Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Back to Little League

Recently, while perusing the New York Times "most emailed" section, I came across an article that resonated with me.  Bill Pennington, the author of the aforementioned article, talks about young pitchers and the arm injuries they face due to pitching.  The article debates the reasons behind these arm injuries.  Do these youngsters throw breaking balls (curveballs especially) too early in their lives or is it overuse that causes arm problems? 

The Author Reliving His Playing Days
I felt a strong connection to this subject because I was a young pitcher who developed elbow problems in my teenage years.  I began pitching when I was about 10 years old.  I quickly took to the position, loving baseball even more due to my immediate success on the mound.  I wanted nothing more than to pitch all day, pestering my dad to play catch even as dusk quickly approached.  With no one at home after school with which to play catch I resorted to throwing a baseball against the stucco siding of our garage, thus breaking down the stucco, and causing my parents to devise another less damaging solution.  

Between constant practice with my father and the side of my house, and playing in Little League, my arm experienced a fair amount of use even at the age of 12.  I pitched in at least one out of every 3 games in addition to pitching during practices.  At that point I threw two pitches, a four-seam fastball and a weak changeup.  I didn't begin throwing a curveball in games until I was 13 years old, but I experimented with it during my pitching sessions off of the field.  Once I began throwing a curveball in games it quickly became part of my pitching repertoire. 

Curveballs aside (I'll return to this), one of the greatest difficulties for a young pitcher is becoming accustomed to the change in distance when leaving Little League and moving into other travel team leagues like AAU, Babe Ruth, and American Legion.  In Little League, the distance between the pitching rubber and home plate is 46 feet.  Following Little League the distance jumps to 60.5 feet between home plate and the rubber.  This jump may not seem like much but it has a significant effect on young, and sometimes only partially developed, arms.  The extra strain placed on a young pitcher's arm when adding 14.5 feet in distance adds up.  Making the transition isn't impossible, in fact, if a youngster is properly monitored for pitch counts and number of games pitched he should experience few problems.  For a number of reasons I was mishandled, pitching far too much, but I never refused to take the mound.  Kids who realize they have talent want to prove it and rarely say no when asked to pitch.  In addition, success leads to fun, thus young pitchers who experience success want to take the mound as much as possible

Pitching excessively caused my arm problems.  I partially separated my right shoulder and spent the winter in physical therapy.  After a few months of both physical therapy and strength training I returned to the mound with a healthy shoulder and greater velocity.  From that point until my junior year in high school I experienced no arm issues and proceeded to advance my pitching.  I refined my mechanics, working on locating my fastball as well as curveball, and attempted to add a cut-fastball into my arsenal.  I did however play in three different leagues every year and worked with numerous pitching coaches.  I can't say how many innings or pitches I threw, but in retrospect it was too much.  In my junior year in high school I began to feel pain and numbness in my elbow.  After an MRI and a visit to the orthopedist I discovered that I had incredible amounts of inflammation in my right elbow as well as issues with my Ulnar Collateral Ligament.  This type of injury could only be fixed by a variation of UCL reconstruction, otherwise known as Tommy John Surgery.  My pitching career was most likely over.

This leads me into my opinion on the subject of young pitchers and arm injuries.  In my view curveballs should not and usually do not lead directly to arm issues.  This is not to say that young pitchers should be throwing curveballs, but the reasons against it are less than obvious.  In order to convince readers of my reasoning we must first start with the question: what is a curveball?  If you haven't read my previous piece on the curveball please read it here.  If not, this is a short synopsis.  A properly thrown curveball involves little curve.  Instead, curveballs should have a downward break to them, considered a 12-6 break (see your nearest analog clock for assistance).  In order to attain this movement the pitcher must first hold the ball with the proper grip and then throw the ball as if he is chopping wood.  As the arm comes downwards the pitcher should allow the ball to roll off of his top fingers thus created spin and a dramatic drop.  

