With the disturbing amount of elbow injuries that are appearing the the game today, I don’t think there is any doubt that there needs to be something done about the issue. There are a few ways the game of baseball could go about this. The first idea that came into my mind was a potential innings or pitch cap for Major League pitchers. But then I realized “try telling Kirk Gibson to pull Clayton Kershaw off the mound to meet an innings quota”, so that one was out of the question. My next idea was extra rest between starts and more spread out use of relievers. The longer rest would only expand starting rotations, making it more difficult to figure out who would make the big league rosters. After dissecting what could be done in the pros, I knew something else had to be done. In order to fix the problem at its core, we have to go back to high school.
Saving Baseball’s Natural Resource: The Elbow
On Baseball-Reference.com’s page on Tommy John surgery they specify that the injury happens when “the ligament becomes frayed over years of abuse”. Huh. Years of abuse. This is not a freak injury where all of the sudden the UCL snaps. This happens over the entire career of a player. To fully expect a professional team to try and abide by a limit on either innings or pitch count would be unrealistic. There is a reason these guys are getting paid millions of dollars to go out and perform day in and day out. To preserve elbows from the dreaded “Tommy John”, we need to shift our attention to the younger generation of arms.
It’s no secret at all that scouts, coaches, and fans alike have an obsession with the radar gun and rightfully so. What’s not to like about watching a hitter dig in knowing the man on the hill can hit triple digits? Scouts are looking at players younger and younger and when it comes to pitchers, they are always looking at velocity first. The competition to be the hardest thrower is increasing exponentially with the upward trend in the Major Leagues. CBS Sports released a leaderboard for fastest average velocity on pitches. The top five starters in the Majors all averaged over 95 miles per hour on their fastball. As for relievers, Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal came in tenth place…with 96. These are large numbers we are dealing with here and they have been going up for several years now. All this added attention for a faster velocity is putting on added stress to the elbows of young pitching. When it comes down to it, a college offering a scholarship is more likely to sign on a kid with a high fastball than one run of the middle. The constant competition for speed will only lead to more young elbow injuries.
What about the curve?
For many years the curveball, among other off-speed pitches, were to blame for young arm injuries. This is absolutely true and a few of my own coaches refused to let me throw off-speed until I was 13. But what about the young arms who can’t make up for their deficits on the radar gun? The simple solution would be to work on the amount of break on their pitches. Seems simple right? Driveline Baseball, who authors the book “The Dynamic Pitcher”, examines why there are issues with teaching young pitchers how to throw off-speed. They explain that heavy use of the changeup pitch causes some young pitchers to “change their throwing mechanics to get better sink”. Changing the natural throwing motion of a pitcher will only cause problems in the long run.
What can be done about this?
Long story short, there is not much that can be done at the Major League level because much of the elbow damage has already been done. It’s time that baseball starts to focus on preserving young arms for the future to avoid this outbreak of injuries. The MLB already has a headstart on this project as they launched their “Pitch Smart” campaign. After partnering with USA Baseball, they have come up with a series of guidelines to help set the tone for youth pitching. With researched backed by doctors and members of the game alike, this is certainly a step in the right direction. For further reading into this project click here.
It’s time we invested into baseball’s future a little more and begin to help young pitchers make the transition to the big leagues, without wearing them out before they get there.
Thank you to baseball-reference.com, cbssports.com, drivelinebaseball.com, and mlb.com for information that was used in this article.
For more on sports injuries, check out our friends at Sports Injury Alert.
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