There is a heated discussion occurring on Little League fields all over the nation. First, there’s the debate on the merits of avoiding curveballs until after the age of 12. Second, no one can seem to agree on what the total pitch count cap should be for young pitchers. They are healthy discussions because parents and coaches alike want to help athletes avoid overuse injuries and here are a few pitch tips to help.
For recommendations, we turned to Dr. Timothy Kremchek, a physician who intimately understands the pain caused by overuse. An Ohio-based orthopedic surgeon who serves as team medical director for the Cincinnati Reds and their affiliates, Dr. Kremchek regularly repairs overworked shoulders and elbows of pitchers of all ages. In fact, he’s performed several thousand Tommy John surgeries throughout his career. Although it’s the major league operations that get the most attention, Dr. Kremchek often treats younger clientele. High risk youth players are mostly pitchers who employ improper form or, more than likely, overuse their arm for years. Dr. Kremchek offered some pitch tips that all parents and coaches should consider to keep young arms healthy.
Start Them Early
The function of throwing a baseball is not a natural motion. That’s why Dr. Kremchek stresses that parents teach their children — even the “non athletes” — to practice the proper motion at a young age. Practicing the right form will help develop good habits and prevent future injuries. The more a kid throws from a young age, the more the muscles and bones of the shoulder adapt and become stronger for a life spent on a dirt clod, spitting out sunflower seeds, and staring at a catcher’s glove. “You’ll see some adaptive changes that help them down the road,” Dr. Kremchek says.
Function Follows Form
Correct pitching technique means a complex chain of events in the body that employ the legs, hips, and spine. Incorporating the lower body is imperative to throw harder and to avoid injury from unnecessarily stressing the shoulder and elbow. “The lower body takes significant stress off the upper body,” Dr. Kremchek comments. “And the ones who continue to throw hard without that technique have a higher incidence of elbow and shoulder problems.”
Here’s why form is so important: most young players don’t even start incorporating their lower body into pitching until age 13 (it is a couple of years earlier in girls). It’s up to the parents and coaches to teach the next generation of Cy Youngs to only throw using proper mechanics. As the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Stick to the Straight and Narrow
Throwing curveballs has long been a point of contention with young pitchers. The amount of torque required to throw a breaking ball puts too much stress on young elbows. While there don’t seem to be many studies that can tie a correlation between breaking balls and injured arms — in a 2011 study, the University of North Carolina evaluated the pitching on more than 1,400 baseball players, including 410 Little Leaguers. The researchers found no correlation between breaking balls and arm injuries. Still, Dr. Kremchek, who has repaired many young elbows, believes that young pitchers should avoid curves until their bodies are developed.
Count (All) The Pitches
Pitch counts exist for a reason – to keep pitchers from overusing their arms and to prevent batters from being bruised by uncontrolled balls thrown by fatigued pitchers. Little League has mandated pitch counts (50 pitches for 7 and 8-year-olds; 75 pitches for 9 and 10-year-olds; 85 for 11 and 12-year olds). Dr. Kremchek, however, thinks that the responsibility falls on parents to keep count for themselves. With so much going on at any given time on the ballfield, coaches often don’t enforce the pitch count rules. Dr. Kremchek’s formula is pretty simple: let the pitcher warm up and then pull them out when they have thrown six times their age in pitches. This means that an 8-year-old should stop after 48 pitches per game, a 10-year-old after 60 pitches, and so on. After reaching their pitch count, Dr. Kremchek says that to avoid injuries, the players should stay off the field until the following day. That means no switching to third base or shortstop. He also recommends that pitchers take three days off before stepping on the mound again.
Don’t be a One Trick Pony
Year-round baseball leagues are ubiquitous. This is unfortunate because a full year of activity and stress on the same joints, muscles, and tendons can easily lead to overuse. Summer leagues are notorious for allowing players to pitch too much, so it’s best for kids to take a break. Playing at least one other sport can be very beneficial as well— the cross training strengthens the body and allows a young body to be more adaptable to stress later on by improving overall athletic ability.
Besides, time off is can be a great investment in prevention of injuries. According to Dr. Kremchek, most pitchers with long, injury-free careers are those who didn’t overuse their arms when they were young. They are also the same players who avoided curveballs until they were 18 or 19. “The vast majority have had a calculated path to the big leagues without that abuse,” Dr. Krmechek notes. “The guys who peter out in the minors were beaten up when they were younger.”
To read the original article about pitch tips as authored by Chase Scheinbaum and published on Fatherly.com, please click here.