by Ken Reed

The past several years have seen a significant rise in baseball pitchers undergoing Tommy John surgery for torn elbow ligaments in their throwing arms. This holds true from youth leagues, through high school, college, the minor leagues and eventually the major leagues. Since 2012, the number of MLB pitchers having elbow reconstruction surgeries has doubled from the decade prior. (See “MLB pitching a plan …”)

When the issue is examined, as Nick Groke recently did in a piece for the Denver Post, it becomes clear that ego-and-greed-based thinking — win-at-all-costs (WAAC) and profit-at-all-costs (PAAC) — is driving the rise in Tommy John injuries.

The problem starts when pitchers are young.

“Baseball is a spring and summer sport,” says Scott Bullock, a veteran high school baseball coach in Colorado. “But nowadays kids are running out for another 100-pitch start once a week in the fall. It’s just mind-boggling to me we’re throwing kids this much.” Bullock adds that with winter pitching lessons, some young pitchers never have any down time.

Colorado Rockies manager Walt Weiss believes the problem starts early too.

“Now they (young pitchers) are traveling nationally, against national-level teams, and having to max out all the time,” says Weiss.

Some out-of-contral parents have even asked doctors to perform the Tommy John surgery on their young pitchers as an elective procedure, believing it will eventually make their child’s pitching arm stronger.

“You’re not going to come back throwing harder,” according to Rockies’ trainer Keith Dugger. “That’s a misnomer.”

To their credit, Major League Baseball, in cooperation with USA Baseball, recognizes the problem and is trying to address it through a Pitch Smart initiative that provides guidelines for how many pitches young pitchers should throw on a given day and over the course of a year. The suggested pitch limits gradually go up from age 8 to age 18. A key emphasis in the guidelines is rest. A strong recommendation for all ages is that youth pitchers take four months off from pitching each year.

The question now is will youth sports entrepreneurs (club administrators and some coaches looking to make money from youth sports clubs, travel teams, etc.) and ego-driven parents (dreaming of college scholarship offers and major league contracts for their kids) heed the warnings of medical and baseball professionals and follow the new Pitch Smart guidelines?

–Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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