ATLANTA — Baseball scouts and coaches, please hide your radar guns that track the speed of pitches thrown. If you can’t hide them behind the backstop, put a fake mustache on them, a beard, a wig, something, anything. Treat that radar gun as if it is in a Witness Protection program. Make it invisible.
When kids who are baseball pitchers see a radar gun, which measures speed of pitches by miles per hour, they think they are in a carnival tent, not on the pitcher’s mound. Their minds rev up, and so does their adrenaline. They take their arm and wheel it around in a big circle to stretch it and make it loose, as if they are unlocking the power of Hercules. They are hunting a college scholarship because the hardest throwing pitchers get noticed.
The kid throws with all his might.
If he does that enough times, he could hurt himself.
We may as well call this era of pitchers “The Tommy John Generation.” Young pitchers 16 to 22 years old and some older, are injuring the ulnar collateral ligament in their throwing elbow at an alarming rate and requiring surgery named after the former big league southpaw, Tommy John.
One of the key factors contributing to the injury, according to researcher Dr. Glenn Fleisig, is young pitchers striving for velocity and throwing harder. They are gassing up for the radar gun, which is held by college coaches and professional scouts. The kids covet velocity because, after all, velocity, like the home run, makes the scout look again.
“Being inquisitive and interested in the speed of their pitches is fine, being enamored and obsessed with it is not fine,” said Fleisig, the research director for the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala., and colleague of Dr. James Andrews, the famed orthopedic surgeon who has performed thousands of ‘Tommy John’ operations there.
“When they think it is all about the radar gun, it is a medical safety problem. It is not a carnival contest to see who has the highest speed. It is to see who gives up the fewest runs.”
It used to be that overuse was considered the primary factor in pitchers injuring their arms. These days, while overuse is still a factor, the thirst for burst is also a factor. There are websites galore that focus on velocity, not the results of getting batters out. For instance, a sign hanging on a fence at the East Cobb Baseball complex north of Atlanta advertised a method for kids to increase their velocity 3 to 6 miles per hour — guaranteed.
“There are more and more Tommy John injuries than in previous generations,” Fleisig said. “Pitchers these days are bigger, stronger and essentially better than in previous generations. One thing that is quantifiable is that pitchers today throw harder than in previous generations. The science points out that the fast pitches are more stressful.”
The teenage pitchers have to be schooled about the dangers of throwing to the radar gun. It is a hard thing to convince them not to see how high a number they can get.
“I started pitching probably around 10,” said right-handed pitcher Austin Smith, a rising high school senior in West Palm Beach, Fla., who plays for the Easton Rockets summer baseball program. “I hit 70 when I was 10. I wanted to be the hardest thrower on the field. I still get pumped up when i see how fast I’ve thrown. It gets you noticed.”
Smith says he will reach back on two pitches per game just to see where he is velocity-wise, but his coaches will not share the information with him during the game. Mostly, Smith said, “I just try to stay to my spots,” which is about commanding where the fastball goes, not how fast he throws it.
The key for coaches is to intervene in the carnival of speed and talk “pitchability” not “velocity.”
“It’s the coach, player trust,” said Brian Cain, the founder and director of The San Diego Show, one of the premier youth baseball programs in the country. “The young pitcher comes to you and they rely on you and your expert opinion about pitching. If you tell them you don’t have to perform for the radar gun, that you can pitch, and they trust you, that’s key.
“We tell them if you can pitch the scouts will know you are a projectable guy. Velocity will come in time without all the effort. Nobody cares if you throw 96 and you can’t throw strikes. It proves you can throw hard, but it doesn’t prove you can pitch.”
Cain said mechanics have to be emphasized, which means good balance, good finish, separation. His players ice for 20 straight minutes after a start, or relief outing. They long toss between starts and they run for conditioning so they do not become fatigued on the mound. Doctors insist that pitching tired leads to injuries.
“There is too much put on radar guns and not enough put on pitchability,” Cain said. “Does a young pitcher have to dial it up to 93 to be a good pitcher? No. Throwing 85 to 89 in high school and knowing how to pitch is important. If they learn how to repeat their mechanics properly then they can pitch and not throw and overthrow.”
While velocity matters, Fleisig, Andrews, and ASMI conducted a 10-year study of young pitchers in Alabama and concluded that the number of pitches — overuse — was a leading factor in arm injuries among adolescent pitchers.
They studied 481 youth pitchers and compared participants who pitched at least four years during the 10 years and those who pitched less. The study investigated risks of pitching more than 100 innings in a year, throwing curveballs before 13 years old, and playing catcher and pitcher three years.
- Kids who pitched more than 100 innings per year were 3 ½ times more likely to be injured.
- Playing catcher, as well as pitcher, appears to increase a pitcher’s risk of injury.
- Surprisingly, the study was “unable to demonstrate that curveballs before age 13 years increase risk of injury.”
Curtailing innings pitched for youngsters is easy compared to getting them to “add and subtract” on the mound, which is to throw some pitches with maximum effort, and others with less than max effort.
“Some guys will see a radar gun and automatically think they have to throw hard to impress the guy behind that gun,” said Nick Neidert, a rising senior at Peachtree Ridge High School in the Atlanta area, who has committed to attend the University of South Carolina. “I have seen guys hurt themselves doing that.”