enough diligence is put into the selection of a proper coach who can correctly teach the proper habits and mechanics of pitching to their little league players.
Conditioning: There are certain basic conditioning exercises that are beneficial to all athletes. However, ultimately we don’t train baseball players like football players, and we don’t train pitchers like position players. Proper training regimens should be implemented at a young age and carried out through physical maturity. Not all coaches and facilities have the expertise to do so.
Keith Meister, MD is Director of TMI Sports Medicine and Head Team Physician for the Texas Rangers. For additional information contact TMI Sports at tmisportsmed.com.