Monday, July 27, 2009

More on youth league pitchers and curveballs

In yesterday's New York Times, I wrote about kids and curveballs. Physicians and coaches have been warning about the dangers to young arms from curveballs for decades. Are they too cautious?

Maybe, according to two recent studies that found no connection between curves and elbow injuries in kids.

The article includes reaction from orthopedic surgeons who don't see the research as the last word.

Here's an interview that didn't make the article. I spoke with Joseph Chandler, Director of Medical Services Emeritus for the Atlanta Braves and an expert on kids and baseball injuries. He's not convinced that curves are harmless.

Question- Your reaction to the curveball research? (performed at the American Sports Medicine Institute)

Answer- This is a study that needed to be done. The problem is how it is interpreted, how the results are used. People need to remember it is a laboratory study done under laboratory conditions using a small number of pitchers, a small number of pitches.

Q-Are the results a setback for surgeons hoping to discourage curves for kids?
A-I think a lot of people wish the study had shown the curveball is a terrible pitch. It didn't really show that. So perhaps the curveball is not the devil. But there are certainly troubling things associated with kids throwing lots of curveballs.

Q-For instance.
A-Overuse. Kids throwing too many pitches. Kids pitching year round.

Q-How should parents and coaches interpret the curveball research?
A-One of the interesting things in the study is this: People see what they want to see. They focus on what they want the study to show. Some will take from this: Oh, you see the curveball is not a bad pitch. When they could be saying: what a great pitch the changeup is. (The study showed changeups generating less force on young elbows than fastballs or curves) So maybe the curveball is not the devil. But when you start throwing it so young, it makes it harder for a kid to truly learn how to pitch and build arm strength.

Q-In light of the new research, have your thoughts changed about when kids can safely begin throwing curves?
A-My philosophy has always been and to this day is not before fourteen-and-a-half. Why do I come up with that? It's an age where general body maturation is to a point that it can withstand more stress on the arm. Waiting until 14 protects the arm and gives a kid a chance to learn how to pitch.

Q- Little League Baseball has no rules regarding curves. The kids are 11, 12 and 13. Should there be a policy?
A-I think there should be a statement or policy discouraging breaking balls. I think it would be very difficult to prohibit curves. Who is going to monitor that? Who is going to decide what is a curveball?

Q-You polled 100 major- and minor-league pitchers in the Braves organization about when as youth players they began throwing curves. What did you learn?
A-For the most part, they didn’t throw them when they were 10-11-12 years old. The average age was 14. For major leaguers, it was 15. That's not firm scientific data (that kids who defer on throwing curves remain healthier and ultimately have more success). But it's pretty darn good.

1 comment:

BBallCoach said...

Good piece. I was doing a coaching clinic last year and got to stick around for a clinic on pitching safety from one of the Cubs' pitching coaches. He had some very interesting points about avoiding pitching-related injuries:

He made it clear that the overall strength and conditioning of the pitcher is important - especially core strength.

In keeping with this, he showed examples of pitching where the force was a result of the whole body, not just the whip of the arm. He likened it to the compact punch of a good boxer.

He talked about pitchers with longer careers often being the best all-around athletes and the most committed to full body conditioning as well as arm strength and pitching.

There is also a very interesting episode on "Real Sports (HBO)" that highlights the increase in Tommy John surgeries among young athletes and depicts a coach who espouses a radically different pitching motion. To my eye, it looked similar to an overhand version of a fast-pitch softball motion.

(Full disclosure - I'm a basketball coach, so what do I know! Just interesting things I've seen. I'm always interested in seeing how the kinesiology and technique of different sports can inform coaches and trainers.)