Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be ... baseball pitchers.
With Idaho’s baseball state tournament beginning Thursday in all five classifications, the boys on the mound will take center stage in the three-day title chase.
So what better time to remind moms, dads, players and coaches that more young pitchers than ever are ending up on surgeons’ tables — their shoulders and elbows in need of repair.
According to research from the American Sports Medicine Institute, Dr. James Andrews operated on the elbows of 303 collegiate and 124 high school pitchers between 2000 and 2004. From 1995 through 1999, Andrews, a renowned surgeon, performed elbow operations on 74 college and 21 high school pitchers.
“The doctors are doing more surgeries on young pitchers than in the past. How much of that is more injuries versus how much of that is pitching up the injuries, we don’t know. But a lot of it is, there are more injuries,” said Dr. Glenn Fleisig, the research director at the American Sports Medical Institute in Birmingham, Ala.
“It keeps rising and we’re very alarmed about that.”
Everyone — players, parents and coaches — should be.
Unfortunately, those who should be paying the most attention, often aren’t. That goes for coaches, parents and, especially, pitchers.
No pitcher wants to turn down the ball. No pitcher wants to come out of a game. Of course, no pitcher wants to end up on the operating table.
“The No. 1 factor in the pitchers who ended up having surgery is they pitched with their arm fatigued,” Fleisig said.
ASMI’s research concluded that young pitchers who pitched when their arm was fatigued were 36 times more likely to have surgery. And yet very few safeguards have been implemented to protect young pitchers.
High school pitchers in Idaho are limited to seven innings during any two-day span.
For example, if a pitcher throws five innings in Thursday’s first round, he can only pitch two innings in Friday’s semifinals. One pitch constitutes an inning.
The rule sounds good.
But if a pitcher throws a seven-inning complete game Thursday, he could still pitch Saturday.
“I don’t think any coach in this valley would jeopardize a kid’s future and health by throwing him more than he should. I think we’re all pretty good about that,” said Centennial coach Roger Wolf, in a statement echoed by coaches throughout the Valley.
“If you value a win over somebody’s health then you don’t have any business coaching.”
But that line can be so fine and players can be so stubborn about being removed from a game that coaches often find themselves in difficult situations.
Since arm injuries don’t result from throwing simply one pitch too many but the accumulation of wear on an arm, it’s easy to for coaches stretching their players, hoping to get out of one more jam or earn one more victory.
The ASMI recommends pitch count limits of 106 for 17- and 18-year-old players and 91 for 15- and 16-year-olds. For 13- and 14-year-olds that number is 76 and it decreases for younger pitchers.
"The science proves the more you pitch, the higher the risk," said Fleisig, who advocates more throwing by young players and less competitive pitching.
Are you listening youth coaches? Is anyone?
Youth pitchers are regularly allowed to exceed those guidelines. In a recent high school game between Mountain Home and Skyview, each starter threw 125 pitches. Most high school coaches said they set their limits between 100 and 120.
Though the recommendations are simply guidelines and everyone agrees that each pitcher must be treated differently, there is strong research behind the AMSI numbers.
But there are other considerations: the types of pitches being thrown, the pitcher's mechanics, the stress of the innings, the player's physical fitness, the temperature and so on. Coaches must establish a trusted relationship with open communication with their pitchers. And once the game begins, they must monitor mannerisms on the mound, performance and changes in mechanics.
And sometimes coaches, who are paid to win games, must reach the difficult conclusion to take out their best pitcher — no matter how much is at stake.