As young athletes stray from playing multiple sports to focus on a singular sport, there has been a noticeable increase in overuse injuries. Regardless of pitch counts, inning limits, or other variables that can be manipulated, injuries are an unfortunate certainty in sports. Unlike death and taxes, not every athlete is going to wind up needing a UCL reconstruction or their rotator cuff repaired. Nonetheless, the volume of throwing athletes that are seeing an orthopedist is undeniably on the rise.
After reading research/blogs/twitter feeds/etc., there are a couple things that come to mind:
1) Parents say that they are implementing a pitch limit but their kid may play in multiple leagues. I’m curious as to if the parents are using one pitch limit for the leagues collectively or if they are using individual limits for each league. For example: Little Johnny plays for 3 teams and the hypothetical pitch limit is 90 pitches. Is Johnny throwing 90 pitches per team, essentially throwing 280 pitches, or is he throwing 30 per team, reaching his 90 pitch limit? A parent who thinks Little Johnny is the next Nolan Ryan/Roger Clemens reincarnation may be the former. However, the real talent may be harnessed in the latter player. Regardless of the situation, how do we actually know which player is observing a “correct” pitch count?
2) Within limits is there a limit of breaking-ball, off-speed, fastballs thrown? For younger athletes who claim to know how to throw a breaking-ball they may tend to use it more frequently. I read an article (or tweet, I can’t remember which) where a former MLB player astutely pointed out that pitchers are “pitching backwards”. For the non-baseball-buffs out there, pitching backwards means they are starting the at-bat by throwing breaking/off-speed pitches before they go to a fastball. Thus, increasing the number of pitches that increase the valgus forces and torques pitchers apply to their elbows in any given inning. An elite and effective pitcher wants to get out of an inning in 12-15 pitches, yet we are seeing pitch counts for pros exceed 100+ pitches. High school and youth athletes are approaching the same pitch limits as professionals with mechanics that are not as fine-tuned and musculoskeletal systems that pale in comparison to those of the athletes we see on TV.
As athletic trainers we can only do so much as to protect our athletes/patients from injuring themselves. We are armed with the knowledge from research and information from leading doctors that steer us in the direction that says that overuse injuries can be avoided; the athletes and a lot of the times even parents refuse to acknowledge this information even exists. There comes an unfortunate point in time where our hands become tied and they need to start listening. That time may come when their 14-year-old reincarnated Ryan/Clemens needs Tommy John surgery because they decided to pitch 10 out of the 12 months of the year. All while still pitching in the 2 “off-season” months.