Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dead Arms On Arrival

We're a bit late getting word out to folks on this, but on August 9 the New York Times Sunday Magazine ran an excellent piece by Ron Berler detailing the travails of over-pitching for young players. It's called "Arms-Control Breakdown," and you can read it here. If you have a kid who pitches or if you're a pitcher yourself, but especially if you're a coach, this article is must reading.

Berler tells an instructive story about a young pitcher named Alden Manning. It's a very common story. And I think Berler does a good job of not judging the situation and showing how the problem of over throwing for young pitchers is a combined process of denial by players, coaches, parents, and even the medical community.

Amateur baseball has morphed into a three season sport for all intents and purposes. There's high school ball in the spring; summer leagues or travel teams; and then there's fall ball.

Three season baseball is especially true of elite players. The be all and end all tournament of the year is Perfect Game's World Wood Bat Association National Championship held in Florida at the end of October every year. That means the season is 9 months long for most elite players. If you live in the south or the southwest, you can play all the way through Christmas in tournaments, winter leagues, etc. Things are getting sophisticated too now for cold weather areas with indoor hitting leagues, clinics and in some cases even full games in indoor stadiums. Minor leaguers usually knock off at the end of August.

The problem for young pitchers is knowing when to stop, especially when they're good and they know that they need to get exposure with pro scouts and college recruiters. Certainly pain should tell you something. I hear of teenage pitchers who have been told by doctors that they have tendinitis (especially in the elbow) and that they need to rest their arms. Some ignore this advice. Some rest for a few weeks and then go out and pitch more. But if that pain persists even minutely it's time to hang things up and get some professional help, both through rehab and trainers and people who understand the mechanics of pitching.

Last September I watched a promising kid pitching in a college showcase tournament. He'd been throwing off a mound at least twice a week (once in a bullpen and once in a game) since March 1st. Seven straight months throwing maybe 150 - 200 pitches down hill a week (over 5,000 pitches in a season) -- not to mention all the long toss and flat ground work he was doing as well.

The kid was cooking with gas though out on the mound with his fastball in the high 80's. No one was hitting him (this was metal bat so he'd given up three sqwibbers into the shallow outfield). Then, after one out in the fourth his velocity dropped. He got this very odd look on his face. I was concerned. All of sudden hitters started ripping at his fasty and easily staying back on his curve. He was barely able to throw his fastball at 80 mph. He toughed it through the inning, but his coaches and catcher looked worried.

The kid wasn't happy when his coach took him out of the game. What the kid said, though, was telling: "I don't know what happened. It was like my arm just went numb. I mean I couldn't feel it. I still can't."

Dead arm. They kept him off the mound for three weeks after that and didn't let him throw at all. One of his teammates, a year older and looking to get drafted in the spring, kept on pitching. In fact his teammate wanted the ball every day. Sometimes he'd go out and throw 90+, others would be in the low 80s, but he just kept on taking the ball. They needed that. He was picking up the slack for others. All summer he'd start games and then get a closing assignment two days later. The kid was a workhorse stud...

After three weeks the player with dead arm was ready to return to the mound. The plan was for him to come in after the workhorse 90+ guy had thrown four innings. But after two outs in the fourth, the workhorse gave up a big shot to center field. When the hubbub of the big hit died down there was the workhorse -- the stud -- writhing on the ground holding his right arm near the elbow. The pain was so bad he blacked out for a few seconds. The next day we got word he was going in for Tommy John surgery and would be out at least a year. It's been a year and there's a chance he may never play again.

No athlete should be risking the long term future of their playing ability by "toughing" things out. I'd go so far as to say that if you're a serious pitcher, it should be just a matter of course that when you're done with your summer season you hang up that arm and let the guys who always complain about not getting enough innings have their time.

What's most important for parents and coaches and players to understand is that even when you're in your last year of high school or college ball and it seems like you have to impress everyone, you can't impress people when you're in pain or when you've thrown your arm out. And all these high school and junior elite tournaments mean nothing, absolutely nothing to the future of any young player. All too often people turn the "Big Game" into a do-or-die situation. For a pitcher there's only one do-or-die situation and that's in the 7th game of the World Series (when you know you can rest for at least 3 months). Until you get to that place, protect your arm and think long term.

See you on the field, but take it easy until spring training.

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