That magical phrase Major League Baseball fans can’t wait to hear every winter – “Pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training” – often comes with a disclaimer: Many pitchers may actually not report because they are injured.
A high rate of arm injuries to pitchers continues at all age levels of baseball. The trend is particularly concerning in youth leagues and high school baseball as athletes’ bodies are still developing. Medical professionals and pitching experts say more young pitchers get hurt today due to the increasing demands they must meet to draw the attention of professional and college baseball scouts. That means throwing the ball faster than most others do and pitching virtually year-round in leagues and talent showcases.
“What we have is the perfect storm for pitching injuries, putting enormous stress on the soft tissue around the joints and growth plates,” says Ron Wolforth, a long-time pitching trainer who is founder of Texas Baseball Ranch and author of "Pitching with Confidence: A Parent’s Guide To Giving Your Elite Pitcher An Edge."
“The bottom line is velocity is coveted by the athletes and by coaches at every level. Today, it’s almost a necessity to throw 85-plus miles-per-hour to pitch for the better high schools. And to be considered for the Major League Baseball draft, sometimes 92 isn’t enough.”
That leaves parents and athletes with two choices: Stay safe and be passed over by other athletes willing to risk injury – or risk injury themselves.
“If they decide to go for it, preparing the soft tissue for the stress it will be placed under is absolutely essential,” Wolforth says.
He offers these tips to young pitchers and their parents to reduce the chances of arm injuries:
Do not pitch year-round. “An athlete should participate in multiple sports for as long as he or she can,” Wolforth says. “I strongly recommend taking off a minimum of six months a year from competitive pitching.”
Prepare for the stress of pitching. “You need to train the entire body for the requirements involved in high-level competition,” Wolforth says. “Injuries come from being underprepared for the specific demands of intensity or workload.”
Improve mechanical efficiency. Wolforth says inefficient mechanics are a big cause of injuries. “No two pitchers in history have ever thrown identically, and parents should reject the concept given by any instructor of a universal throwing model,” he says. “Mechanical efficiency is about fine-tuning each unique delivery style for synergy and coordination of movement segments, and the ability to decelerate is just as important as the ability to throw hard. So are posture, rhythm and degrees of individual throwing freedom.”
Manage workloads. Wolforth says parents should get involved in managing their pitcher’s workloads if coaches are putting the pitcher at risk. “You must be educated regarding workloads,” Wolforth says. “How well you articulate your concerns and the willingness of the coach to hear reasonable, well-stated concerns is another matter entirely.”
Know when to shut it down. Teach your athlete to stop immediately if anything feels odd, uniquely uncomfortable or painful. “The importance of the particular game or tournament is not more important than the long-term health of your young athlete,” Wolforth says. “If your pitcher complains of pain anywhere in the soft tissue of the elbow or shoulder, it is a sign of a weak link, disconnection and/or mechanical inefficiency. Seek immediate expert advice.”
“Welcome to the world of competitive youth athletics, circa 2020,” Wolforth says. “It’s a world where an athlete’s soft tissue and growth plates are put under tremendous stress. Parents can’t just hope their kids won’t get hurt. Hope is not a plan.”
About Ron Wolforth
Ron Wolforth (TexasBaseballRanch.com) is the founder and CEO of Texas Baseball Ranch in Montgomery, Texas. A long-time pitching trainer who’s been a consultant for numerous Major League Baseball organizations and NCAA baseball programs, Wolforth has written five books on pitching. His latest is "Pitching with Confidence: A Parent’s Guide To Giving Your Elite Pitcher An Edge." Wolforth and his Texas Baseball Ranch have been featured in Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, Men’s Journal, Baseball Digest, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.