I plead guilty, but guilty with an explanation. I told my star pitcher before the game, who is also on a travel team, not to throw more than 6 curve balls in the game. My decision was based on the fact that the team we were playing had two really powerful hitters, two of the best in the league. We were fighting, not for a playoff birth, but a bye in the first round. I knew this pitcher threw the curve and his father said his travel team coach allowed him to throw it a little during the game. I knew his travel team coach was the Middle School baseball coach, and on top of that, he was a certified trainer. So what better endorsement did I need? Six curve balls in a game. What damage could it do? He could mix up his pitches with these two power hitters. He could throw them off balance. We beat this team, we got the bye. Well, I was wrong! I went against my own philosophy about having my pitchers not throw curve balls. The best pitcher in the league was throwing curve balls against our team and now we were fighting them for second place. I drank the Kool Aid, going against my own philosophy. I got caught up in the competitiveness of sports unfairly putting a player’s arm in possible danger. How many of us coaches are having players on multiple teams trying to squeeze out a few extra pitches, including a few curves to gain the “W.
1) Studies have begun to show up that say maybe curve balls do not have a negative affect on a player’s arm. Glenn Fleisig, the research director of the American Sports Medicine Institute, is now saying that in their studies, they could not prove throwing curve balls is bad for a youth baseball player’s arm. Dr. James Andrews, the orthopedic surgeon of the same organization, has challenged the results of this study. Dr. Andrews states, “What we found out in the lab is true. For pitchers with proper mechanics, the force of throwing a curveball is no greater than for a fastball. But that’s not what happens in reality on the baseball field. Many kids don’t have proper mechanics or enough neuromuscular control, or they are fatigued when throwing curveballs. Things breakdown. Those are the kids I’m seeing every day in my operating room.” I coached youth baseball for twenty-five years and have my own study in my head from experience. My study will never appear in any medical journal or be quoted on CNN but I can only go by the “eye test”. I don’t think curve balls should be thrown by youth baseball pitchers under 13 years old. Most youth coaches, myself included, do not know the exact proper mechanics of the curve ball, as far as holding the ball correctly, the twisting of the wrist, etc. I have followed Dr. Andrews for years, and if he questions a study that says curve balls are not bad for the arm, then I also question it. A number of years ago when Dr. Andrews was asked when a player should be allowed to throw a curve ball, his answer was, “When the player begins to shave.” Think about it. A player in adolescence going through puberty begins shaving when his body reaches a certain point of development. Of all the studies I have read and talks and lectures I have listened to, this makes the most sense to me.
2) Looking into arm injuries of young pitchers, I have always maintained that overuse is the biggest culprit. This was confirmed to me in a study done by three university of North Carolina researchers on throwing curve balls. Johna Mihalik, who wrote the study, said that there was no association between throwing curve balls and injuries or arm pain. Mihalik later stated that what surprised her the most was the number of pitches some of these players throw and that a lot of the participants in the study were playing for three teams at once. So I guess we are talking about two evils here: throwing the curve ball and throwing too many pitches. I cannot pick one over the other, but can tell that one of the best players I ever coached literally threw his arm out because of overuse. Besides playing for multiple teams, he would throw continuously against a mat that was hung up against a wall in his backyard. He was almost addicted to throwing, until he ended up having a few operations and had a bad taste about baseball ,refusing to watch it for ten years on television, after being a fan most of his youth.
When I watch the Little League World Series in August, I am amazed at how many curve balls are thrown. Pitchers throw the curve ball over and over again. If there were youth leagues that would try to make curve balls illegal, this would be tough to do. Umpires have enough things going on in their heads trying to keep the balls, strikes, and outs correct throughout the game. It is up to the coaches, and it is especially up to the parents, to monitor their son if he is throwing curve balls as well as how many pitches he is throwing during the week. I had players on three teams at the same time and monitoring the pitch count as well as not antagonizing the other two coaches is challenging. My feeling is that the parents should dictate how many pitches the pitcher will pitch for a particular team during the week. Putting the responsibility on the parents is the fairest method. They are the ones who will converse with their son and determine the importance of each game. If left up to any of the coaches, it becomes a circus with each coach making a case as to why their game is the most important. In my book:
I have a full chapter on injuries. I relate personal stories sharing injuries I witnessed in my 25 years of coaching. And how I maybe should have done things a little differently.
As far as the curve ball, I remember seeing Hank Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, saying in an interview that a really good change-up is much more effective than a curve ball. He said that the curve ball never really gave him trouble.
Teenagers live like they are invulnerable to anything. Parents sometimes treat their young athletes the same way without looking at the big picture. Dr. Timothy Kremchek, an orthopedic surgeon in Ohio, who also works for the Cincinnati Reds, said he performs 150 elbow ligament reconstructions a year (Tommy John surgery) and 70% are on players who have not even reached college. Dr. Kremchek asked each one when they began throwing curve balls and the answer is always at 10 or 11, and sometimes even 9 years old.
Marty Schupak has coached youth sports for 25 years. He has written 11 books and produced 26 sports instructional videos. His is the founder of T-Ball America.