Play should not cost an arm
The culture in youth baseball doesnt protect players from developing injuries
Given what we know about the growing rate of arm injuries in adolescent baseball players, I was hopeful that the culture at the youth level responsibly monitored a pitchers workload and prevented overuse.
But after spending this summer as an assistant coach with the Sandy Federal team (ages 13-14), Ive seen the health of pitchers is being jeopardized.
Two weeks ago, my team competed in the Nations Northwest Summer Championship Tournament, where we played four games in three days.
I thought wed have to look deep into our bench in order to find enough pitching to get through the weekend. Fortunately from a coaching standpoint my hands were only slightly tied by the tournaments rules.
The tournament tried to alleviate the stress on arms by implementing pitching limits. But the rules still left kids vulnerable to overuse, according to recommendations the tournament provided.
First of all, the tournament issues a packet that includes a chart from the USA Baseball Medical & Safety Advisory Committee, which recommends a limit on pitches for pitchers of different ages.
But this is not how the tournament monitors pitchers. Instead of limiting pitchers by pitches, it does so by outs.
Jeff LeRiche, Nations Baseball Northwest director, says this is because its hard to track pitch counts.
Its difficult to find anyone on your team who can keep track of pitches thrown, he says. Outs are easier.
But this method cant account for walks or errors, which drive up pitch counts.
Second, as stated in the packet, The day after a start should be for rest, not participating in any drills that use an overhand movement.
There is no rule, however, preventing a starting pitcher from throwing two days in a row. Even if a pitcher throws a complete game 21 outs he is free to pitch a maximum of three innings the next day.
Lets say a pitcher averages 10 pitches per inning; that means he will throw 30 pitches over those three innings. According to the provided chart, though, a pitcher should be limited to 30-35 pitches after a full day of rest.
The rule, for seven-inning games in the 16U or younger divisions, does limit pitchers to 21 outs in a single day. They also cannot record more than 30 outs in three consecutive days.
But here was a situation that occurred with one of our pitchers: He started our first game of the tournament and went four innings and threw roughly 60 pitches. The next day we played an elimination game, a situation where you want your ace available. Luckily for us, that pitcher could still record 18 outs in other words, six innings.
I didnt want him to pitch. I thought it was irresponsible. But I was out-voted.
Those around the team were determined to win, regardless of what common sense suggested.
He pitched, went five innings and threw roughly 75 pitches more than double the recommended amount with even one day of rest.
Sometimes coaches are more concerned about the win than they are about whats best for the kid, Sandy pitching coach Ed Miller says.
Miller, who became a coach after his time as a minor league catcher, says coaches too often rely on one pitcher for important games. Theyre used until they fatigue and falter.
He believes an alternative approach remains mindful of pitchers physical wellbeing and also accounts for their psychological welfare.
Take them off the mound when theyve had success, not when theyve failed, he says.
Miller adds that pitchers need to experience failure in order to develop the ability to persevere, but every start shouldnt end when they hit the wall. He suggests this method builds confidence.
But what is best for the kid sometimes differs from a coachs strategy to win. And when the stakes are high, the desire to succeed can overshadow the responsible decision.
Ideally, we should be able to trust coaches to do whats best for their pitchers health while the parents ensure this happens. But from my experience as a coach this year, Ive learned that isnt always reality.
Instead, the reality is, at times, troubling.
According to a five-year study conducted by the University of North Carolina Department of Exercise and Sports Science and concluded in 2011, the primary cause of arm injuries in youth baseball players was overuse. It also found that the number of pitcher-related injuries doubled between Little League (ages 8-13) and high school, mostly due to the higher number of innings and pitches thrown.
Those in charge should be educated on the risks of overusing pitchers and how to prevent injuries.
Also, the emphasis on winning in youth sports needs to change. Im not saying children shouldnt be taught the importance of winning, because I believe striving to succeed instills work ethic and determination.
But at times, coaches and parents are more concerned about winning than the children are.
Youth baseball is a platform for developing players. But when we rely on just a couple of players, others get lost in the fray. Give the stars a break and accept your duty to make every player better.
Dont limit the mound to one or two pitchers. Give a multitude of children the opportunity to learn and perform.
Finally, tournaments need to ensure the health of pitchers isnt jeopardized while competing in their event. Dont provide recommendations and hope coaches are responsible enough to adhere. If you believe they are best for a pitcher, adopt them as rules.
Hopefully, children can have careers that last through high school, if not longer. Lets make sure thats possible. Talent should dictate when their playing careers are over, not their health.
Its our responsibility to act in their best interest, regardless of our desire to win.