Is Pitching Arm Overuse Really That Big of a Deal?

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By Christopher Giangiulio, baseball dad and longtime TBP contributor and friend

Yes!…the answer is an emphatic YES!

I’m going to be blunt. This is what can happen to your son’s arm with overuse in the game of baseball.

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Fact. In a little over two years, three of my son Ethan’s friends have fractured their elbow while pitching, albeit on three separate teams.

Fact. Ethan was even the catcher in one instance and heard the ‘pop’ from behind the plate when his friend blew out his arm. The most recent instance happened just last Wednesday. Absolutely gut wrenching, every single time.

The injury pictured is an elbow fractured at the growth plate. It’s a devastating injury, the same in all three boys we know. Sometimes it heals with simple immobilization, but often it requires surgical repair. It’s also one that if it doesn’t heal properly, it can affect future bone growth. The issue is that until you are a physically mature adult, the growth plate softens in advance of a period of bone growth. It takes on an almost cartridge-like texture.

Simply put, combine the softening in the growth plate with repeated stresses from pitching over a period of time, add in an outing at the worst possible time from a stability standpoint, and POP!!

Game over.

I hear a lot of people talking about arm care and how they make it their top priority, coaches and parents alike. Actually, virtually everyone. Yet from the time Ethan was eight years old, we’ve routinely seen 120-pitch outings. We’ve seen a boy throw 60 pitches on Friday night, 30 on Saturday and another 50 on Sunday.

In the MLB, if a pitcher throws 70+ they’ll be shut down from throwing for three days minimum to prepare for their next start. What makes this sort of thing acceptable for our kids, then? How is it that everyone is so concerned about arm health yet we see this sort of thing almost every week? The honest truth is that every single pitch thrown stresses every joint in the arm, and every single pitch can, in fact, bring each player closer to injury. And that risk is doubled, even tripled, if they play on multiple teams and multiple leagues. Same applies for boys who catch as well as pitch, as is the case with my Ethan.

Little League has had long-standing age related pitching restrictions in place and most other rec leagues have followed suit. That’s a good thing. Here in PA there are restrictions in place for school aged players as well, but they apply the same ones to both high school and middle school. Ridiculous, as there is no comparing a 13-year-old, many of whom haven’t even hit puberty yet, to a grown man with near fully developed skeletal structure and musculature.

Ethan, mentioned above

Curious as to the top end of those particular restrictions? 200 pitches max in a week, and they can throw up to 100 pitches in an outing then pitch again on only three days’ rest. Translated, a 13-year-old boy can throw 100 pitches on Monday and another 100 on Friday of the same week. To me that is mind boggling.

While that alone is troubling, travel baseball is still the biggest offender as the majority of venues, near us at least, set zero pitching restrictions and leave it up to the individual coaches to choose how much to pitch any given player. Some do implement innings limits, but they fall far short, in my opinion, as an ‘inning’ is not a uniform standard of measure compared to a pitch. We’ve all seen the three-pitch inning, and we’ve also seen the 40-pitch inning. Clearly they can do better as well.

There’s always been talk about how certain pitches, such as the curve ball, lead to greater risk, but study after study is now showing that it’s simple overuse that’s leading to countless injuries at the youth level. I’m sure certain pitches may contribute more, especially with improper mechanics, but even a fastball alone thrown too often can have the same end result. The argument that Little Johnny can throw more than Billy or Timmy because he doesn’t throw a curve doesn’t hold water anymore.

As parents, we need to walk the walk in addition to talking the talk. We need to advocate for our boys. I speak from experience having failed my son once when he was younger. I gave in and allowed him to pitch in a game even though I knew he shouldn’t have because he caught almost every inning all weekend. Although he survived unscathed, throwing just eight pitches, all out of the strike zone, I’ve regretted that decision ever since, and vowed to never let it happen again. Since then, whenever he plays, I know exactly how many innings he’s caught as well as how many pitches he’s thrown. And I will speak up if necessary. Since then we’ve been extremely fortunate to have coaches who genuinely do care about arm health. And to those coaches who may be reading this, if you are in fact able to read this, you’re one of the good guys.

No young pitcher should throw close to 100 pitches in a weekend and certainly not anything close to 200 pitches in a week. If you allow it to happen, you’re a part of the problem. If you make excuses as to why it’s okay…you know:

‘He’s stretched out.’

‘He’s conditioned for this.’ (Can’t condition bone.)

‘It’s only this once.’

‘He’s really earned this complete game.’

‘He begged me not to take him out and said his arm feels just fine.’

‘Mom and Dad said it’s okay.’

…you’re a part of the problem, too. And even if you stand by and watch it happen to somebody else’s kid and you don’t speak up, you’re part of the problem, even if to a lesser extent. That reason alone was enough for me to write this in the first place. So, how about as adults we agree to stop being a part of the problem and start being a part of the solution.

No sane adult would ever make the statement that a win, a one-seed, a complete game, no hitter, or even a perfect game is worth injuring a player. Yet it happens every single day and most of us sit back and let it happen.

I think it’s about time to change that. Don’t you?

(Below are a couple really good pitching guidelines. One as a joint effort by Major League Baseball and USA Baseball, and another slightly more conservative one put out by Baseball Dudes. Also, if you’re interested in a community that genuinely cares about preserving the game of baseball and preserving our boys for that game, Travel Ball Parents is for you.)

If you’ve read all the way through this, I thank you. Insomnia does have its perks sometimes. 😉 I do genuinely care about every boy we know in the game. I enjoy watching all of them play, and I hope to see them do so for years to come.

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Angela Weight

Founder and publisher of Travel Ball Parents.com, Angela Weight is still a little shocked to be running one of the most popular youth sports parenting sites on the web. Click the ABOUT US tab to read her story.

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