Fatigue, Overuse Lead to Trouble for Young Pitchers
By Bo Carter
CARROLLTON, Texas – We’re moving deeply into youth league tournament time, and with “do or die” wins required to advance, it brings up the point of being ultra-careful overusing young arms.
This writer has noted the national trend, especially in professional baseball, of an inordinate number of Tommy John surgeries – where tendons are moved from different parts of the body to the elbow/ulnar or shoulder areas to compensate for torn tendons or ligaments in those parts of the arms. These injuries can come from an unusual or “forced” throwing motion, too many pitches thrown in too short a time span, which stretches or tears tendons.
One such case was Jack Lazorko, who was drafted out of River Edge, N.J., by the Astros in the 11th round of the 1978 amateur draft. He pitched five seasons in the big leagues, with the Brewers, Mariners, Tigers and Angels, before arm trouble and batters caught up to him. He retired after the 1988 season, compiling a 5-8 life-time record. He now lives in Rowlett, Texas.
Tommy John is the poster boy for the surgical procedure named in his honor. Of his 288 total MLB pitching victories, John won 164 of them after undergoing the revolutionary surgery in Los Angeles by late Dr. Frank Jobe. The date was Sept. 25, 1974. Baseball has been a bit different ever sinee.
Several locals and the four basketball teams and travel parties (yours truly was there working in sports media relations with Mississippi State) attended a special speech for the Indiana Hall of Fame Basketball Classic in John’s hometown of Terre Haute, Ind., in December 1974. His arm still was in cast from shoulder to wrist.
“It is itching like crazy,” he told us. But John made an amazing recovery after sitting out the whole 1975 season and later appeared in 14 more seasons – 26 total – for second-most years as a hurler in the majors behind only Nolan Ryan.
But getting back to Tommy John surgery and arm injury treatment, the various conditions are curable in many cases as a record seven MLB moundmen have had TJ surgery in the last 12 months with another 4-5 on the disabled list awaiting further test results.
Physicians and trainers point to genetic factors, simple arm pitching overuse and mere buzzard luck for the rash of arm injuries.
Most Major League teams and their affiliates have their pitchers on a closely monitored pitch count – especially in their professional rookie seasons. Many are coming off extensive innings in high school or college postseason playoffs. They have been called upon in a save situation in a postseason tournament or critical series — the same weekend when they worked as a starter.
This practice has been dangerous and was utilized (not to a great extent, thankfully) by several coaches for years.
In fact, some high schools coaches who will remain nameless even have gone so far as to “ride” their ace as a starter in a game either on the same or following day/night after he pitched a complete game. A recipe for disaster.
What coaches, parents and observers can do, according to the experts, is monitor the conditions and ask young players how they feel even before a 4-5-day rest between starts. Sometimes simple body fatigue is a factor even without a tinge in the arm/shoulder joints or recurrent pain. Doctors are now pointing to so-called “fall ball” leagues – in essence, year-round pitching – as a no-no. Young arms require plenty of rest.
This writer favors continuing and possibly tightening pitch and innings’ limits in tournaments and regular season games. Little League Baseball is taking the lead, by limiting innings pitched in the postseason and required rest days. A pitcher throwing more than 20 pitches in a day, for instance, may not pitch at all the next day.
Groups such as the Texas Collegiate League summer amateur group have imposed 100-pitch counts on starters and relievers (in the cases of extra innings) to guard against any possible damage before these valuable pitchers return to their respective colleges.
And then there’s the indefatigable Ryan, who threw for 27 years and even pitched when he knew he was going to have to have bone chips removed from his elbow at the end of the season. Big Tex had a high threshold of pain, but he also learned practical techniques (available now online and in several aerobic exercise books) about proper stretching, weight training, warm-up, and postgame cool-downs with light exercise (often a treadmill or pulley weights) to guard against potential arm strains and injuries.
Here’s to erring on the side of caution whenever any arm discomfort or potential “tired” arms.Don’t succumb to the advice of one old coach, who once told a gasping and spent college pitcher after 3-4 appearances in a NCAA tournament: “Don’t worry; you’ll have the whole summer to recover.”
Not cool and potentially dangerous. Your writer here continues to urge caution – especially for those young arms.
Kids need to have the opportunity to enjoy work on the mound for years to come.
Bo Carter is former sports information director of the Southwest Conference and Big 12. In addition to his duties with sportsandoutdoors.guru, he currently serves as secretary of the College Baseball Writers. Follow Bo on Twitter at #bcarter52 and Facebook at Bo Carter (Carrollton, Texas).