Nowhere in my description did I mention the pitcher twisting his arm to throw the pitch.  The simplest and only explanation for omitting this fact is that twisting one's arm when throwing a pitch causes the pitcher to throw a slider, not a curveball.  Sliders are bad for young arms; in fact many pitchers do not start tinkering with a slider until they graduate from high school.  If thrown properly, with the right mechanics, a curveball shouldn't hurt a young arm.  On the other hand, curveballs are difficult to control, throw for strikes, and can lead a pitcher astray from practicing the fundamentals that have far greater impact on young hurlers.  

I would advise young pitchers to stick with the fastball and at the most develop a simpler yet effective pitch like the cut-fastball instead of difficult-to-learn pitches like changeups and curveballs.  Adding a slight cut to the fastball can keep hitters off balance and cause more ground balls, which lead to lower pitch counts.  Curveballs may lead to more strikeouts, but they also lead to higher pitch counts due to the difficulty involved in controlling the pitch.  Also, if thrown improperly, curveballs can lead to arm problems.  If a pitcher lowers their arm slot or begins to throw anything in between a curveball and a slider arm issues commonly follow.  Nonetheless, I do not think curveballs cause arm issues, instead overuse does.

My orthopedist told me that "pitching is one of the most common unnatural motions for the human body."  Although many contortionists might disagree, repeatedly rearing back and firing a 5 ounce ball at a small target 60 feet away constitutes an extremely unnatural motion for any human.  Due to this fact, it is vital to limit the number of pitches a young pitcher throws, especially during their key developmental years.  My doctor was concerned with throwing curveballs, but he also remarked that I pitched an exorbitant amount in my youth.  He determined that it was overuse and not specialty pitches that most likely cause my arm issues.  As he said this, I began to think about the countless hours I spent pitching and quickly realized that he had hit the nail on the head.

Recently, both Little League Baseball, and many travel leagues, have instituted pitch counts for players.  This is a great first step, but is it enough?  Coaches should limit a pitcher's pitch count during games because it is during game situations that players tend to overexert in order to win.  Although coaches should be applauded for these constraints, in-game situations constitute only a fraction of the problem.  Young pitchers should not play in more than one league simultaneously, and non-game pitching should be restricted to once-a-week pitching lessons and small amounts of off day pitching in practice.  Although Malcolm Gladwell demonstrated that practicing anything for 10,000 hours makes a novice into an expert, this should not apply to pitching at a young age.  Anyone who has practiced with a pitching coach will tell you that most of his or her sessions involved little actual pitching.  Learning how to pitch is a process; one that involves perfecting basic mechanics, hours of strength and stamina training, and improving one's baseball IQ.  It is these skills that young pitchers should learn, not new pitches and funky deliveries.  Pitches like curveballs and weird deliveries like that of Tim Lincecum (seen above), accomplish little, further deteriorating a young arm instead of strengthening it. 

So, are curveballs evil?  Maybe, because often learning to throw one diverts a pitcher's attention from the skills that truly matter, but the pitch alone has little to no influence on future injuries.  Parents, advise your children to learn and perfect the basics of pitching before transitioning into more complex areas.  All young pitchers should read two books on the subject.  "Nolan Ryan's Pitcher's Bible" written by Ryan and pitching guru Tom House and "The ABC's of Pitching" by H.A. Dorfman provide incredible insight into pitching, describing workouts, diet, mentality, and drills that will refine an inexperienced pitcher into a polished one.  But remember, no matter how many books you read or drills you perform, never pitch too much, and remember to rest.  Take it from someone who has gone through it all, from participating in 3 leagues at once to ending up in an orthopedist's office; the worst thing a young pitcher can do to their arm is overuse. 


  1. what an excellent, heartfelt post!

  2. Ben - I guess by the time you played for me your elbow was nearing its limit. Your post dispells the myth of the inherent evil of curve balls, a myth perhaps perpetuated by coaches who like to overwork their hardest strike-throwers. I enjoyed the post. ~T. McLaughlin