Thursday, April 15, 2010

Protecting Pitchers' Arms

Over the last few months I have seen a significant amount of attention paid to the increasing rates of stress-related injuries to young baseball players' arms, particularly pitchers. Interestingly (but not necessarily surprisingly) enough, the rate of increase has correlated with an ongoing trend favoring travel or "select" baseball teams over recreational leagues like Little League Baseball, PONY Baseball, and others.

The culprit (again, not surprisingly) is one frequently identified by medical professionals such as Dr. Joe Chandler. With breaking pitches being introduced during players' formative development years, as early as 10 and 11, in some cases, young pitchers' elbows are facing unprecedented strain during a time in which their growing pre-teen bodies are particularly vulnerable. According to Dr. Chandler, many injuries among 19- and 20-year olds can be traced back to injuries in the pre-teen years.

Additionally, many coaches are unaware of "safe" pitching limits. In addition to the daily threshold recommended by the American Sports Institute in Birmingham Alabama (75 - 105 pitches per day, depending on age), the Institue also recommends a full day's rest for every 20 pitches thrown for players 16 and under. Thus, a well-meaning coach could prescribe a "safe" guideline of 40-50 pitches per day for his pitchers -- well beneath the daily guideline -- and still be putting his players at risk of chronic injury.

Finally, distribution of talent can further contribute to the risk of chronic injury. Because pitching and catching are arguably the most technically demanding positions on the baseball field, it is not uncommon for players to make respective appearances on the mound and behind the plate in the same game. While much of our attention thus far has been devoted to the pitcher's elbow, such cross-training puts the player at aggravated risk for chronic shoulder injuries.

Today's baseball landscape is divided primarily into the "recreational" and "select" categories, with a proportion of the recreational leagues operating in an unfamiliar grey area. Successful "select" teams are highly protective of their depth charts, but the temptation to introduce breaking pitches too early is ever-present. In recreational league, the most critical risks to pitchers' arms are coaches who are not aware of the implications of overuse, or who place competitiveness above the higher objective of player development.

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