Monday, August 28, 2006

Pitch counts and curveballs

Last week, Little League Baseball announced that it is instituting a major reform starting next season - the much-debated "pitch-count" rule. This augments the current LL rules which limit a pitcher to six innings in a week but does nothing to stop the same pitcher from throwing endless numbers of pitches. A five-pitch inning. A 50-pitch inning. Under the old rules it was all the same.

Let's congratulate Little League Baseball and CEO Stephen Keener. This is an important, even historic, reform, and they got it right.

Now what about curveballs?

Every orthopedist I have spoken to on the subject strongly believes that it's wrong for LL pitchers to be throwing curveballs. Yet tune in any LL World Series game and you see them thrown at an alarming rate. LL Baseball just announced a five-year study of the issue, led by researchers at the University of North Carolina. (See Great. But really necessary? Little Leagues around the country - the progressive ones - have already taken the step of banning curveballs. None of them needed the results of a five-year study to confirm what they they knew from years of observing youth pitchers.

Here's an article on the subject.

Pressure to throw curveballs rises in little league games

By Mark Hyman
Thursday, Aug 18, 2005,Page 20
When the first pitch of the Little League World Series zips across home plate in Williamsport, Pennsylvania on Friday, don't be surprised if it's a curveball.

Curves and other tantalizing breaking pitches are part of the landscape at the Little League World Series, as ubiquitous as cotton candy and batting helmets with chin straps. Curves draw oohs from crowds that squeeze into the picturesque Howard J. Lamade Stadium. Curves help pull in TV ratings for the World Series, which this year has 32 games on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and the Spanish-language ESPN Deportes.

How often do the 11- and 12-year-old pitching prodigies show off their breaking balls? Often enough to make Roger Clemens' elbow throb.

Joseph B. Chandler, senior orthopedic consultant for the Atlanta Braves, has studied pitch patterns in the tournament. Based on observations of four games in the 1991 Little League World Series, curves and other breaking balls accounted for 23 percent of the pitches. In a study of 13 games in 2001, the percentage was up to 37. The 2001 championship game was a breaking-ball jamboree. Pitchers for teams from Tokyo and Apopka, Florida, tossed breaking balls 64 percent of the time.

Chandler said he planned to update his research after this month's Little League World Series, and he expected curveball counts to rise again, perhaps as high as 40 percent. What makes the proliferation of Little League curveballs so startling is this: It's against doctors' orders.

Curves require a snap of the wrist and a twist of the elbow. Sports medicine experts are united in warning that 11- and 12-year-olds are too young to be throwing them, that they exert too much stress on developing bodies. Chandler and other prominent sports doctors recommend that young pitchers lay off curveballs until six months after they turn 14.

Professional ballplayers are even more cautious. When Chandler polled 101 pitchers in the Braves' organization, asking at what age they would allow their sons to begin throwing curves, the consensus was to wait a few months longer, until their sons were nearly 15. Even Little League Baseball's president, Stephen D. Keener, comes across as anti-curve.

"We are hearing from more and more medical professionals that the danger is there," he said.

So why hasn't Little League Baseball, the behemoth of the youth game, with more than 2.3 million players, drawn up a banned-pitch list and put curveballs at the top?

It's not because the organization is indifferent to the health of players. Little League's rulebook is crammed with protective measures. Six innings in a week is the limit for any pitcher. Last season, 53 local Little Leagues tested new rules on the maximum number of pitches, rather than the number of innings. Addressing the effects of the curveball is next on the organization's to-do list.

"We understand the problem, and are looking at it," Keener said.

Keener said Little League Baseball was trying to educate children and adults about the dangers of curveballs. But he acknowledges that persuasion alone may not be the answer.

"It gets to the point where you can educate all you want," he said. "Unless it's a hard-and-fast rule, I don't know if they're paying attention."

Certainly, enforcing a no-curveball rule would present challenges. Little League Baseball, which has chartered leagues in 82 countries, would have to specify to coaches, parents and players what was off limits.

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