Specialization concerns, Sport Safety

Why are so many young pitchers suffering serious arm injuries?

There was a disturbing piece that ran in the Cincinnati Enquirer last week about two young pitchers from Ohio who had both pitched in the LL World Series a few years ago. They were thrilled to have played in front of thousands in Williamsport, PA.

Problem is, due to overuse of their arms and by throwing too many curve balls, they both had to undergo Tommy John surgery to repair their elbows. Can you imagine? Tommy John surgery is usually performed on major leaguers who, in their 20s or 30s, are simply trying to extend their professional careers.

These two kids were 14!

Kyle Cotcamp and Tyler Richards both love baseball, but they both admit that they were overused in LL Baseball and on their travel teams, plus they threw too many curveballs.

As you know, my colleague Steve Kallas and I have been forceful critics for years about why LL Baseball allows kids to throw curveballs. LL points to a recent study from the athletic institute that Dr. James Andrews that says that throwing curve balls probably is not the reason why kids hurt their arms. But Dr. Andrews, who has often said that he’s not in favor of having kids throw breaking balls before they can shave, was so concerned by that study’s conclusions that he recently told the NY Times that he’s worried that parents and coaches will think that it will be seen as a green light to let kids throws deuces and sliders.

In fact, Dr. Andrews says that the study was conducted in a lab, and not in the field, and as such, parents and coaches might not want to rush to embrace it. In other words, he’s saying, in effect, that he’s not so sure that parents can let kids throw curves.

Dr. Timothy Kremchek of the Cincinnati Reds is even more emphatic. He absolutely insists that kids should not be allowed to throw curves before the age of 13.

And finally, Dr. Andrews says that in his research, kids who throw for more than 8 months during the year are 5 times more likely to need surgery!

Bottom line? Parents and youth coaches, here are some simple guidelines:

Don’t let any kid under 13 throw more than 75-80 pitches in a game. And if they do, give them 4 days of rest between starts.

Don’t let any kid under 13 throw a curveball or slider. Let them work on a change-up instead. It’s a much better pitch, and much more effective.

If you’re a parent, even if your kid is the next Sandy Koufax, insist that you keep the pitch count of every performance. That is, don’t necessarily trust the coach.

Finally, let the kid pitch from April through the spring and summer, and maybe into Sept, but then give him the winter off. Let his arm recuperate and get stronger. Too much pitching at a young age can have disastrous results.

What’s your sense of this? Why do you think LL Baseball allows its players to throw curve balls?

  • SM

    Coach Wolff,

    Yesterday while in the car with my father listening to your show about pitch counts. My father said i should call in about an experience i had with a coach. but i couldnt get through.

    It was good and bad. First the bad, i was a freshman at Jefferson HS in NJ and playing on a 15u Babe Ruth team in town. on a saturday in the semi finals of the district tournament i pitched 6 innings throwing 84 pitches, thats not the bad part, we had the finals on monday 2 days later. when our starting pitcher couldnt get out of the 1st inning our head coach Mr. Steve Day put me in to pitch on 1 days rest. since Babe Ruth did not have any pitching rules it was not against the rules. that was the bad. now, the good our assistant coach Mr. Paul Mannerberg went nuts screaming at coach Day and our other coach Rich Striker, coach Mannerberg quit the team and left the dugout because it did not want to be responsible for any problems with my arm. He had been my coach for over 5 years and did not want me to pitch. i pitched into the 3rd inning when my father went into the dugout and made them take me by threatening a law suit. Coach Mannerberg warned my father that the other coaches might do this and if they did he would quit the team. When i started playing for Coach Mannerberg in the minors of Little league he taught us all how to throw 2 and 4 seam fastballs and a change up and would not let us throw anything but those 3 pitches until we were 15. i am now 18 and have pitched for 2 years of varsity baseball at Jefferson. Coach Mannerberg in my opinion saved my arm and allowed me to make it to the varsity level.

    • Rick Wolff

      Thanks for this note…and congrats to Coach Mannerberg and to your Dad for stepping up and protecting your arm. Both of them put your arm’s health as their top priority. Good for them! Coach Wolff

  • Bob

    Thank you for continuing to raise this issue Coach. I played baseball through high school and ruined my arm pitching way too often and with unsound mechanics. I continue to be amazed at how little youth league and high school coaches know about picthing other than barking the typical non-sense like “throw strikes”. I am convinced the answer to not injuring young pitching arms is multi-pronged. No curveballs at an early age (well into high school – if at all – the typical curve ball supination arm action is a killer on ligaments and tendons), limiting the number of pitches per week and months playing ball in a year, strength training, and proper mechanics. When a coach is uniformed (most) or refuses to believe this (many), he can resort to “throw-strikes” and celebrate his coaching prowess when a kid does just that.

    • BL

      LL is a volunteer run organization, with politics, and will get Dads to coach who rarely have
      pitching skills themselves. I took my son to the local batting cage and found coaches who actually
      pitched at the college+ level, so he could learn good mechanics. He was one of the few
      kids last year that could pitch into the fall. Most kids arms were falling off. There are kids who
      throw harder, but can’t pitch as manny innings per game nor as long a season because of my
      sons proper mechanics and following rest periods.

      Kids also need to learn to be responsible for their health and speak up, as they get older.
      My son starting at 11 pitched in more than one league and knew to turn down pitching when
      he was being overworked. If the coach doesn’t like it, so be it.

  • BL

    As far as “why does LL allow curves”, it’s just impossible to monitor and enforce such a rule.
    Common sense, and child supervision are necessary. Umps can’t raise your kids for you.

  • BL

    No pitching in winter ?
    That’s when my kid got best instructions to pitch with proper mechanics.
    Hard to learn in-season with coaches who are working with an entire team
    and have no separate pitching coach.

    He takes 1 month off, then has lessons once/week in winter, with some breaks.
    No problems after doing this for 2 winters now.

  • Craig Farmer

    A few questions:

    Since over 99% of kids won’t make it big in baseball… and
    most won’t be really good varsity high school players…and
    if they want to pitch….and
    they are effective or else coach will take them out because of that

    what is the big fear?

    If you get hurt doing something you love isn’t that better than getting hurt doing something you hate?
    or from some freak accident?
    And the “hurt” doesn’t mean can’t function. It might mean can’t be good at baseball anymore.
    Which was coming really fast for most of the kids anyway.
    Are we really making rules for the less than 1% who could make it but hurts their arm from overuse?

    BTW. I believe the evidence shows underuse and misuse is more dangerous than overuse.
    But that’s another thread.

  • I don’t think most kids are every taught to pitch properly. There’s a big difference between throwing and pitching.

  • Coach Moore

    85% of arm injuries are from fatique. throwing fastballs over 90 can lead to stress on the arm that can lead to injuries, genetics also can play a role in arm injuries. The most load on the arm is slider, fastball, curve and change in that order. From all the medical research that i have seen just hasn’t proved that the curve ball is culprit in arm injuries.

  • TheBigDG

    One of the problems probably is that kids do not just go out there and play on their own. Everything is regimented and organized. We’d play as long as we wanted and when we wanted. Just another guy yearning for days of yore.