How to Fix Baseball’s Arm Injury Epidemic and Why It Starts With Kids

Sports Major League Baseball
How to Fix Baseball’s Arm Injury Epidemic and Why It Starts With Kids

Major League Baseball is in crisis, and it’s not because of whatever is going on with its best player Shohei Ohtani and his translator’s alleged gambling problem with Ohtani’s money. We are barely two weeks into the season, and some of baseball’s best pitchers like New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole are already dealing with major arm injuries.

Cleveland Guardians ace Shane Bieber announced on Saturday that he will have elbow reconstruction surgery, ending his 2024 season and threatening his 2025 status as well. Atlanta Braves ace who finished second in NL Cy Young voting last year, Spencer Strider, also announced this week he will have UCL surgery and miss the entire year. Miami Marlins prized prospect Eury Pérez will undergo Tommy John surgery this season too. These are just a few high-profile examples of the litany of arm injuries sweeping across the sport right now.

Veteran trainer Stan Conte told USA Today “This is not an epidemic. This is a pandemic. It’s been going on forever, and it’s getting worse.” MLB commissioned a study and found that in 2021, elbow surgeries were up four hundred percent compared to ten years ago.

Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez, who rarely was injured during his prime, took to Twitter to explain how teams are rushing pitchers to the Major Leagues who have not built up enough strength in their ligaments.

The root of the problem here is that the standard throwing motion pitchers must make is not a very healthy one for your arm. You don’t even need to read a study to know this, just look at the title photo of this story and listen to your elbow scream out in pain. With the right training, you can build up strength in your arm and mitigate some harmful impacts, but the fundamental reality that pitching places a lot of stress on your shoulder and elbow will never change. There have always been pitcher injuries and there always will be.

So what has changed recently? In short, pitchers have become a lot better. They are throwing faster pitches with more movement and this places even more stress on their arms. ESPN’s Paul Hembekides raised some excellent points about the central causes of this at the Major League level, with a specific emphasis on the shrinking strike zone leading pitchers to be more powerful and precise.

His point about this change needing to start at the youth level is extremely important too, primarily because there is a financial incentive for owners to rush cheap young pitchers to the big leagues with little regard for their long-term health since they don’t want to pay veteran free agents anyway. MLB’s owners will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a more just future just like every other billionaire destroying this country in the name of personal profit.

Young Kids Aren’t Taught Proper Fundamentals

I played baseball from the ages of five to nineteen, and I have coached eleven- to twelve-year-olds and thirteen- to fifteen-year-olds at the youth level for eight seasons. From my vantage point, these years are the most important in a player’s development, and it’s where this arm injury epidemic really begins.

It sounds strange to say that you throw with your legs, but it’s true. The standard pitching motion requires pitchers to push off of their plant leg while extending their front leg down the pitching mound. Doing this properly gets your whole body into the pitch and it reduces the stress on your arm.

Kids don’t know their own strength, and many are never taught at a young age that the foundational construct of a throw begins in their legs. This leads them to drop their arms as they try to create a whipping action with their body to get more speed behind their throw, and it places a lot of unnecessary stress on their elbows and shoulders.

This is by far the biggest problem I consistently see at every single level in youth baseball, and here is a good video describing this widespread issue and the very simple steps to fix it.

Parents and coaches, I beg you, if you see your kid throwing with their elbow below their shoulder, stop everything that you are doing and work on proper throwing mechanics before you move on to anything more complex. If you don’t, you may be setting your child up for major elbow surgery in the next ten years.

One large sports medicine practice in Alabama reports that Tommy John surgeries rose from thirty percent to fifty percent of all high school and youth pitchers they saw for an elbow injury between 2006 and 2020, and my own anecdotal experience is that more youth pitchers are exiting more games with arm pain now.

The longer you let kids throw improperly, the more difficult it will be to fix as they develop muscle memory that gets them into poor habits, and the more likely it is that they will suffer serious arm injuries as a result.

We Need a Mindset Shift Too

Perhaps the most common phrase us baseball coaches tell our pitchers is to “throw strikes.” This speaks to the central strategy of baseball, but watching this injury epidemic wash over youth and Major League Baseball has made me believe this is the wrong mental approach. We must zoom out in our thinking.

We should tell pitchers their job is to throw one hundred pitches every five days.

When you tell a pitcher to throw strikes, they’re thinking about the next pitch, and it often leads to a maximum effort throw. Repeat this process a hundred times and you can see how it leads to injury, especially if they have bad mechanics.

Prior to our era of maximum velocity and maximum effort on every pitch, MLB did not have this kind of injury epidemic because starting pitchers had a more holistic and long-term view of their role in the sport. The goal was to pace yourself and try to throw 200+ innings in a season as much as it was to get the next batter out. Twenty years ago, MLB had twenty pitchers reach this classic 200-inning benchmark, but last year just five did.

Additionally, there are misplaced concerns on how these arm injuries are caused. Traditionally, parents are taught to never let their young kids throw curveballs and sliders as they require a more violent arm motion and can injure children who are still developing. There needs to be far more attention paid to kids trying to add speed to their fastballs. Studies have shown that fastballs are actually more harmful than curveballs to youth elbows and shoulders.

We need a mentality change at the youth level that will eventually flow upwards into MLB. Parents and coaches must be much more patient in developing their kids. Improving velocity is a very slow process that moves in tandem with your physical development. Generally speaking, boys are out of puberty by age 16, and this is where you can start to build up their velocity and add strength to their frame. Until then, parents and coaches should focus on teaching proper fundamentals and developing good habits, all while emphasizing a mental sea change that focuses on longevity and not pitch-to-pitch results. The future of baseball depends on it.

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