The culture in youth baseball doesnt protect players from developing injuries

by: DAVID BALL - Brendan McAra was a pitcher for the 2011 Cal Ripken 10U baseball team. Is enough being done in youth baseball to prevent pitchers from developing arm 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 pitcher’s workload and prevented overuse.

But after spending this summer as an assistant coach with the Sandy Federal team (ages 13-14), I’ve 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 we’d 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 tournament’s 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 it’s hard to track pitch counts.

“It’s difficult to find anyone on your team who can keep track of pitches thrown,” he says. “Outs are easier.”

But this method can’t 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.

Let’s 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 didn’t 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 what’s 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. They’re 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 they’ve had success, not when they’ve failed,” he says.

Miller adds that pitchers need to experience failure in order to develop the ability to persevere, but every start shouldn’t end when they hit the wall. He suggests this method builds confidence.

But what is best for the kid sometimes differs from a coach’s 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 what’s best for their pitcher’s health while the parents ensure this happens. But from my experience as a coach this year, I’ve learned that isn’t 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. I’m not saying children shouldn’t 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.

Don’t 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 isn’t jeopardized while competing in their event. Don’t 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. Let’s make sure that’s possible. Talent should dictate when their playing careers are over, not their health.

It’s our responsibility to act in their best interest, regardless of our desire to win.

Sports reporter Kristopher Anderson can be reached by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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