You’ve heard the phrase, throwing your arm out? Well, high school baseball players will hopefully be doing less of that. This week marked the start of Spring baseball and for the first time, coaches across the country will be keeping track of exactly how many balls a pitcher sends over the plate. New York City has regulated pitching for the past 6 years — now New York State is following suit. Acacia O’Connor reports.
Its opening day for George Washington High School baseball in Washington Heights and senior Yanmanuel Infante is on the mound. He reaches back.
The ump pumps his fist. Three strikes. Another strikeout for the Trojans’ star pitcher.
Infante is one of twelve pitchers on the team. Today, he threw the most: 51 pitches – roughly half the max any pitcher can throw per game. And his coaches have to keep track. After the game, the stat goes in a little box marked — P — for pitch count.
Robert Zayas is the Executive Director of the Public School Athletic Association in New York State.
ROBERT ZAYAS: Pitch count// limits the number of a pitches a pitcher is able to throw in a day. And it tells a pitcher how many nights rest he has to have til he can pitch again.
These rules make it so that players can’t ask to play more than the limit and coaches can’t let them.
ZAYAS: If a student athlete throws too many pitches what we’ve seen in the last fifteen years is they’re more susceptible to injury.
In fact, of all the players getting elbow surgery these days, a whopping 60% are teenagers.
George Washington High School’s longtime Coach Steve Mandl remembers back in the day when other coaches would just keep playing their pitchers.
MANDL: We’d be winning 18-nothing and the pitchers out there throwing 200 pitches and I’m like holding my head like what is this guy doing to this kid? And I’d see a kid say, my arm hurts and the coach will be like just stay there we don’t have anybody else.
Mandl’s players actually throw a lot. But they also cross-train, because these days everyone in the game knows the risks.
There are three primary reasons for the increase:
Strike one: Single sport specialization.
FLEISIG: The biggest factor for the higher number of injuries is playing more year-round. Kids now at a younger age are specializing in one sport.
Glenn Fleisig is the Research Director at the American Sports Medicine Institute. He says kids used to play a different sport each season – think soccer, basketball, baseball.
Strike two: Pitching itself is has gotten faster even in high school – upwards of 100 miles an hour – and with more torque.
FLEISIG: There’s an instant in the pitching moment when the pitcher is faced forward but his arm is cocked back. Putting your arm in that position It causes a huge amount of stress on the elbow. It’s near the maximum the elbow can do, every single time.
Strike three: The Pressure to Make It Big. Division I college teams and major league franchises are recruiting younger and younger. And parents often are little help. Here’s coach Mandl again.
MANDL: If the kid is good and the parents see hey, there’s $100k at the end of this rainbow or a million dollars or 4 million dollars, sometimes they’re not thinking down the road, they’re thinking let me get the quick bucks.
Three Strikes? And you’re out. Like out of the game. For good. They used to call it “dead arm.” Now, injured pitchers can either hang up their glove or get a painful reconstructive surgery known as a Tommy John.
It’s named for a soft-throwing leftie for the Dodgers who blew out his arm in the middle of a promising season. It was 1974, and the outlook wasn’t good. He had an experimental surgery where they transfer a tendon from somewhere else in your body. The doctor put his odds of returning at 1 out of 100. But Tommy John came back.
((TAPE OF TOMMY JOHN PITCHING 1977))
He went on to pitch in three world series, winning 164 more games. He’s the seventh winningest left-handed pitcher in history.
Skip ahead 40 years: Tommy John surgery is commonplace. And it has saved careers that would have otherwise ended.
As a coach, Mandl feels pressure to win. But he says, for him the players and their elbows, always come first.
MANDL: I’d rather lose a game than lose a kid.
No one loves the bench. But sometimes stepping off the mound means you play another day.
Acacia O’Connor, Columbia Radio News