I started pitching competitively at a young age, at the start of Minor Leagues, in the Little League that I participated in. I remember my hands being so small that I had to use my index finger, middle finger and ring fingers on the laces to hold a four-seam fastball and throw it effectively. One of the things that kept being brought up was when do I start throwing a curveball or a breaking ball? I remember learning that I should wait until I was at least a teenager to start throwing breaking balls and to just focus on a fastball and maybe a changeup while I was younger.
After going to a baseball camp at Las Vegas Baseball Academy when I was 13 years old, I was taught how to throw a curveball by a baseball guy instructor by the name of Tom House. He was the guy that helped Nolan Ryan, a pretty famous pitcher, prolong his career. He taught me that if I threw a curveball the “right way” then I would not hurt my arm. The biggest thing about throwing a curveball is the rotation of your hand, instead of letting your hand face the target you are throwing to, like a fastball, you rotate the wrist like you are shaking someone’s hand and use your middle finger to pull straight down on the laces.
Now why am I telling you this? Many of you reading this may understand how to throw a curveball and have also heard the rationale for teaching kids to throw breaking balls or curveballs when they get older. After studying more of the PitchSmart Guidelines from Major League Baseball and USA Baseball, I have learned that the rationale of curveballs hurting kids arms may not be as true as we once thought but there is another pitch that may be even more damaging to the throwing arm.
I am a firm believer that a young pitcher needs to harness a good fastball that he can locate and have a good changeup to work off of his fastball. A changeup is a great pitch because it looks like a fastball but with a little shuffle of the fingers on the ball, it greatly reduces the speed so you can get a hitter to swing too early. The changeup has been established as the safest pitch to throw. Once a young pitcher has a good fastball and a good changeup then I believe it is okay to start working on a curveball. Nissen et. al. found in their research that the increased rate of shoulder and elbow injuries may not be caused by the curveball mechanics like it was once thought. (Nissen, MD et al., 2009)
There still needs to be good coaching involved with understanding and developing new pitches when working with young pitchers. However, it is okay to start introducing new pitches earlier than we originally thought. Important things to consider when working with an adolescent pitcher that may be experiencing pain in his shoulder or elbow is:
- How many overall pitches has he/she thrown?
- How many days off has he/she had from throwing since last game?
- What is his/her warm up before a game like?
- What is the maintenance care at home like for his/her arm?
All of those are factors that will contribute to the way the pitching arm feels and it is not fair to blame it on a single pitch.
When working with young adolescents, it is important to stress the importance of not having to pitch with a max effort every single pitch. Pitching is an endurance race and not a sprint. Kids that want to start a game and pitch deep into the game need to understand that even though they can throw really hard, they don’t have to do it the entire game. On the Pitch Smart Baseball Guidelines there is a video entitled “Risk Factors” where Dr. James Andrews is quoted as saying that the elbow, specifically the Ulnar Collateral Ligament (this is the ligament involved in Tommy John Surgery) has a redline, especially in young kids. The redline is 80 mph and repetitively “redlining” that ligament will also lead to more injuries or increase the risk for elbow injury and Tommy John surgery to surgically repair the ligament that is damaged. The rough timeline for return to sport is 1 to 2 years depending on severity and rate of recovery.
That leads me into my next point. It has been found that kids hurt themselves the most when they are overthrowing. This typically comes while participating in a showcase or throwing with a radar gun. Instead of us looking at the curveballs and breaking balls hurting our kids’ arms, we need to take a closer look at the fastball and what it is doing to throwing arms. The fastball pitch, when thrown with maximum effort, places the most torque and strain on throwing arms than any other pitch.
I look around Major League Baseball today and there are two things that we have not seen before with pitchers. We have never seen this much velocity and we have never seen this many injuries to pitchers. Nowadays pitchers are made of glass but if you look at the velocities, especially the flamethrowers coming out of the bullpen, we have never seen this much velocity so consistently across the board. This increased velocity is pushing players to greater heights but also greater risk for injuries.
So in the end, it is okay to teach kids to not throw with a maximum effort. We want them to compete at their best and if you want your kid to throw maximum effort 100% of the time then it might be best to limit his innings like a reliever would do. It is also important to note that curveballs and changeups are not the worst thing for them. Once again, the changeup is the safest pitch for a pitcher to throw. Being a good, well-balanced pitcher that understands sequencing in the count and how to approach hitters is more important than throwing 100 mph.