As we near the MBL playoffs, you will be hard-pressed to find a healthy arm in any team clubhouse. The season is rigorous and bodies breakdown. Young pitchers throw shorter starts with longer breaks in-between. Others are rehabilitating on the injured list.
Taping players together at the end of a season is common in any sport, but with baseball, it seems pitchers are always on the mend.
Why are throwing-related injuries common in baseball players? What are the causes we should be concerned about and can address? This article aims to answer those questions.
Velocity is one of the easiest measurements to observe and potentially link, to the rise in injury rates in Major League Baseball (MLB). According to Ken Rosenthal at The Athletic, “the [MLB] average velocity of a four-seam fastball in 2008 was 91.9 mph; this season , it’s 93.6 mph, a figure that would represent an all-time high.” With these increases in velocity occurring at a rapid pace, it is hard to ignore the connection between pitch speed on the radar gun and increasing throwing injury rates in the professional ranks. A 2016 research study showed an average pitch speed increase of 2.23 mph increased the risk of elbow surgery by 38%. This study supported previous research that demonstrates throwing more fastballs is correlated with high injury rates.
Despite this information, velocity is only going to increase. It is the most sought-after quality of pitching prospects. For most pitchers, the increased injury risk is worth the potential reward of a college scholarship or hearing your name called on draft day. At all levels of baseball, velocity is tracked and emphasized. Velocity is only part of the issue, however.
Research suggests the pitchers who become injured “were more frequently starting pitchers, pitched in more showcases, pitched with higher velocity, and pitched more often with arm pain and fatigue.” It was also found that adolescent pitchers were 2.58 times more likely to be injured if they threw faster than 85 mph. It is the combination of velocity and volume that places pitchers in the high-risk category. With the increasing velocity trends and coinciding injury rates, we must look at potential solutions and easy modifications to games and training.
Fatigue is a primary risk factor for injury. Many young players admit to pitching or throwing when their arm is sore, and are sometimes even encouraged to do so by coaches or parents. Much of the time, even if the coach has the best interest of the kid in mind, they do not know or follow, the recommended pitching guidelines for each age group. The guidelines are upper limits but individuality must be considered. If guidelines state a pitcher can throw 60 pitches, but his control and velocity dip at pitch 50, take them out of the game. They have reached their fatigue point. The pitch count is an average recommendation, not a hard number for each kid.
Kids are also more likely to become injured if they play baseball for multiple teams whose season’s overlap and if they fail to take an off-season from play. A general rule is to only play baseball eight months out of the year. Concerned the competition will pass you by? First, you will lose more development from being injured than allowing your body to recover from the rigors of a season, allowing you to be fresh for the next string of competition. Second, specialization doesn’t help at a young age.
There is a common trend that athletes are becoming more specialized at a young age. This means they are focusing on one sport and are no longer playing other sports during their developmental years. While this might sound like a good idea to improve performance, the long-term effects can be severe. A 2017 study showed Major League Baseball players who reported specializing early in baseball also reported a higher incidence of serious injuries during their career. This same study revealed that many of these same elite-level players who were surveyed do not believe early specialization is necessary to reach the elite level.
Playing multiple sports can have a huge impact on developing multiple movement patterns, reducing injury risk, and improving overall performance in sport. Research shows professional athletes were nearly half as likely to have a major injury during their career if they played multiple sports in high school. Specialization should wait until high school. During elementary and middle school years, kids should explore different sports, developing a variety of skill sets and minimizing their chances for overuse injury.
Preventing injuries is complex and never a one-size-fits-all approach. You need to consider nutrition, sleep, stress, and physical activity levels. While the radar gun is lighting up with higher and higher numbers, the coinciding injury rates should cause us to question the priority of the current system. We should all be asking, what is best for the next generation of baseball players?