The Little League World Series is over and one thing, if you watched, you saw more than a dozen times a game: a Little League pitcher baffling a hitter with a curve ball, with no idea the damage he could be doing to his arm and his baseball future.
For the past several seasons, sports medicine researchers at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta have tracked every single pitch of the televised Little League World Series (LLWS) games. They found that the use of the curve ball goes up every year, and so do the number of youth pitcher arm injuries.
A few years ago, I attended a coach’s clinic put on by Georgia Tech and the Atlanta Braves. The Braves’ team doctor was there, as well as the best known arm surgeon to athletes – Dr. James Andrews – from Birmingham, Alabama. The evidence they laid out was clear: more curve balls were thrown every year, year by year, in the LLWS. And the number of arm surgeries needed for youth pitchers went up along with that (although no one has tracked how specific LLWS pitchers fared after their Little League pitching days).
In a recent New York Times Magazine story, Dr. Andrews described an "epidemic" of arm and shoulder injuries to young ballplayers. Andrews says in 2001 and 2002 he performed a total of just 13 shoulder operations on teenagers. Between 2003 and 2008, he did 241.
The Braves and Georgia Tech coaches told the youth coaches at the clinic that the problem isn’t due to more throwing of curve balls, but rather the injuries occur when the curve ball is not thrown properly. It can cause extra tension on parts of the elbow and shoulder, they said, and that can lead to serious arm injuries, often needing major surgery. Dr. Andrews’ advice to coaches: do not teach pitchers to throw the curve ball until they are old enough to shave (around 14 or 15-years-old).
Dr. Andrews then pointed out another troubling trend: youth athletes were actually seeking the “Tommy John surgery,” a procedure where a damaged ligament in the throwing elbow is replaced with a ligament from elsewhere in the body. Many of these young players hope to return from the surgery throwing even harder than they did in the first place. They are often mistaken that the surgery can lead to harder throws. It also delays their development, as pitchers normally cannot pitch for 12 to18 months after the operation.
To give Little League officials some credit, in 2008 they did put in new rules that limit the number of pitches a pitcher can throw. That means 85 total game pitches per pitcher per game, providing the player has had at least three days rest since his last appearance. It’s a step up from the rules of the past. In 2002, Little League pitchers were restricted to pitching nine innings a week during All-Star play, but there was no limit on the number of pitches.
Dr. Andrews is on the Little League Board of Directors. I wonder if he cringes as much as I do in watching these 10 to 13-year-old pitchers snapping off curve balls more than most pro pitchers.
I coached or managed my son’s baseball teams, every spring and fall from age 7 to 15, before he went to play for his high school team. One high school teammate had been on an opposing team when he was between 10 and 12-years-old. At that point, this young man had an impressive breaking ball for such a young age. Our teams could never hit him.
Now, fast forward to his junior year of high school, when he was on the verge of becoming an every day infielder/player for a very good high school team. But he never saw that opportunity. He could barely lift his arm to do anything. He ended up needing shoulder surgery, which cut his junior year in half, and he couldn’t throw again until after his senior year. I always wondered if the price of throwing those curve balls at 10-years-old was worth it.
The LLWS tournament is arguably one of the most popular youth sports events in the world. The latest ratings have not been announced yet, but last week, ESPN said its ratings for its opening weekend coverage were up about 60 percent from last year's opening weekend. ESPN2 telecasts are up 137 percent. More than 299,000 fans already attended games going into last weekend’s championship round, 10,000 more than the previous year’s totals.
Now that it’s over, it’s time for Little League baseball to step up and protect their pitchers: ban the curve ball. Youth pitchers can be just as effective throwing and locating their fastball and a change-up or off-speed pitch, which is a fine alternative pitch to throw, and safe for any youth. It’s hard to understand why it hasn’t been done sooner, and with Dr. Andrews on Little League’s board of directors, there is now no reason not to look out for the complete best interests of the players and their baseball futures.
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